Bahrain Allies’ Dangerous Myopia
This week, Britain released its Human Rights and Democracy Report 2013 detailing the country’s assessment of the progression of human rights in Bahrain. The verdict comes just six weeks after the U.S. State Department’s issued its yearly assessment.
While there are differences in tone and length (the UK barely fills a side, while the U.S. version is 49 pages long), both of the reports from Bahrain’s two strongest western allies are critical of the regime’s failure to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice. The UK report agrees with the U.S. assessment that there are problems around impunity for Bahrain’s security forces “…regarding the accountability of police personnel, and the investigation and sentencing of those alleged to have committed torture and mistreatment”. The criticism in the UK report, however, is generally tepid, saying with predictable understatement that “…some areas of reform have been slower than we would have hoped.”
It is clear from the reports that both allies have a decent understanding of the situation in Bahrain and the fundamental problems in the country’s political process; the U.S. report notes that the king of Bahrain “appoints the cabinet consisting 29 ministers; 13 of those ministers, excluding the deputy prime ministers, are members of the Sunni al-Khalifa ruling family,” and that “The most serious human rights problems included citizens’ inability to change their government peacefully…”.
It is less clear why Britain and the United States appear to working against their long-term interests by supporting a system of government that encourages instability and threatens its own equities. The Bahrain government’s response of repression to widespread calls for democratic reform in early 2011 has not brought calm to the country or introduced the rule of law.
Last week another teenager was sentenced to jail for criticizing the king on twitter, and two of the doctors arrested in 2011 as part of the attack on those medics who were seen as sympathetic to the protest movement are once again being targeted by the government.
Scores of civilians and more than a dozen police officers have been killed in protests which show little sign of going away. Key political and civil society leaders are still in prison without access to a dialogue process initiated by the government. Elections promised for later in the year are likely to be boycotted by the tolerated opposition unless the ruling family suddenly introduces the sort of radical reform it has so far refused. A boycott would further delegitimize a political setup that already lacks credibility.
With such a bleak and volatile outlook the United States and Britain should be pressing for respect for human rights and democracy that serves their regional interests. The Gulf’s oil and Iran’s animosity mean that Bahrain’s allies can’t afford it to fail or slide into chaos –a likely outcome if the Bahrain regime continues to fail to address its people’s grievances. While the regime may hold on in the short term by banking on repression to restore a partial calm, history has shown that stability through crackdown is ultimately illusory.
The new UK and US government reports document the writing on the wall for the Bahrain regime. It’s time for them to look beyond the short term and push for an inclusive, rights-based political settlement that involves political and civil society leaders currently in jail. If not, next year’s reports could look a whole lot worse.