US congressman refused access to Bahrain

It’s a shocker even by Bahraini government standards. The regime has now denied access to Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), creating a whole new diplomatic imbroglio a month after it expelled senior State Department official Tom Malinoswki.

Home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is an officially designated “major non-NATO ally.” But tensions have steadily mounted since the 2011 mass protests for democracy. Washington’s muted criticism of the regime’s violent crackdown has been enough to send the small Gulf kingdom into paroxysms against the U.S. Ambassador, State Department officials, and now a member of Congress.

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Bahrain’s Foreign Minister claimed the problem with Malinowski was “confined to him personally and it is not about relations with the US,” citing Malinowski’s previous visit to Bahrain as a representative of Human Rights Watch. But the move against McGovern suggests a pattern of shutting out American officials who might be critical of its record on human rights.

A single family largely controls the government in Bahrain, where the king’s uncle has been the unelected Prime Minister for over 40 years. (Yes, it’s one of those sorts of allies.)  It routinely represses dissent and no senior official has been brought to account for the killings or torture of dissidents since 2011.  Journalists and activists who criticized the king on Twitter are in prison, and talk of political dialogue with the opposition appears as hollow as ever.

McGovern and I were set to go to Bahrain together this month, having requested permission in early June. While we’ve both been critical of the human rights abuses there, being denied entry is still a big deal.  We were going to meet with government officials, members of the opposition, and civil society figures. The regime says it’s reforming; we wanted to judge for ourselves. Instead we were shut out of the country, just like New York Times Pulitzer prizewinner Nick Kristof, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez, and many other supporters of human rights.

McGovern, who has served in Congress for nearly 18 years, has impressive foreign policy credentials and co-chairs the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. “Preventing me from traveling to Bahrain is a senseless and unproductive step,” he said. “With or without me in the country, silencing opposition will never work as an effective strategy for long-term peace and stability. We cannot continue turning a blind eye to Bahrain’s reluctance to engage in a meaningful dialogue with its opposition. The need for a meaningful dialogue is urgent. But with key opposition and civil society leaders in jail and with no senior government officials present at the table, the dialogue that would deliver long lasting solutions is impossible.”

But Washington, which has mounted no serious response to Bahrain’s persecution of peaceful critics,  seems at a loss even when the target of the regime’s heavy-hand are its own officials. It offered virtually no public response to the unprecedented expulsion of Malinowksi in July. State Department expressions of concern are routinely mocked by human rights defenders in Bahrain as useless.

As the U.S. government carries out its non-policy of fingers-crossed, Bahrain slides deeper into polarization and sectarianism. Peaceful political leaders arrested in 2011 remain in jail, as do some of the medics who were tortured after treating injured protestors. 

Meanwhile Bahrain has opened new diplomatic, military, and trade links with Russia just when Washington is trying to isolate the Kremlin over Ukraine. Russian arms export agency Rosoboronexport announced details last week of a new deal with the Bahrain regime.

The U.S. relationship with Bahrain is a mess. On July 31, 18 leading foreign policy specialists—including two of Malinowski’s predecessors—joined to urge Susan Rice to “to convene all relevant interagency officials to conduct a thorough review of the bilateral relationship with Bahrain.”

At such a crucial time in such a sensitive region, Washington can’t afford erratic partners like the hardliners in  Bahrain’s ruling family. It should urgently review the whole relationship and look for other partners in Bahrain who can deliver the sort of peace that the United States needs: people willing to respect human rights, uphold the rule of law, and end the country’s chronic political unrest.

Dooley is director of the Human Rights Defenders program at Human Rights First @dooley_dooley.