For a year, Bahrainis across the ideological, economic, and political spectrums have been struggling for political and social reform, facing violent repression by the government. Martial law was imposed for more than three months in 2011, Saudi Arabia sent troops to assist in the crackdown, and during that time hundreds of demonstrators were arrested and many subjected to torture. Thousands were fired from their jobs for nothing more than expressing support for the protestors. Doctors and nurses who attended to wounded protestors were singled out for harsh punishment. Opposition political leaders and prominent human rights activists were imprisoned, some receiving life sentences, while journalists and bloggers were likewise arrested, an overt move to intimidate them into silence.
The Obama administration’s announcement last month that they were moving forward with a small portion of a previously postponed arms sale to Bahrain is inexplicably tone deaf to the ongoing struggle against despotic rule and the sensitivity of the upcoming anniversary. The administration expects Americans and Bahrainis to take their word that the parts included in the sale cannot be used against protesters, the full details of which have not been made public. The specter of the United States arming the Bahraini government in any way as the country prepares for a potentially volatile period of unrest does not help the image of the U.S. with the people in the region.
Some of the strongest support for the Bahraini people has come from Capitol Hill, where 25 Members of Congress have signed on to legislation opposing the original arms sale. Many more weighed in with the Administration through letters and phone calls. Capitol Hill needs to continue its support for human rights and democratic political reform by making clear that the long-term future relationship between Bahrain and the United States depends on the implementation of serious reform.
The United States and Bahrain share many interests in a region where the shadow of Iran often dwarfs other issues. Some might make a supposed realist argument that the U.S. needs to prioritize strategy and security over support for human rights. But looking at the events through a realpolitik lens lends more urgency to the need for quick, comprehensive reforms. Despite claims to the contrary from the Bahraini government, independent reports have found no Iranian influence on the protest movement, a charge that infuriates the Shi’ite activists who see no place for Iran in what they see as a home-grown, independent, Bahraini pro-democracy movement.
However, an unstable Bahrain is easily exploitable and places regional security at risk. And it is clear at this point that minor concessions that leave the country’s authoritarian political system firmly in place will not quell what has so far remained a largely peaceful protest movement. The United States must use all available relationships and resources to encourage its ally Bahrain to implement far-reaching reforms that move the country along the democratic path; allow citizens to exercise their fundamental rights of free expression, association, and assembly; and end discrimination against the majority of the population.
Herman is vice president for regional programs and Trister is manager for congressional affairs at Freedom House.