Last week, the Crown Prince of Bahrain, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, met with a handful of U.S. government officials—including President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden—during a visit to Washington, D.C. While the crown prince posed for photos with the president and vice president, in Bahrain children as young as 15 continued to be unlawfully detained in adult detention facilities, while prisoners of conscience imprisoned for exercising their free speech rights languished in prison. During their meeting, President Obama appropriately remarked that “respect for universal human rights is the best path to achieving the peace and security that all Bahraini citizens deserve.” Regrettably, there does not appear to have been any discussion of human rights by Vice President Biden or Secretary of State John Kerry in their meetings.
The lack of uniform messaging by U.S. government officials on human rights is disappointing, given the ongoing and unrelenting nature of abuses that continue to be committed by Bahraini government officials against protesters, activists and innocent civilians. Protesters and activists are routinely arrested and detained for engaging in free speech activity, while their homes are often raided by plainclothes officers in the middle of the night, creating a sense of insecurity and fear among members of a population who have been struggling to secure political and social equality for more than a decade.
Although Bahraini officials are often quick to pledge the government’s “commitment to reform,” very little evidence exists to support this purported desire to promote reconciliation within Bahrain’s deeply divided society. It is common practice for protesters and activists to be arrested, detained, abused, tortured, or convicted of crimes related to the exercise of their free speech rights. Unfortunately, the fact that officers and other government officials responsible for human rights abuses commit them with impunity has become accepted. This increasingly common miscarriage of justice was clearly demonstrated in two recent cases. In one case, an officer accused of killing a protester had his sentence reduced from 7 years to 6 months, while two other officers accused of the same crime in a separate case were acquitted. This utter lack of accountability denies closure to the families of those killed and deepens the divide in a society fissured by political and social inequality.
In its attempt to prolong its power, the ruling family has, for nearly two years, been dragging its heels in enacting real and lasting reforms. Instead, it found a convenient excuse in the National Dialog, in which the government’s self-appointed role as “mediator” between political opposition and pro-government parties completely ignores the real conflict between the government and the opposition.
The dialog—originally accepted by the international community as an opportunity for all parties in the conflict to put down their weapons and come to the table—is increasingly seen as a public relations stunt by the opposition. The recent 2-week boycott of the talks by political opposition parties, led by Al-Wefaq, was intended to highlight not only the government’s continuing arrests of protesters and frequent raids on activists’ homes, but also the lack of representation by the royal family in the talks. The government, meanwhile, refuses to capitulate, citing the need to “achieve a consensus on issues that are actually important.” This inherent disagreement as to what is important could be the death knell of the talks, and of any possibility for reform in Bahrain.
While parties to Bahrain’s ongoing conflict remain divided over the national dialog, it is exceedingly critical that the U.S. government—inarguably one of Bahrain’s strongest allies—develops and conveys a unified message to the government of Bahrain that emphasizes the need for the government to respect and protect human rights. Without the protection of these basic and fundamental freedoms, political and social equality—the goal of Bahrain’s protest movement—will be all but impossible to obtain.