In February 2011, Bahrain’s chapter in the Arab Spring began when more than half the population mobilized to protest structural inequalities, corruption, oppression, and a lack of government representation. In response, the Bahraini government dispatched security forces to quell the protests, leading to thousands of arrests, hundreds of injuries, and dozens of deaths. Thousands of workers and unionists were fired from their jobs for joining the peaceful protests, while medical professionals faced politically-motivated charges for discussing the horrific injuries they witnessed or even for aiding injured protesters. From athletes to lawyers, and students to nurses, the government targeted dissident voices from all sectors of society through media attacks, military trials, home raids, arbitrary detention, and even extrajudicial killing.
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Facing growing international pressure, the Government of Bahrain established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) in July 2011 to investigate abuses committed during the protests, and to recommend legal and policy changes to prevent a recurrence of such events. Based on over 9,000 testimonies, the report confirmed the use of excessive force and torture by Bahraini officials. The report also rejected the government’s allegations that the protests were sectarian in nature or that they were instigated by or materially supported by Iran. Although the Bahraini government claims that it has fully implemented the majority of the recommendations, independent assessments have found that less than five of the BICI recommendations have been fully implemented. As recently as 2017, the authorities have even walked back some of the few reforms that had been implemented, including by re-empowering the National Security Agency – the kingdom’s secret police force notorious for abducting and torturing dissidents.
Since the release of the BICI report in 2011, human rights violations and the culture of impunity have continued largely unabated in Bahrain. Protests remain a near daily occurrence. Critics of the government face relentless harassment and arrest, and reports of torture, ill-treatment, sexual assault, and death in detention persist. Freedoms of association, expression and assembly were further restricted through legislation passed by the National Assembly in August 2013, and the authorities have increasingly wielded specialized laws – like the cybercrime and anti-terror laws – to suppress activism. The Bahraini government continues to utilize sectarian language to describe the protests and distort the country’s political crisis, though the grievances aired by those protesting affect all Bahrainis.
Meanwhile, Bahraini security forces weaponize and indiscriminately use “non-lethal weapons” such as tear gas and birdshot against peaceful protesters, leading to the death of more than 30 individuals and sparking international complaints about the government’s disproportionate crackdown. In May 2017, five demonstrators were killed when the authorities violently raided a peaceful sit-in in Diraz, marking the kingdom’s deadliest day since before the 2011 uprising.
Although the Government of Bahrain established an Office of Ombudsman to investigate claims of mistreatment by government officials and security forces, not a single senior official has been held accountable for human rights violations. Rather, since the Office’s establishment, there has been an increase in arbitrary arrests and politically motivated charges including a recommended 5-year jail sentence for ‘insulting the King’, while government officials accused of mistreatment and torture continue to be acquitted at alarming rates. Other bodies meant to monitor human rights abuses like the National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR) have so far similarly failed to uphold international standards and drive reform in Bahrain – in January 2017, the NIHR actually commended the government for ending a de facto moratorium on the death penalty and executing three victims of torture after a trial rife with due process violations.
On November 22 2014, the Government of Bahrain held parliamentary and municipal elections, the first since the beginning of political unrest in 2011. While the government heralded these polls as the culmination of Bahrain’s reform efforts, a broad coalition of opposition societies chose to boycott them. Since then, these societies have faced relentless judicial harassment by the authorities, culminating in the outright dissolution of the two largest groups Al-Wefaq and Wa’ad in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Ahead of the next round of parliamentary elections set for 2018, the government has effectively dismantled the formal opposition.
As a longtime security partner, the United States Government is uniquely positioned to influence the state of human rights and democratic reform in Bahrain: both countries share a mutual interest in maintaining the presence of the US Fifth Fleet in Manama and overall regional stability. Yet, if the Government of Bahrain continues to choose repression over reform – undermining independent civil society and peaceful political opposition – the kingdom will remain at severe risk of conflict and instability. The American Government must ensure that human rights are at the center of the US-Bahrain bilateral relationship and support the democratic aspirations of the Bahraini people, recognizing that security and reform are symbiotic rather than competing objectives. It is imperative that US policymakers use all points of leverage in order to move the Bahraini government toward a true path of reform and reconciliation before the crisis escalates even further.
It is clear that existing policies have neither compelled the Government of Bahrain to honor its stated commitments to reform nor contributed to improving the deteriorating political situation that threatens both Bahrain’s stability and international security interests in the Gulf region. ADHRB presents the following policy recommendations in order to more effectively promote fundamental human rights and political freedoms in the country while simultaneously advancing America’s broader strategic goals:
United States Congressional and Executive Branch Recommendations
- Sustained high-level public as well as private calls on the Government of Bahrain to adhere to its human rights commitments and enact meaningful reforms. Such reforms include the release of all political prisoners and accountability for torture and other serious human rights crimes, along with the full implementation of the remaining BICI and UPR recommendations.
- Ensure clear and consistent messaging from all levels of the U.S. Government encouraging the Government of Bahrain to adhere to its human rights commitments, including through accountability for torture and other serious human rights abuses and the release of all political prisoners.
- Ensure full compliance with the intent of the “Leahy Law” to avoid U.S. complicity with human rights violations. As a first step, the U.S. should suspend arms sales and security assistance to the Government of Bahrain until the U.S. Government determines which Bahraini security force units are ineligible for transfers and can verify that U.S.-origin weapons are not enabling human rights abuses in Bahrain.
- Support the establishment of an independent international monitoring mechanism to oversee the implementation of the BICI recommendations and other reforms that the Government of Bahrain has committed to enacting.
- Prioritize human rights and democracy promotion funding for Bahrain, including through the Democracy Fun and the Middle East Partnership Initiative.
United Nations Recommendations
- Publicly call for Bahrain to allow the Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Unusual, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment to visit Bahrain and conduct a full investigation into practices in the country that may concern his mandate.
- Facilitate the establishment of a permanent country mission to Bahrain by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, including a full reporting and capacity building mandate.
- Insist that Bahrain honor its commitments to the international community and provide to the Committee on Human Rights the mandatory initial report on the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, now seven years overdue.
- Classify Bahrain as a country of concern under Agenda Item 2 at the Human Rights Council.
NGO/Think Tank Recommendations
- Publically call on the international community to enforce relevant legal mechanisms with the Bahrain government.
- Provide supporting evidence and information to the international community regarding the human rights situation in Bahrain.
- Work to support and strengthen civil society organizations in Bahrain through cooperation, technical assistance and capacity building.