In June the U.S. State Department asked the human rights community to take a leap of faith. In a press statement justifying the lifting of the U.S. arms ban on the country, it sought to recognize the Bahraini government’s ostensible “meaningful progress on human rights reforms and reconciliation.” It did so despite recent reports of a “chilling crackdown on dissent,” according to Amnesty International, and a growing amount of U.S. government documentation that contradicts the deparment’s position. The State Department did not expect the introduction of legislation in the Senate to keep Bahrain honest.
The Senate resolution, S.2009, co-sponsored by Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., would prohibit the U.S. from selling certain arms and other military equipment to Bahrain until the secretary of state can certify that the Bahraini government has implemented all 26 recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., has signaled that he will join Wyden and Rubio’s push by introducing a companion bill in the House of Representatives after the August recess. The legislation restores parts of an arms ban that had been in place since 2011, when military and security forces shot, teargassed and tortured scores of peaceful protesters.
This resolution provides a much-needed legal mechanism to prevent U.S. arms from enabling additional human rights abuses in Bahrain. Perhaps more important, the resolution could correct the White House’s error in recognizing superficial steps taken by the government of Bahrain as “meaningful progress” on human rights and reform.
The State Department’s evidence of human rights reform in Bahrain is obviously weak: It cites the establishment of an ombudsman and the National Institute for Human Rights and the early release of Ebrahim Sharif, a prominent member of the Bahraini opposition, as emblematic of “an environment more conducive to reconciliation and progress.” To the State Department’s embarrassment, Bahrain rearrested Sharif just 19 days after his release.
Furthermore, numerous international human rights organizations have demonstrated that the ombudsman and the institute have achieved neither impartiality nor independence from the government and often serve to whitewash government abuses.
The State Department’s decision ignores its own documentation highlighting the Bahraini government’s failure to reform. In its 2014 human rights report, the State Department documented retaliation against human rights defenders, abuse and torture perpetuated by members of security forces and the adoption of laws that restrict civil liberties and basic human rights. In its 2013 update on the implementation of the BICI report, the State Department concluded that Bahraini courts acquitted the majority of security personnel accused of human rights violations and that many of those who were convicted subsequently had their sentences commuted.
The department’s own reports strongly criticize the Bahraini military, the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF), which is set to receive U.S. arms once again, and State’s most recent report on terrorism in the country indicated serious human rights abuses by the BDF. The report rendered Bahrain ineligible for the U.S. anti-terrorism assistance training program because of “vetting challenges” under the Leahy Law, indicating that the BDF was in the bottom 1 percent of militaries reviewed for their human rights records.
While extensive State Department documentation shows that neither the government nor the BDF has reformed as the department’s announcement claimed, the fact remains that State cannot guarantee that the weapons will not be used to violate the rights of Bahrain’s citizens. The White House maintains that the arms will remain in the hands of the Bahraini military, but there is no mechanism in place to guarantee that the BDF will not transfer U.S. arms to the Ministry of Interior, which remains under a U.S. arms ban, or to prevent the BDF from participating in ministry operations, as it did in 2011.
While the State Department counters that its end-use monitoring programs ensure weapons are delivered to the intended party and are used appropriately, a 2011 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office contradicts such statements. The report found that the State Department “does not conduct individual- or unit-level human rights vetting for recipients of U.S.-funded equipment in Gulf countries.” Although State has noted that it is attempting to improve human rights vetting procedures for recipients of military equipment, as of last reporting, in January 2014 and May 2014, it had not developed such a policy.
With the situation for activists and dissidents becoming increasingly dire, it appears that only Congress can remedy the White House’s misstep and ensure that U.S. weapons cannot be used to further destabilize the political situation in Bahrain. By introducing this resolution, Wyden and Rubio rightfully assert that additional arms sales cannot resolve Bahrain’s internal unrest, lead to a political solution or provide an effective repellent to internal threats from terrorism. The recent bombing of a police station in Sitra reveals the effects of more than four years of institutionalized repression and political instability resulting from the government’s efforts to resist reform. The ongoing political crisis, created by the continued detention of thousands of political prisoners and a reported 15 percent unemployment rate, has left an increasing number of Bahrainis with no hope of resolution.
If Bahrain truly seeks to defend itself against hostile forces, including internal threats of terrorism, U.S. arms are not the answer. Ending reprisals against the opposition and releasing those imprisoned for expressing their views, including the Bahrain 13, would be a start. Meaningfully implementing all 26 BICI recommendations, as the Senate resolution would require, remains the government’s most viable path to true reconciliation and long-term stability. Wyden and Rubio have demonstrated their understanding of what would guarantee the possibility of Bahrain’s peaceful future.