and human rights
the Obama administration really concerned about human rights in Bahrain,
asks Anthony Newkirk.
is becoming painfully obvious that the United States
is hostile to the 'Arab Spring'. In Egypt,
US military aid programmes
remain in force, and in Yemen
a 'secret' US
war may be in the offing. In the United Arab Emirates plans may be
afoot to develop a for-profit rapid reaction force (to crack down, surely,
on UAE citizens for 'publicly insulting' their leader). The US government continues to support the Israeli
blockade of Gaza.
But perhaps the quintessential example of US
reactionary policy is in the tiny kingdom
July marked the beginning of a 'National Dialogue' in Bahrain
that King Hamad Isa bin Al Khalifa called to promote reconciliation
in his strife-torn land. But it is unclear what the point of the National
Dialogue is when the king is also attempting to silence Bahraini civil
society. The country's ongoing domestic conflict between an unpopular
Sunni elite and a Shia majority came to a boil in February when mostly
Shia Bahrainis began protesting against long-standing discrimination.
The ruling family offers the pretext that over half of the country's
500,000 citizens are under the thrall of Shia Iran. Meanwhile,
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been proclaiming that the United States will stand up for human rights in
Bahrain and also
ensure its status as a 'major non-NATO ally'.
in the Marines
16 March, one month after the demonstrations began, King Hamad imposed
martial law and police attacked Pearl Roundabout, where most of the
protesters were camped out. Two days earlier, at least 1,000 Saudi troops
and 500 UAE police attached to the Peninsula Shield Force (PSF) entered
Bahrain. Although part of the occupation
force may have already left Bahrain
after the official end of martial law in June, the PSF presence in Bahrain may last
long-term in order to 'protect its borders'.
report recently issued by Human Rights Watch (HRW) details ongoing human
rights violations, including torture, disappearances, and a systemic
crackdown on the majority Shia. Such matters should be of grave concern
to the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour,
which officially plays a key role in formulating US
human rights policy.
the Obama administration sees the situation quite differently, regardless
of Secretary of State Clinton's statements about human rights and administration
declarations about 'the rule of law'. In this case, actions are a much
more dependable guide to US
policy. On 1 March, Commandant of the US Marine Corps General James
F Amos informed the House Armed Services Committee that a Marine Expeditionary
Brigade headquarters for operations in the Middle East and Africa had
already been established in Bahrain.
Both former Secretary of Defence Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen visited Bahrain amid the protests. Bahrain,
of course, hosts the US Fifth Fleet and is the naval headquarters of
US Central Command.
administration's actions suggest that it is closer to the perspective
of such private sector representatives as S Rob Sobhani, president of
Caspian Energy Consulting. Sobhani, a member of the right-wing Committee
on the Present Danger reconstituted in 2004, has characterised King
Hamad as a 'thoughtful and progressive leader' committed to 'economic
growth' and 'stability'.
kick out the diplomats
State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour has
been quite active of late in Bahrain,
but, given the bureau's name, not in the way that one might expect.
State Department does have a track record of concern about human rights
in Bahrain. George W Bush's State Department
wrote in the 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report that 'the Government
of Bahrain does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the
elimination of trafficking and is not making a significant effort to
do so'. The US embassy was also pursuing opportunities for
American corporations in Bahrain
at this time. According to WikiLeaks cables, King Hamad requested Patriot
missile batteries in 2008 and asked for help attracting aircraft manufacturers
to the Bahrain Air Show several months later.
weeks after the declaration of the state of emergency, the Bureau of
Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour announced the release of the 2010
Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The section on Bahrain
in the 7,000-page document clearly shows there were cases of religious
and gender discrimination, police brutality, torture of detainees, and
press censorship in Bahrain
well before the Arab Spring and the declaration of martial law. Thus,
US officials' comments of disappointment about the Bahraini government's
behaviour this spring are disingenuous.
this documentation, the State Department is sending out disturbing mixed
signals. On 13 May, the administration 'declined' to send diplomats
to a hearing held by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on Capitol
Hill about the situation in Bahrain. Lest critics accuse the State Department
of insensitivity to Congress, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy,
Human Rights, and Labour Michael Posner did appear before the same committee
in July to testify about repression in Syria.
It remains unclear why the former human rights lawyer cited HRW and
Amnesty International reports on Syria
but has said nothing of their work on Bahrain.
26 May, the State Department evacuated Ludovic Hood, its human rights
officer in Bahrain,
apparently in reaction to an ongoing campaign of criticism and veiled
threats against him and his family by pro-government Bahraini groups.
On 31 May, State Department spokesman Mark Toner stated during a press
conference that Hood's departure was merely a regularly scheduled reassignment.
Meanwhile, Bahrain's Ministry of Foreign Affairs categorically
denied government involvement in anything that may have happened to
'a diplomat from the United
the following two weeks, Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa
and Secretary of State Clinton met in Washington, and Posner and high-ranking
Bahraini officials gathered in Manama.
Neither Clinton nor Posner referred to the Hood incident in their prepared
statements. But Posner did observe that there were 'several positive
developments' to achieve 'respect for human rights and pursuit of national
security interests' in Bahrain.
He cited 'the release of some prisoners' and the fact that Bahrain 'promised to investigate allegations
largest Shia political party pulled out of the National Dialogue talks
due to a lack of confidence that the government was negotiating in good
faith. Furthermore, many in the United
States have pointed out contradictions
in US-Bahraini relations. The AFL-CIO trade union federation and the
International Labour Organisation have voiced concerns about Bahrain's
violations of labour standards recognised in bilateral agreements and
in international law - a state of affairs aggravated by the declaration
of martial law in March.
State Department is fully aware of this. The 2011 Trafficking in Persons
Report prepared by the Office to Monitor Trafficking in Persons claimed
that Bahrain 'does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the
elimination of trafficking' as set out in US law. The report indicates,
for instance, that the Bahraini government has admitted that 65% of
foreign workers in the country did not see their employment contracts
and 89% did not know what their rights were. However, 'significant efforts'
are being made to correct these infractions.
the Obama administration concerned about human rights in small countries
On one hand, the security of US military assets in the Persian
Gulf and US economic influence is of paramount concern to
the administration (as with previous administrations). But citizens
should also ask if such priorities are consistent with the principles
of democracy and justice. The stakes are not a naval base or a Patriot
missile battery but America's
dignity as a defender of justice.
Newkirk teaches history at Philander
in the US.
He is a contributor tothe Foreign Policy In Focus website (www.fpif.org),
from which this article is reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.
World Resurgence No. 251/252, July/August 2011, pp 50-51