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February 11, 2016

How to Reverse Five Years of Failure on Bahrain

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On the fifth anniversary of the mass protests in Bahrain that threatened to bring down the country’s autocratic regime, Bahrainis continue to suffer severe repression and political instability. Although the scale of mass arrests and torture the government used to suppress the uprising in March, April, and May of 2011 has diminished, and there have been some largely cosmetic reforms introduced since then, arbitrary arrests and torture in custody continue. Leading human rights activists and peaceful opposition leaders who were able to work relatively unimpeded since 2011 are now in jail, forced into exile, or facing trumped-up charges.

The leading civil society and nonviolent political opposition figures arrested and tortured in 2011 remain in prison and there seems to be no prospect of any political dialogue between the government and opposition groups. The protests have not stopped, and a minority have taken on a violent edge, with over a dozen policemen killed since 2011. The country’s prisons are bulging with political detainees, many of whom were sentenced in mass trials after an unfair judicial process.

This blueprint draws on dozens of interviews with Bahraini human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists, academics, families of detainees, lawyers, U.S. government officials, and others. Despite repeated requests for permission to access Bahrain, Human Rights First has been denied entry to the country since 2012. This report examines conditions in Bahrain, the strengths and shortcomings of the U.S. response, and potential opportunities for the U.S. government to support civil society and strengthen respect for human rights.

Though the smallest country in the Middle East, Bahrain exemplifies several of the major challenges for U.S. policy in the region. 2016 promises to be a defining year as a series of issues converge to threaten Bahrain, including: sectarian tensions exploited by ISIL and other Sunni extremists and by Shi’a-dominated Iran; economic vulnerability linked to sharply falling oil prices; corruption and political instability; a lack of reform leaving the root grievances of the large scale public protests unresolved; and U.S. government support for an authoritarian status quo seen as the best way of protecting major military investments—in Bahrain’s case, the U.S. Naval Fifth Fleet base.

This year will also be important as President Obama shapes his legacy in the Middle East.

In 2009, at the start of his presidency, he delivered a message of hope in Cairo: “America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.”

Much has changed in the intervening years. In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2015, President Obama opted for analysis rather than exhortation, noting, “repression cannot forge the social cohesion for nations to succeed. The history of the last two decades proves that in today’s world, dictatorships are unstable. The strongmen of today become the spark of revolution tomorrow.” He continued: “I believe a government that suppresses peaceful dissent is not showing strength; it is showing weakness and it is showing fear. History shows that regimes who fear their own people will eventually crumble, but strong institutions built on the consent of the governed endure long after any one individual is gone.”

Yet the U.S. government’s handling of the enduring crisis in Bahrain has too often failed to draw obvious conclusions from the administration’s own analysis of the detrimental impact of human rights violations on stability and progress. As a result, in the absence of actions and policies that would suggest the contrary, many in Bahrain and across the region view the Obama Administration as supportive of the repressive leadership in Manama. This support for the dictatorship is rendering Bahrain less stable, undermining U.S. efforts to prevent violent extremism, and further damaging Washington’s credibility in the region.

This blueprint follows a series of recent Human Rights First reports and testimony on Bahrain since the outbreak of mass protests in February 2011, including Recommendations to the U.S. Government on Bahrain, November 2015; How to Bring Stability to Bahrain, February 2015; Plan B for Bahrain What the United States Government Should Do Next, November 2013; Human Rights First Lantos Testimony on Bahrain, August 2012; Bahrain’s Reforms—No Backdown on Crackdown, May 2012; Bahrain: The Gathering Storm, February 2012; Bahrain: A Tortuous Process, July 2011; and Bahrain: Speaking Softly, May 2011.