Article by Sarika Ali, Advocacy Intern at Salam DHR
Over the last decade, the Kingdom of Bahrain has become a spotlighted stage for increasing violations against civil and political liberties within the state. Though once considered to be a promising model for democratic transition, over the last decade Bahrain has become one of the Middle East’s most repressive states. Since violently crushing a popular prodemocracy protest movement in 2011, the Sunni-led monarchy has systematically eliminated a broad range of political rights and civil liberties, dismantled the political opposition, and cracked down harshly dissenting voices.
According to Freedom House’s 2022 Freedom in the World Report, Bahrain received a global freedom score of a mere 12 out of 100, classified as “not free”. As a hereditary monarchy, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain holds ultimate authority over most government decisions as the sitting head of state, appointing the Prime Minister, Cabinet members, and parliament’s upper house, the Shura Council. Elections for the lower house of parliament are underlined by NGOs as neither competitive nor inclusive. With Bahrain’s Parliamentary Elections set to take place in November 2022, political opposition societies are still banned in the country, political leaders are still in prison and people previously affiliated with political life are denied their right to participate in public life. Pressure is mounting from a number of NGOs for the United States and the EU to condemn the increasing violations of civil and political liberties by the Bahraini government.
The Kingdom of Bahrain is of major concern for many non-governmental organisations, with credible reports of, among other violations: torture; harsh and life threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; political prisoners; restrictions on free expression and media; interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; and revocation of citizenship. Government practices have thus created a political environment that is not conducive to free elections or civil liberty. In 2016, the government announced the dissolution of Bahrain’s largest political opposition to the ruling party, Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, closing its headquarters and seizing all its assets. Similarly, the National Democratic Action Society, also known as Waad, was dissolved on May 31, 2017, after authorities closed its headquarters and seized its assets. More so, the government has criminalised online criticism and increasing restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly, expression and association present serious concerns for the future of democratic governance in Bahrain.
Having established diplomatic relations with Bahrain in 1971, the United States has remained a publicly committed ally of the nation, with the two states cooperating militarily and financially on a number of areas. For the United States, Bahrain plays a key role in the region’s security architecture, acting as a vital US partner in defence initiatives and is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, among other bases. As such, diplomatic relations and negotiations between the United States and the Kingdom of Bahrain often focus on military and economic cooperation. Therefore, diplomatic relations between the two states are primarily security-oriented, exemplified most recently in the three memoranda of understanding signed by the US and Bahrain on July 2, 2022, with the purpose of enhancing cooperation for cybersecurity, drone systems and combatting terrorism. More so, when discussing democratic reform, Interior Minister General Shaikh Rashid bin Abdulla Al Khalifa of Bahrain claimed that King Hamad’s approach to governance focuses on “promoting the values of democracy, tolerance, coexistence and openness”, in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Thus, it is clear that concerns regarding civil and political liberties and democratic governance, while noted, are often brushed under the rug with feigned hopes and promises for change. In March 2022, during the most recent visit by the Crown Prince of Bahrain to the United States, both states made vague and unrelenting statements surrounding the state of freedom and democracy in Bahrain, and the main focus was on strategic military cooperation. In essence, Bahrain is a country of strategic importance for the United States, enabling continued monitoring and maintenance of peace and security in the region, which perhaps explains why the US position on human rights practices in Bahrain is one of relative silence.
Why Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain Matter for the US
A more democratic and rights-respecting Kingdom of Bahrain is in the interest of the United States and Europe for several reasons. The global fight for democracy and democratic governance was declared a priority by US President Joe Biden at an inaugural summit last year. It is therefore a declared interest of the United States to promote and support democracy and democratic transitions. In addition, as a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the League of Arab States, and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Bahrain has the potential to play a key, strategic role in the struggle against authoritarianism in the MENA region and thus should be a key priority. More so, the systematic disregard for democratic values exhibited by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and the national government undermines the core principles of the United States of America, as well as that of multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, posing a threat to internal cohesion; a democratizing Bahrain, in contrast, would be a more effective partner to push back against authoritarianism in the Middle East and the Gulf. Moreover, as mentioned, the United States and Bahrain have established a diplomatic relationship based on cooperation in a number of areas, from trade to security, and it is therefore in the interest of the Biden Administration to work with an administration in Bahrain that follows the rule of law and is accountable to its citizens.
As a nation that claims to stand for democratic and human rights norms, the United States must equally stand up for them in Bahrain. When these values are sidelined in favor of other interests, it sends a message to authoritarian leaders that human rights abuses will be tolerated. Bahrain’s history of human rights violations highlights the urgency for action, and the need for the Biden Administration to make human rights central to foreign policy. The U.S. is in the unique position of being able to leverage sales of defense articles and services to Bahrain in exchange for their compliance with universal human rights norms. In this position, the Biden Administration is uniquely poised to push for democratic reform; however, it is imperative for the United States to show that violations of fundamental civil and political rights will no longer be tolerated by the international community. Through more robust and collective action, the United States possess the ability to guide Bahrain and other states toward reform and reconciliation.