Time for the awkward questions on Bahrain

Today the Senate will hold a hearing on the nomination of William Roebuck, President Obama’s choice to be new ambassador to Bahrain. Roebuck has experience in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Israel, but the Bahrain job is an increasingly difficult one.  Tensions between the U.S. and Bahrain have steadily intensified in the three years since the current ambassador, Thomas Krajeski, spoke at his hearing. Now, in addition to the monarchy’s continuing crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, it’s targeting U.S. officials.

Senators should ask what response should be given now that the historic friendship between Washington and Manama appears to be getting re-defined. Krajeski was repeatedly blasted by the Bahrain media and government for “interfering in domestic affairs.” In July of this year, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski was expelled from Bahrain after meeting opposition leaders. Last month, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) was denied access to the country.   

{mosads}The reaction from the U.S. government to this treatment of its officials was notable for its softness, which may be the reason that last week the emboldened monarchy arrested one of the country’s most visible and important activists. Human rights activist Maryam Al Khawaja—a familiar figure in Washington as a source of information on Bahrain and a witness at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission—is in detention charged with assaulting police officers —a charge she denies.

This is odd behavior for a “major non-NATO ally.”  As is its decision to open new trade and military ties with Russia at a time that the U.S. government is trying to isolate the Kremlin for its actions in Ukraine.

Roebuck should be asked what he makes of the new Russian-Bahrain relationship, and how it impacts on the U.S.-Bahraini military alliance. He should also be asked if, as ambassador, he plans to meet with opposition leaders, and to insist that this happens without a government representative present? Malinowski was expelled apparently because he violated a law banning contact between foreign governments and opposition figures, but doing so is a key part of an ambassador’s job.

What would be most useful is a clear articulation the U.S. government’s plan to help institute stability and the rule of law to replace the unrest, including arbitrary arrests and detentions.  Does the administration still believe what President Obama publicly told the Bahraini government in May 2011, that “The only way forward is for the government and the opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail”? Because this message has not been repeated publicly by a senior administration official since, and key peaceful leaders of the opposition remain in jail. 

The regime is using new tools of repression, including the stripping of citizenship from dozens of Bahraini opposition and civil society figures, and increasing the penalties against those who insult the king. Offending His Majesty’s sensibilities on Twitter can now mean seven years in prison.

Roebuck should avoid the mistakes Krajeski made at his hearing in praising the King of Bahrain’s illusory reforms. Several times in his opening statement Krajeski commended the King’s progress on reforms even as human rights violations continued. Since then the State Department has primarily pressed its human rights concerns behind closed doors, a policy that has clearly failed. 

What’s needed is a thorough interagency review of the U.S. approach to Bahrain. Washington can’t afford another three years of increasing volatility, or any more unpredictability from what is supposed to be a key ally.

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


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