by Emile Nakhleh
This past year in Bahrain, much like those preceding it since the popular uprisings of 2011, was one of unending repression and persecution of human rights activists. Yet, the Trump administration and the British government, arguably two of the most influential actors in Bahrain, have remained silent in the face of the Al Khalifa atrocities against human rights activists, especially within the Shia majority.
When it comes to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other serial violators of human rights and basic freedoms, the American and British governments have allowed arms sales and lucrative money deals benefitting them to trump their traditional commitments to the principles of justice, democracy, peaceful dissent, and freedom. They seem to view Bahrain and its autocratic Sunni neighbors as “cash cows” with an unending source of money. Washington and London are constantly pressured by hordes of lobbyists and consultant—retired diplomats, senior military officers, businessmen, think tanks, and some academics—who do business with autocrats and tribal potentates to take a lenient attitude toward these repressive regimes.
America and Britain have traditionally protected their own people’s freedoms of speech, assembly, and peaceful protest but not those of the peaceful protesters in Bahrain and elsewhere. Bahraini human rights activists have suffered severely from government repression, yet Washington and London continue to treat the Bahraini regime with velvet gloves.
An American-educated Bahraini national in a recent conversation with me expressed skepticism about the efficacy of my frequent articles denouncing human rights abuses in his country. He said, “You keep writing, yet your government has given the green light to the Bahraini regime to continue its torture of its peaceful dissidents without fear of retribution or censure from Washington.”
He also maintained that since the advent of the Trump administration, the strong men of Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others are now convinced that human rights are no longer a condition for continued American military aid and or sales to them. “Al Khalifa are basically free to do whatever they want with their people without any international accountability, despite your country’s commitment to human rights and values of good governance,” he added.
In dealing with non-European countries, have American policymakers since early 2017 come to view human rights as an irrelevant tool of foreign policy? In the absence of any relief in the deepening repression by the regime, the Bahraini national asked me whether the new American view of human rights is becoming as selective in its application as President Trump’s differentiation between European countries like Norway and non-European, non-white “s…hole” countries. He assumed that his country fell in the latter category. Almost in sorrow, he implied that my articles and similar value-driven writings are exercises in futility.
Following a public lecture I gave the other day, an American friend came up to me and asked, “Why should we worry about human rights in other countries, and why don’t we let them do whatever they want with their own people as long as we get whatever we need to protect our economic and military interest?”
Since the Carter administration, U.S. diplomats have used the annual US State Department human rights report, which covers other countries’ human rights practices, to nudge many of those countries to treat their peoples fairly and justly and to hold them accountable if they do not. The United States has often suspended or delayed foreign and military aid to a particular country because of that country’s poor human-rights record.
That was what President Barack Obama did with Bahrain when he withheld the sale of jet fighters pending improvement in the regime’s human-rights practices. When President Donald Trump too office, he reportedly told the Bahraini regime not to worry about the human-rights requirement and proceed with business as usual. The Bahrainis of course got their jets.
2017 and Human Rights in Bahrain
The 2017 Amnesty International’s human rights report on Bahrain makes two important conclusions. “The failure of the UK, USA and other countries that have leverage over Bahrain to speak out in the face of the disastrous decline in human rights in the country over the past year,” it maintained, “has effectively emboldened the government to intensify its endeavors to silence the few remaining voices of dissent.
Second, the report argued, “The majority of peaceful critics, whether they are human rights defenders or political activists, now feel the risks of expressing their views have become too high in Bahrain.”
In its human rights World Report 2018, Human Rights Watch has charged that last year Bahrain “continued its downward spiral on human rights.” Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director for Human rights Watch, said that “Bahrain’s tolerance for dissent is approaching a vanishing point, erasing whatever progress it made after promising to make reforms following the unrest in 2011.”
In January 2017, the Bahraini regime executed three Shia young men. In May, the regime shuttered the secular, liberal National Democratic Society (Wa’ad) because it protested the January executions. In June, the government closed al-Wasat, the only independent newspaper in the country.
In September 2017, the government placed a de facto travel ban on 20 human rights activists, which of course kept them from attending human-rights meetings in Europe. On Christmas Day 2017, the regime’s courts, following sham trials, sentenced 14 activists to death. In the past year, the government has begun to target families and relatives of activists. The targets of the regime’s repressive measure have included “human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, political activists, Shi’a clerics and peaceful protesters,” according to Amnesty International.
According to the Human Rights Watch report, in 2017 the government stripped 156 Bahrainis of their nationality, thereby rendering them stateless persons. On Wednesday, January 31, 2018, Amnesty International reported that the Bahraini government expelled four Bahrainis who were stripped of their nationality to Iraq two days earlier. Other Bahrainis whose nationality was revoked earlier were also told that they would be deported this month.
“Using an array of tools of repression, including harassment, arbitrary detention, and torture, the government of Bahrain has managed to crush a formerly thriving civil society and reduced it to a few lone voices who still dare to speak out,” according to Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa. During my travels to Bahrain since the 1970s, I witnessed a vibrant civil society in Bahrain, which in the past decade but especially since the February 2011 uprising, has been decimated by the regime.
Feeling empowered by the Trump administration’s implicit acquiescence in the regime’s repression, the Bahraini government launched an all-out assault on the village of Duraz, home of the revered Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassem. Protesters were arrested and tortured, and, as in the past, some of them were deprived of their Bahraini nationality.
Bahrain’s security agencies, including the Bahraini National Security Agency (NSA), have subjected Nabeel Rajab, Bahrain’s renowned human-rights defender—and other defenders including Ebtisam al-Saegh—to atrocious acts of torture. Al-Saegh suffered sexual assault as well. In July 2017, Rajab was sentenced to two years in prison on the charge that he gave media interviews criticizing the deteriorating human-rights situation in the country. The Bahraini Court of Cassation denied his appeal on January 16, 2018. His health has worsened in prison because the government has denied him needed medications. These and similar stories of abuse are detailed in the current reports of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Is There a Way Forward?
If the Trump administration no longer views human rights as an important or effective tool of foreign policy and if U.S. national interest and security could be guaranteed without such a tool, then Bahrain and other authoritarian countries will likely continue their downward slide toward more and more repression. Without accountability and the threat of penalty, the regime’s abuse of the country’s Shia majority will deteriorate significantly. Relying on the Saudi use of Sunni sectarianism against Shia Iran, the Al Khalifa regime is projecting itself as the guardian of Sunni Islam. Repressing the Shia majority has become a means to that end. The regime has conveniently forgotten the recent history of Sunni terrorism, which was mostly funded by supporters in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf Cooperation Council states. Several Bahraini Sunnis fought and died for the Islamic State in Syria since the Arab uprisings of 2011.
If, on the other hand, U.S. policymakers conclude that liberty, democracy, and good governance are in the long-run a more effective tool for furthering national interests and protecting Americans, then autocratic regimes, like al Khalifa and others, should be put on notice that their time is up. If they want to do business with the United States, they must treat their people decently and fairly. The history of the last century has taught that dictatorship and militarism, whether in Germany, Japan, Italy, Russia, Cambodia, or elsewhere, are bound to fail, and in fact have collapsed. Arab dictatorships in Bahrain and elsewhere are no exception.
The principle of liberty and justice for all has stood the test of time. The Trump administration would do well to convey this message from the Declaration of Independence to Bahrain and other banana dictatorships.
Photo: Nabeel Rajab (Wikimedia Commons).