Remarks Commemorating the Third Anniversary of the Uprising in Bahrain

Remarks at Capitol Hill Event Commemorating the Third Anniversary of the Uprising in Bahrain
by Robert Herman, Vice President for Regional Programs

I am honored to be here at the invitation of my good friends at Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain.  While we express our collective abhorrence and commiserate over the ongoing brutal repression against a non-violent popular movement for democratic transformation, we also come together to celebrate the courage, commitment and resilience of Bahraini citizens in freedom’s struggle against injustice and the denial of fundamental rights.

My organization, Freedom House, is proud to partner with ADHRB, which has played a pivotal role in shining a spotlight on the Kingdom of Bahrain’s continued assault on cherished freedoms in a vain attempt to crush the democratic aspirations of its people. Husain and his colleagues have worked tirelessly to tell the real story of what has been transpiring in Bahrain and to amplify the voices of those inside the country who dare to challenge authoritarian power with little more than their ideals, boundless courage and determination to organize for political change.  

As I look at these chilling yet also stirring photos, it is a reminder of the power of images to help shape our understanding of events. They also humanize the tragedy that is Bahrain, capturing the suffering and sacrifice that ordinary people are prepared to endure to bring about a free society. These photos also stand in sharp contrast to the propaganda manufactured by the Bahraini government’s pricey, hired-gun lobbyists desperate to sell an alternative narrative of a responsive, capable and modern state dedicated to socio-economic progress and upholding citizen’s rights – that they would have you believe is now under siege from violent extremists intent on dividing the country along sectarian lines at the behest of their Iranian masters. 

Three years after the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry released its report documenting the government’s indiscriminate use of deadly force to quell peaceful protests and employing torture against incarcerated demonstrators, the government has not implemented a single one of the report’s major recommendations.  Excuses for non-action underscore the absence of political will on the part of the monarchy to institute changes to address the legitimate and long-ignored grievances of the large majority of the country’s citizens, Sunni as well as Shiite.

The National Dialogue launched last year to bring the two sides together could have been a promising process but it has been fraught with problems and a basic unwillingness of the ruling family to countenance reforms that would end its monopoly on political power. Make no mistake, it is this basic intransigence that increases the likelihood that a transition away from absolute monarchy will not be achieved peacefully.

Sadly, what is happening in Bahrain is part of a larger trend across the Gulf region and far beyond.  In Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, oil-wealthy monarchies that have counted on coopting their respective citizenries by providing material wellbeing in return for allegiance to autocratic rule, are cracking down on advocates of democracy and human rights.  Indeed the authoritarian pushback against those championing fundamental freedoms has been gaining in strength globally for several years. Despotic regimes intent on crushing growing popular demand for accountable governing institutions are employing a variety of strategies and tools to shrink the space for political opposition and pro-democracy civil society. They will resort to force, even deadly force, when they think it necessary, but much prefer to misuse and cynically manipulate the law and the legal system to provide a patina of legitimacy to what is in reality harsh repression.

And all of this while subordinating legislative and judicial institutions to executive power as well as controlling broadcast media and access to and content on the internet. Authoritarian solidarity means the exporting “worst practices,” sharing the most effective ways to quash or otherwise prevent democratic challenges.

The more aggressive and self-confident global assault on democracy and fundamental freedoms is aided by the failure of the leading democratic countries, including the United States, to do more to counter this systematic and coordinated effort to silence dissent and preserve authoritarian power and privilege.

In the case of Bahrain, the U.S. and other governments are surely complicit in the ongoing denial of fundamental freedoms –expression, association and assembly-- enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our political, diplomatic and military support for the Bahraini monarchy and other authoritarian allies is not only contrary to our stated ideals and values, it is also inimical to our long-term security interests in promoting genuine stability based on the rule of law, respect for basic rights and accountable government.  Former Director of National Intelligence and former commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet  Dennis Blair, a member of the Freedom House Board of Trustees, has written and spoken eloquently of the false trade-off between security on the one hand and promoting human rights on the other. He and other defense experts have argued that the basing of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain should not prevent the U.S. from actively supporting democratic reform. It is the U.S. not the Bahrainis that enjoy leverage as there are viable alternatives for hosting the fleet.

Beyond initiating deliberations with the Bahraini government on relocating the Fifth Fleet, there is much that the U.S. –the Administration and Congress-- can and should do to bring about an end to government repression and  encourage the political evolution of Bahrain in the direction of democracy and the rule of law.

It starts with making clear to the Bahraini government and to democracy advocates that we support the rights of citizens to freely express their views and to organize with the aim of catalyzing political reform.  That strong message must be conveyed publically as well as privately and must be backed by action including the suspension of arms sales and conditioning any resumption of military assistance on respecting human rights and embarking on significant political reform. This is long overdue. Language in the FY14 omnibus appropriations bill restricting provision of funds for tear gas, small arms and ammunition used to repress peaceful expression  and assembly is welcome but by no means enough.

Other immediate steps include:

  • Release of all political prisoners
  • Halting indiscriminate, excessive use of force and allowing citizens to exercise their fundamental rights
  • Initiate a process of accountability for those involved in serious human rights violations, in essence ending impunity for security forces and others engaged in the repression, whether extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances or torture.
  • Dropping all politically motivated charges against civilians who participated in pro-democracy demonstrations
  • Withdrawal of all remaining Saudi and UAE forces deployed in Bahrain

At the same time, it is crucial that Bahrain’s democratic movement adhere to the strategy of non-violence that has animated it since the beginning, even in the face of continued use of deadly force and torture by the security forces, presumably under orders from the highest levels.   And to counter the regime’s contention that the country’s Shiite majority seeks power in order to impose an Iranian style system, the movement’s leadership must maintain its inclusive character and reassure fellow citizens that there is a place for all of them in a democratic in a Bahrain grounded in the rule of law and the core principle of equality. 

In Bahrain as elsewhere, authoritarian leaders are clamping down precisely because they know they are becoming increasingly vulnerable to popular democratic movements, which  are accelerating the erosion of regime legitimacy. Rather than introduce far-reaching reforms, they cling to power, in some cases hoping their strategic relationships with influential patron states, will allow them to weather the political storm.  They are most assuredly on the wrong side of history.

Let us continue to draw inspiration from the brave men and women of Bahrain in their struggle for freedom and let us resolve to continue working together to ensure a peaceful transition to democratic rule in which all citizens are free to exercise their fundamental rights and build a more just society.

Thank you.