Four years represents many things: an Olympic cycle, the gap between U.S. presidential elections, a typical American college degree, the space between leap years. A four-year span is also, it seems, how long a repressive security force can expect to wait before the U.S. government loses its nerve and lifts its objections to resupplying it with arms.
The U.S. State Department’s ban on weapons sales to the Bahrain Defence Force (BDF) was introduced in late 2011 in response to the force’s part in the deaths and torture of protesters earlier that year. As major protests spread across the region during the Arab Spring, many thousands of Bahraini people joined widespread demonstrations against corruption and for democratic reform. Bahrain is governed by an unelected ruling family; the king’s uncle has been the prime minister for more than 40 years. The Bahraini dictatorship, with full support and participation of the BDF, responded to the protesters with violence and brutality — arresting, imprisoning, injuring, and even killing several protesters.
In response to the State Department’s arms censure Bahrain’s military sat quietly, waiting four years without holding any senior official accountable for its abuses.
Pediatric orthopedic surgeon Dr. Ali Alekri was one of dozens of medics whom Bahraini authorities arrested, tortured and jailed in 2011 for their perceived support of the demonstrations. BDF soldiers seized him at the hospital where he worked and took him to a military facility, where he was beaten and forced to eat feces.
From his prison in Bahrain, Alekri yesterday reflected on the horror he has endured and the lack of progress that has been made since. “Four years ago I treated injured protesters and told the media the truth about what was happening in Bahrain,” he said. “I don’t regret doing my duty as a medic, but I’m disappointed Washington hasn’t done its duty in standing up for us.”
Meanwhile sectarian tension and political instability has deepened, fueled by the BDF’s failure to recruit personnel from the country’s majority Shia community. Having a military force made up virtually exclusively from the Sunni minority does little to reduce the country’s sectarianism. Many young protesters and human rights defenders continue to regard their army as an enemy.
There have been many opportunities for Washington to use its military influence with Bahrain as an inducement to reform. The United States engages in training programs for Bahraini security forces and could have refused to train Sunni-only batches of officers, for example. Diversifying the security force was something the Bahraini government promised to do “urgently” as one of 26 recommendations made by an independent commission of inquiry.
Yet somehow in June of this year, the State Department decided the BDF has served its time and is now clean enough to buy large- and small-category weapons from the United States. Bafflingly claiming “meaningful progress on human rights,” the arms ban was officially lifted.
Instead of requiring real progress on reform, the United States is sending the signal to repressive regimes in the region that human rights abuses have some sort of four-year statute of limitations; just sit it out for that long and all will be forgotten.
Some members of Congress are so worried about the message the restoration of weapons sales is sending that they are taking legislative action, introducing bipartisan bills in the House and the Senate (in the Senate by Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and in the House (PDF) by Jim McGovern, D- Mass., Joe Pitts, R-Pa., and Hank Johnson, D-Ga.), aimed at halting all small arms sales to Bahrain until all 26 of the promised reform recommendations have been fully implemented.
The administration has long viewed the presence of its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain as a liability instead of an opportunity, failing to challenge its military ally’s human rights abuses for fear of upsetting the hosts of its naval base. The White House should have regarded the U.S. base there as a key card to play in negotiations with Bahrain’s rulers, an investment to be used as leverage.
It’s been an expensive mistake, as Bahrain has increased its repression and jailed or charged virtually all of its leading civil society and opposition leaders. Its failure to find an inclusive political settlement has left its economy increasingly fragile, and protests have developed an unmistakably violent edge, offering greater opportunity for Iranian interference to exploit deepening grievances.
After four years of dithering and failure, the Congressional legislation offers a serious, important chance for the U.S. government to finally start to get things right on Bahrain.
With Bahrain clearly sliding in the wrong direction, Washington can’t afford another four years of failing to effectively press for reform. It desperately needs an urgent rethink on Bahrain. Supporting this new legislation would be a good place to start.