Secretary Hagel Should Use Manama Dialogue to Call for Reform in Bahrain

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Nadia ‘Ali Yousef Saleh, a 37-year-old Bahraini woman, was four months pregnant when her husband was arrested after stopping at a checkpoint in May of this year. When she asked why, her identity card was confiscated. Upon going to the police station the next day to retrieve it, she was arrested, according to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, which also documented abuse in custody. Her detention order was renewed three times, until she was finally released pending trial in October.

When U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel goes to Bahrain on December 7 to address a high-level group of policymakers and military officials at the 9th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Regional Security Summit, also known as the Manama Dialogue, it is unlikely that individual human rights cases will be mentioned.

But if Hagel truly wants to support regional security and the interests of the U.S. military, he would do well to raise the fact that Nadia and hundreds of other Bahrainis have been arrested, detained, and sometimes tortured by police since protests to call for greater political freedom began in February 2011.

Two years ago, after months of protests and an initial crackdown by police, the Bahraini government asked international experts to investigate alleged human rights violations. The resulting Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report confirmed that violations had taken place, and recommended a series of reforms. Most of the recommendations have yet to be adequately implemented, including investigation of claims of torture and the creation of an independent body to oversee legislative reform.

Indeed, the human rights situation in Bahrain has only deteriorated in recent years, and the lack of a clear, consistent message from Washington on the necessity of reform has given cover to a government that abuses its citizens. Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the longest-serving unelected prime minister in the world, and the rest of the Bahraini government have increasingly used national security arguments and the threat of terrorism to enact legislation curbing basic freedoms, such as freedom of assembly and free expression online. In August, the king approved 22 proposals by progovernment lawmakers that included the “loss of Bahraini citizenship for all those who commit crimes of terrorism and incitement to terrorism” and a “ban of all sit-ins, assemblies and protests in the capital.” Given the government’s broad interpretation of “terrorism,” these measures have provided new legal justification for human rights abuses, such as arbitrary arrest and detention without trial.

Continuing human rights abuses have exacerbated sectarian tension between the Sunni-dominated government and the majority Shiite population, which is largely unrepresented in state institutions like the police and military, and has accounted for the bulk of protesters. Political inequality, not religious differences per se, lie at the heart of this tension. But if the government continues its repression, its unfounded claims that the protests are linked to Shiite Iran could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Human Rights First stated in a recent report on the outlook for Bahrain.

The BICI notably found no evidence of Iranian instigation. Instead, the main regional interference has come from Saudi Arabia, a staunch supporter of the Bahraini regime. The United States has been reluctant to push hard for democratic reform in Bahrain because this could damage its already strained relationship with the Saudis, and because democratic openings in some other Arab countries have gone badly awry. However, events in places like Egypt and Syria have shown that it is the forcible suppression of democratic demands, not their implementation, that fuels instability and harms U.S. interests.

Meanwhile, rather than demonstrating that it is willing to follow a path to reform and greater stability, the Bahraini government appears interested only in clamping down to maintain power in the short term. This strategy will likely backfire. The endless cycle of protest and repression has already damaged the economy and scared away investors. Moody’s downgraded Bahrain’s sovereign debt rating in September of this year, noting that “the negative rating outlook reflects the high degree of event risk, particularly regarding Bahrain’s susceptibility to domestic and regional geopolitical instability.”

Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, hosting approximately 5,000 U.S. military personnel and a $580 million construction project aimed at creating more room for docking large ships. This military relationship has often been cited by those who argue that the United States must support the status quo in Bahrain at all costs. But it is also a compelling reason for the United States to call for reform. Is it in the United States’ interest—long or short term—to have so much naval infrastructure in an economically fragile and politically volatile country? As Admiral Dennis Blair and others have pointed out, “permanent basing in a repressive Bahrain undermines our support for reform and is vulnerable if instability continues.”

The outcome of Nadia ‘Ali Yousef Saleh’s trial, initially scheduled for October 31, is still unknown at this time. Her child did not survive, likely because of the abuse she faced in custody. Justice for Nadia, and for other victims of Bahraini oppression, matters not only for moral reasons, but also because it is ultimately in the interests of the United States, Bahrain, and the region as a whole. Secretary Hagel has an opportunity this week to publicly call on the Bahraini government to fully implement the BICI reforms and to respond to its citizens’ demands for political rights and fair representation. He should do so.

Laura Reid, a Middle East and North Africa program intern, contributed research for this blog post.

Photo Credit: Secretary of Defense

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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