Foreign Policy

Selling arms to Bahrain amid human rights abuses

This month marks a year since the State Department lifted holds on selling weapons to the Bahrain military. At the time it claimed that “meaningful progress on human rights reforms and reconciliation” had been achieved and that “these steps contribute to an environment more conducive to reconciliation and progress.” The resumption of arms sales, we were told, would encourage further reform. It was time for less stick and more carrot.

The State Department was kidding itself both about the reform that had allegedly taken place and the notion that arming its repressive ally would result in human rights progress. Over the last year, the regime’s persecution of peaceful activists has only intensified.

{mosads}The regime released opposition leader Ibrahim Sharif from prison right before the State Department announced the renewal of sales, then put him back in jail shortly after, and he’s still there. Last Monday an appeal court upped the sentence for Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of Al Wefaq, the largest opposition group, from four to nine years. Both he and Sharif are in prison for speaking out against the government, as is another opposition figure, Khalil Al Halwachi, whose sham trial continues this month.

Since the lifting of the arms holds, reports of torture and forced confessions have increased. Meanwhile the State Department has approved $150m in arms sales to Bahrain’s military – “a key security partner in the region.”

The Bahrain government has claimed to have enacted the reforms recommended by an independent commission of inquiry in 2011, which investigated the violent crackdown on pro-democracy protestors. The inquiry’s leader, international human rights lawyer Professor Cherif Bassiouni, said on Sunday that only 10 of 26 recommendations have been substantially implemented. The State Department’s assessment  of how far these reforms have actually been achieved, requested by Congress, was due February 1 2016, but has yet to appear. 

The dangerous increase in sectarianism and polarization in Bahrain isn’t all America’s fault, of course. After all, it’s not the U.S. jailing Bahrain’s opposition leaders, and the Obama administration has publicly called for some to be released. But the way Bahraini opposition figures see it, the United States is enabling the repression by politically supporting the regime and rewarding its bad behavior with weapons.

It’s a little like the Corinthian diplomat visiting Sparta at the outbreak of decades-long Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE, complaining that the Spartans had not helped protect them from the Athenians. “When one is deprived of one’s liberty one is right in blaming not so much the man who puts the fetters on as the one who had the power to prevent him, but did not use it…,” recorded the historian Thucydides.

Concern in Congress is increasing over the U.S. government’s complicity with the Bahrain regime. Bipartisan bills in the House and Senate, aiming to impose a ban on small arms sales to Bahrain’s security services until all 26 of the reforms promised in 2011 have been implemented, are picking up support.

At his 2013 nomination hearing to be Secretary of State, John Kerry said,  “No nation has more opportunity to advance the cause of democracy and no nation is as committed to the cause of human rights as we are.” His State Department is breaking that promise when it comes to Bahrain. Whatever the logic a year ago of trying to encourage reform by selling weapons to Bahrain’s military, the experiment has clearly failed, and the State Department should re-evaluate its decision before things slide dangerously further.

Dooley is director, human rights defenders at Human Rights First. @dooley_dooley

Tags arms sales Bahrain Foreign policy Human rights John Kerry U.S.

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video