Bahrain hearing ignores failures of US policy

On Tuesday, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs held its first hearings on Bahrain since the large scale pro-democracy protests there in early 2011. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has yet to do so. The House Middle East/North Africa (MENA) subcommittee called only one witness, Barbara Leaf, State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Arabian Peninsula.

Most of the hearing's questions were focused on Yemen, and to those hoping to receive clarity on how the United States is going to press for a transition to democracy in Bahrain, the hearing proved a disappointment.  

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DAS Leaf's opening remarks concentrated on assurances that Bahrain is a "steadfast ally," and that the "U.S. is committed to this important relationship," while ignoring the need for the United States to change course in its approach in Bahrain in order to avoid a further violent crackdown. The current strategy, which has largely relied on the "reformers" within the Bahrain government led by the king's son the Crown Prince to bring about the rule of law and respect for human rights, is failing. It is time for the State Department to acknowledge that the Crown Prince is not delivering the reform they had hoped for.

But despite the evidence showing the need for a new path forward in Bahrain, DAS Leaf continued to assure Congress that the "The First Deputy Prime Minister's Office, led by Crown Prince Salman Al Khalifa, has laid out an ambitious set of measures aimed at addressing a number [of reforms]".

What DAS Leaf  failed to mention is the reality that since the Crown Prince was promoted to First Deputy Prime Minister in March 2013, he has been part of a cabinet that has increased the penalty for those insulting the king to five years in prison, endorsed proposals to ban all public gatherings in the country's capital and to criminalize anyone who "disrupts public morale." In May 2013, he even joined the cabinet in approving proposals to "put an end to the interference of U.S. Ambassador Thomas Krajeski in Bahrain's internal affairs."

She also failed to mention the cases of medics still in prison, of leading human rights activists Nabeel Rajab or Zainab Al Khawaja, or any of the other civil society or political leaders jailed for the peaceful expression of their views. Perhaps most disturbing was the lack of reference to President Obama's May 2011 speech, when he publicly stated to the Bahrain government, "You can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail."

Neither the president nor any senior U.S. administration official has publicly repeated that statement since, leaving us to wonder if that remains the position of the United States.

From DAS Leaf's comments, it appears instead that the State Department's position is to support the cosmetic National Dialogue resurrected by the Bahrain government in February 2013 after a similar initiative collapsed in 2011: "This could be an important mechanism to promote engagement and reconciliation, and we have strongly supported this effort since its inception," said Leaf.

But this initiative will fail to promote reconciliation when it does not involve the political leaders in jail and the hitherto tolerated opposition, the Al Wefaq group, which has been boycotting the dialogue in response to the recent targeting of its two top leaders with politically motivated charges that carry long jail terms.

With the Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain and ongoing economic interests in the region, the United States has far too much at stake in Bahrain to rely on a prince who doesn't deliver and a staged dialogue intended to create the appearance of a political process, but designed to be incapable of delivering meaningful reform.  A real dialogue would include the very leaders he Bahraini government has imprisoned.  It would discuss tackling the sectarian imbalance in the security forces, address corruption and an overhaul of the voting system.

The credibility of U.S. leadership on human rights is also at stake. Bahrain is a classic example of where national security is used as an excuse to ignore human rights, as if the two aren't intertwined.  At a time when the U.S. faces significant realignments in the Middle East, when it's trying to fortify its relationships with a range of moderate civil society leaders in Egypt, Libya, and beyond, how the U.S. acts in Bahrain is under close scrutiny.

While political unrest continues alongside a shaky economy and regime crackdowns against peaceful dissent, there is no prospect of real stability in Bahrain. We've seen what happens elsewhere in the region when the U.S. banks on the false stability of repressive dictatorships - repression can provide the appearance of stability for only so long.

It's time for the United States to heed the recommendations made in the new Human Rights First report, "Plan B for Bahrain: What the U.S. Government Should Do Next," halt arms transfers to Bahrain until there is real reform, repeat the president's call for the release of political prisoners, and make clear that while Bahrain may have been a "steadfast ally" in the past that relationship cannot be guaranteed in the future.

Dooley is the director of Human Rights First's Human Rights Defender Program. He can be found on Twitter at @dooley_dooley.

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