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November 03, 2015

U.S. Approach in Bahrain at Odds with Remarks at Manama Dialogue

Advancing freedom of expression in the Middle East is an important part of U.S. security strategy in the region. At least that’s what Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in his remarks at the 2015 Manama Dialogue. These words should be followed by concrete actions to hold Bahrain and other U.S. allies accountable for repressive practices that stifle human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists.

At the Manama Dialogue, an annual high-profile security conference hosted by Bahrain, Deputy Secretary Blinken attributed instability in the Middle East to “the absence of open debate; the closing of political space; the failure to foster a culture of civic responsibility; and the conviction of those at the bottom that they will be pushed off the economic ladder the minute they begin to climb… [W]e have urged greater space for peaceful dissent in Egypt and here in Bahrain so that all who reject violence can share the privileges and responsibilities of participation in the political system.”

Deputy Secretary Blinken’s remarks leave open the question of whether there will be consequences if the call for inclusive politics is not heeded. If the last few years of U.S. policy in the Middle East are any indicator, such consequences are unlikely.

The U.S. government has taken a soft approach in Bahrain, at least since Assistant Secretary for Human Rights and Democracy Tom Malinowski’s expulsion in July 2014 (though he returned without incident for another visit in December 2014). The Obama Administration has also taken steps to normalize its relationship with the Bahraini government without holding it accountable for failing to deliver reforms promised after the violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2011.

In June 2015 the State Department announced it was resuming arms sales to the Bahrain military, citing “meaningful progress on human rights,” ending the ban introduced following congressional pressure in 2011. Yet human rights defenders and peaceful opposition leaders are still in jail, the military is still largely segregated along sectarian lines, and press freedom is hard to come by.

Members of Congress are urging the Obama Administration to correct course by supporting bipartisan bills—S.2009 and H.R.3445—that would reinstate a ban on the transfer of small arms to the Bahraini military until Bahrain fully implements the 26 recommendations in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report.

Senator Wyden and Representative McGovern, two of the bills’ original sponsors, have called the lifting of the ban a “misguided decision” and noted that “the regime's campaign to harass, intimidate and bludgeon activists continues unabated.”

This month will mark the fourth anniversary of the issuance of the BICI report. It is time to take stock of the effectiveness of the U.S. approach since 2011, and commit to renewed efforts to promote reform. If the U.S. government is serious about creating space for peaceful dissent in Bahrain, it should publicly press the regime to release its political prisoners and promote an inclusive political solution to its crisis.

For more about Human Rights First’s recommendations for how Washington can tackle the major policy challenges in Bahrain and the region, check out our blueprint on how to bring stability to Bahrain.