Human rights defenders and others in Bahrain told Human Rights First that they are increasingly disappointed in the U.S. government’s response to the severe and continuing crackdown. The U.S. is viewed in Bahrain as a beacon of human rights, and should be expected to use its special access to the Bahraini military through the Fifth Fleet and a Foreign Military Financing program as a platform to enable human rights protections. Bahraini activists see a double standard in U.S. rhetoric and action in relation to Bahrain compared with Syria, Libya, Yemen, Egypt, and Tunisia. For instance, human rights defenders suggested that Secretary Clinton’s statement on April 12 that a “one-size fits all approach doesn’t make sense in such a diverse region at such a fluid time” was taken by the Bahraini government as a signal that the United States would not apply the same standards to them as to other countries in the region.
When Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman returned from a visit to Bahrain a week later, a State Department official said “he concurred with the Bahraini leadership’s own embrace of the principles of reform and the respect for rule of law and coexistence.” His words were mentioned by human rights defenders as a particularly weak response.
For many in Bahrain, the United States is seen to be engaging in political selectivity and adopting a “see no evil” policy towards the Bahrain government. When Human Rights First asked a representative of the U.S. Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain for a reaction to the crackdown, Lieutenant Martin responded that it was “Not our place to get into that discussion.”
If the Fleet’s mission is in part to maintain stability, then the Pentagon should at least explain how ignoring the crackdown achieves that goal.
Perceived weakness in support of human rights in a close U.S. ally like Bahrain weakens U.S. support for peaceful democratic change throughout the region, and human rights defenders in Egypt, for example, have complained to Human Rights First about the U.S. government’s inaction in Bahrain. At a time when perceptions of the U.S. position on human rights are teetering, forceful and frequent demonstrations of leadership by the most senior U.S. officials are necessary.
Recommendations for the U.S. Government
President Obama should:
- In his upcoming speech on U.S. policy in the Middle East, President Obama should make specific reference to human rights violations in Bahrain and make clear the U.S. government’s support for the fundamental human rights of the Bahraini people.
- Publicly call for the release of all prisoners in Bahrain who are being held for exercising their rights to nonviolent freedom of expression and assembly. Mention at least one such case, that of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, for example, by name.
- Immediately appoint a U.S. ambassador to serve in Bahrain.
Secretary of State Clinton and other senior administration officials should:
- Immediately and publicly condemn unfair trials, torture, and death sentences in Bahrain.
- Call for an independent inquiry by Bahraini authorities into widespread allegations of human rights violations and for all those responsible for ordering or committing abuses to be held accountable.
- Be clear and specific about human rights cases and violations in regular public statements, extending beyond general human rights protections.
- Condemn violence against peaceful protesters everywhere; oppose the prosecution of nonviolent demonstrators and restrictions on peaceful protest.
- Call for and support the convening of a special session on Bahrain in the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
- Call for an end to incommunicado detention of political prisoners in Bahrain. All detainees, even if accused of serious security offenses, should have access to their family members, lawyers, and necessary medical attention.
- Express particular concern about the targeting of medical personnel involved in treating injured protesters. Call for an end to such practices and accountability for those who ordered and carried out such attacks.
U.S. embassy staff in Manama should:
- Engage more closely and regularly with a broad range of human rights defenders in Bahrain by calling and visiting them.
- Publicly display support for the families of those detained for peaceful protest.
- Request access to the military trials and send observers.
Additionally, State Department officials should:
- Determine if the Bahraini authorities have committed violations of religious freedom as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 and take appropriate action under the act.
- Ensure that U.S. arms transfers are not facilitating repression and gross human rights violations in Bahrain.Investigate which specific units of the Bahraini military and security forces are implicated in gross violations of human rights and, if applicable, suspend all aid and arms transfers to such units.
- Convene hearings to call attention to the damage to vital U.S. national interests resulting from continuing violations of human rights in Bahrain.
- Fulfill its obligations to oversee the end use of U.S. foreign assistance and arms transfers in Bahrain.
- Commit to a speedy confirmation process of an ambassadorial nominee.
Recommendations for the Government of Bahrain
By embarking on a policy of repression against human rights defenders and political opponents, the government of Bahrain is escalating sectarian tensions within Bahrain and in the broader Gulf region. The escalation of such tension strengthens extremists who gain political benefits from conflict between Shiites and Sunnis and provide a pretext for greater Iranian involvement in Bahrain to support endangered Shiites. The recent militarization of the conflict by the Bahraini government is counterproductive in that it increases the threat from forces that the Bahraini authorities claim to be seeking to contain.
Human Rights First urgently recommends that the Bahraini government change course and pursue a policy that responds to the legitimate needs and interests of all its people through finding a peaceful political agreement with the majority population.
- The government should end its persecution of human rights defenders and nonviolent critics.
- All those detained for exercising their rights to peaceful expression and assembly should be released immediately.
- Independent human rights organizations should be permitted to operate free from harassment.
- Basic freedoms of assembly, expression, and association should be upheld.
- The government should stop labeling its critics as Iranian agents without providing any evidence that nonviolent human rights activists have any other agenda than to promote and protect the universal human rights of all Bahrainis.
- The government should put an end to arbitrary detentions and disappearances.
- The government should end the torture and mistreatment of detainees. Safeguards to prevent torture, such as an end to incommunicado detention, should be implemented immediately.
- The government should investigate all deaths in custody and hold accountable those responsible for any wrongdoing.
- Prisoners accused of security offenses related to political protests should be given a fair trial before a civilian court with all safeguards required under international law.
- The government should end systematic discrimination against the majority Shiite community.
- The government should protect Shiite places of worship and religious buildings from attack or destruction and respect the religious freedom of all Bahrainis.