One Year Later, Bahrain Reform Remains Shallow Promise
This time last year I was in Bahrain, invited by the government to witness the publication of the report commissioned by the King of Bahrain into human rights violations earlier in 2011. There we sat, hundreds of us in an enormous room in a royal palace. The King was on his throne, flanked by his Crown Prince son and his Prime Minister uncle. The report's chief author, human rights lawyer Cherif Bassiouni, stood before them and listed the uncomfortable truth about what had happened.
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report confirmed what Human Rights First and other international NGOs had been saying for months before - that thousands of people had been arrested in the government crackdown against protests for reform, there had been a pattern of torture in custody and dozens of people had been killed in the streets.
It was awkward listening for the King and his government, but it offered the chance for a new start for Bahrain. The king told us he was "dismayed" to learn that his security forces had committed such acts and that it must not happen again. He said officials responsible would be replaced and held accountable. He promised to implement all the recommendations in the report to prevent any repeat of such a disaster.
A year later, it hasn't happened. The Bahrain government has concentrated on creating bureaucratic processes for implementation instead of producing real change that can be felt by those peacefully pressing for reform.
Things were bad last November, with major political leaders sent to prison for long terms and the police using excessive force, including inordinate amounts of tear gas. At the time, no senior government official had been prosecuted for human rights violations. Sadly, these things are still true now and the situation in Bahrain is even worse, with a growing minority of protestors prepared to use violence.
Last year, as I sat listening to the report’s findings and the Kingdom’s reaction, the President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), Nabeel Rajab, was not in prison. He is now. This time last year, no-one had been sentenced to jail for criticizing the king on twitter. Three men are now. This time last year, none of the 20 medics prosecuted in a military court trial after treating protestors and informing the world about the extent of their injuries were in prison. Several are now. This time last year no dissidents had been stripped of their Bahraini citizenship. Two weeks ago, 31 people lost their right to nationality without due process of law. This time last year, the United States halted a weapons sale to Bahrain in order to see if reforms would be implemented. Unfortunately, it has since resumed arms sales without seeing real progress.
The situation in Bahrain is sliding in a frightening direction. The United States Government must urgently reassess its position. The U.S. presence in Bahrain is based on its strategic interests in the region. But if it continues to publicly support the King and give only muted support to human rights defenders and peaceful protestors, those strategic interests could land the U.S. with a violent conflict. U.S. interests explained why the administration gave the Bahraini regime a chance to reform, but now those same interests must guide the U.S. government to acknowledge that the Kingdom failed, and it needs a new strategy. Now it’s time for the United States to get more public and more specific. It should immediately and publicly call for the release of political prisoners and introduce visa bans on those it believes responsible for violations until Bahrain demonstrates a real commitment to reform and an end to abuses. It should also appoint a senior representative to advocate for US interests in Bahrain, and to engage with the regional players who also have an interest in Bahrain’s stability.
The Bahrain crisis won’t just sort itself, and the longer it takes for any political negotiation to begin the more difficult it will be. Things have to turn around fast. If they don't, it's hard to imagine what things might look like this time next year.