Time to stop arms sales to Bahrain

The first lesson the United States should have learned from the Arab Spring is not to be on the side of the dictators. Morals aside, even being seen to side with tyrants over citizens undermines regional stability and the United States’ already diminished popularity across the Middle East. Apparently the Pentagon did not get this memo.

Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged countries still selling weapons to President Assad of Syria to “get on the right side of history.” Last week, before the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama said that America supports the democratic aspirations of Yemenis “for a peaceful transition of power from President Saleh, and a movement to free and fair elections as soon as possible.” 

ADVERTISEMENT
But at the same time the president and secretary of State were making these pronouncements, the U.S. Department of Defense notified Congress of a proposal to sell $53 million worth of armored Humvees and missiles to the dictatorship in Bahrain.

The DOD request seems more than a bit out of step with the Obama administration’s stated desire to support Arab citizens’ quest for human rights. 

Bahrain is a nation that has responded to calls for democracy by arresting more than a thousand people. Thousands more have been fired from government jobs and private companies for perceived association with the protests. The Bahraini security forces continue to attack peaceful demonstrators, with almost daily protests ending with riot police using tear gas and other weapons. Just over a week ago, large-scale peaceful protests were met with the usual violent response from security forces and dozens more people arrested. 

Bahrain may be the smallest country in the Middle East, but its democracy protests have been the largest, proportionately, of any country in the region. The country — a long strategic U.S. ally and home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet — is ruled by a monarchy where the prime minister is the king’s uncle. After making two trips to the nation in recent months, I can report that many people have been tortured in this crackdown and at least four have died in custody. Dozens more have been killed in the streets. Doctors who responded to this violence by treating injured protesters have, in turn, been tortured and prosecuted in sham trials that make a mockery of legitimate legal standards. 

On Sept. 29, a military court sentenced 20 of the medics to jail terms of between five and 15 years.

Despite President Obama’s assurance to people in the Middle East that the United States “cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy,” his administration has been muted with regard to Bahrain’s abuses. And now, even worse, it seems prepared to arm the bad guys. 

It’s time for Congress to intervene and stand up for what is right. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, can do something about this. Specifically, he should ask for briefings to assess how the Pentagon’s arms sale to Bahrain will affect prospects for human rights for the Bahraini people. At the very least, he should ask for detailed justifications for the sales of the equipment.

Such a move would be in step with Kerry’s long record of opposition to arming tyrants. In 1997, he sponsored the Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers legislation that aimed to prevent arms sales to dictators. At that time, he even introduced an amendment to “make democracy and human rights the central criteria on arms transfers.”

When I was in Bahrain this summer, human-rights activists told me about their frustration and anger at the United States for its doublespeak on reform. Its attempt to sell arms to the repressive government of Bahrain makes its claim to be on the side of peaceful, pro-democracy protesters appear ridiculous. Kerry has the opportunity to make the administration’s rhetoric match reality and to restore the Bahraini people’s faith in the United States.

Kerry should try to slow the arms sale to Bahrain until real reforms have been introduced. So far, the Bahraini government has shown a tragic lack of imagination in dealing with the crisis. Its response has been confined to violent acts against those seeking political freedom or fake dialogue involving only selected parts of the opposition.

Resuming arms sales to Bahrain contradicts the United States’ twin interests of regional stability and peaceful reform. If the U.S. aspires to be a global human-rights leader and wants to inspire those struggling for democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere, it has to match its words with action. It must put real pressure on the Bahrain government to accept change. It should not reward the current repression with weapons. Bahrain desperately needs a Plan B for wholesale reform, and American missiles won’t help.


Brian Dooley is a director of the Human Rights Defenders Program at Human Rights First.

More in Op-Ed

Stop fast-track authority from removing the voice of the 100 percent

Read more »