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January 13, 2015

New Year, New Congress: What to Watch on Middle East Policy

As Congress enters its 114th session, human rights must take the spotlight. Below are five foreign policy priorities that we at Human Rights First believe Congress should put at the top of their to-do list.

1. Maintain Human Rights Conditions on Aid to Egypt

Last year Congress attached a waiver to the budget legislation that allows the administration to sidestep conditions on foreign aid to Egypt that are meant to ensure the Egyptian government is upholding human rights. This sends the wrong message to Egypt that respect for human rights are not an essential aspect of the bilateral relationship. Congress should remove the waiver from this year’s appropriations law and the administration should not take advantage of the waiver that currently exists.

2. Revive the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Incentive Fund

This fund was meant to provide economic incentives for countries to take steps towards democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights in the wake of the Arab Spring protests. However, it was dropped from last year’s budget bill. Congress should revive and fund this initiative as a part of a broad, multilateral effort to incentivize political reform and human rights progress.

3. Push the Administration to Lead a Diplomatic Initiative to End the Syria Conflict

The crisis in Syria is one of the world’s most dire human rights calamities, killing hundreds of thousands and displacing millions. It has spread instability throughout the region, threatening U.S. interests and the security of U.S. allies. The violence won’t stop until there is a political solution. Congress should urge the administration to lead a renewed diplomatic initiative to bring the conflict to an end.

4. Support Religious Minorities, Especially in the MENA Region

Religious freedom is deeply intertwined with stability and security. By supporting the rights of religious minorities, Congress can affirm that human rights and national security go hand in hand.

5. Initiate an Interagency Review of U.S. Relations with Bahrain

Home of the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is of key strategic interest to the United States. But the Bahraini regime has grown increasingly oppressive and violated the human rights of its residents en masse since putting down the 2011 Arab Spring protests. Congress should review this relationship and make it clear that human rights are central to the bilateral relationship.