By Brian Dooley The 19th Century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard had it right when he said, “There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn't true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”
When it comes to Bahrain, the State Department can’t seem to accept what’s plain for everyone else to see — that the ruling family isn’t introducing real reforms, shouldn’t be rewarded for continuing attacks on human rights and is driving the country deeper into crisis.
At the end of June the State Department announced it was resuming arms sales to the Bahrain military, citing “meaningful progress on human rights.” This ended the ban that was introduced following Congressional pressure in 2011 after a violent Bahraini government crackdown on widespread protests for democratic reforms.
Obama administration officials quietly pointed to Bahrain's release of peaceful opposition leader Ibrahim Sharif 10 days prior to the arms ban announcement as evidence of progress, saying the Bahraini government should be encouraged for issuing a police code of conduct, and setting up a National Institute for Human Rights and Ombudsman’s offices to deal with complaints about ill-treatment and torture. Some made a distinction too between the record of Bahrain’s military and its police, suggesting that the police had behaved far worse and arguing that lifting the ban on arms sales would encourage the “professionalism” of the military.
There is little evidence that the military has reformed since 2011. It hasn’t held any of its senior officials accountable for the deaths and torture it committed, and it hasn’t promoted recruitment from the country’s majority Shiite population, leaving the force still virtually exclusively Sunni. Bahrain’s reforms — though largely cosmetic — have been carried out by the Ministries of the Interior and Justice, not by the military.
Yet even if the military had changed, there is no way for the United States to prevent arms shipped to Bahrain’s soldiers from ending up in the hands of the country’s violent police forces.
And what has become of political leader Ibrahim Sharif? He was put back in jail within two weeks of the State Department’s announcement of lifting the arms ban, where he still remains.
His rearrest is just one alarming move made the Bahraini government since the announcement at the end of June. Bahraini authorities also closed down the only independent newspaper for two days, have targeted members of the main opposition group Al Wefaq who are not already in jail, and have aggressively gone after those who criticize the government on social media.
This month a man was arrested in Bahrain over tweets “insulting soldiers” fighting in Yemen, and faces up to 10 years in prison. Next month prominent dissident Zainab Al Khawaja is due to hear verdicts in several appeal cases where she has been sentenced to severalyears in jail for peaceful protests, including tearing up pictures of the Bahrain’s dictator king. Other leading human rights defenders, including Naji Fateel and Abdulhadi al Khawaja, remain in prison, along with virtually all of the peaceful opposition leaders.
The fundamentals in Bahrain haven’t changed for years — the regime shows no real sign of reforming, and its intransigence helps fuel an increasingly violent opposition. As Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., noted, “In Bahrain, Tehran has taken advantage of the government’s refusal to engage seriously in a reform process with the moderate opposition and has helped fan the flames of dissent into violence.”
Rubio is taking action, and introduced a bill last month with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to ban the sale of small arms to Bahrain (to both military and police) until reforms set out in 2011 and agreed to by the king have been fully implemented. A companion bipartisan bill has now also been introduced in the House by Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., Hank Johnson, D-Ga., and Joe Pitts, R-Pa. As in 2011, Congress looks set to be the corrective measure against the administration’s dangerous mistakes in arming Bahrain without securing real progress on human rights.
The State Department too often seems to be operating on a low-fact diet when it comes to the middle east, cozying up to dictators in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere, apparently in denial that supporting repressive regimes is likely to backfire spectacularly. On Bahrain at least the new congressional legislation offers a chance for the U.S. to avert the mistakes of the past, to stop rewarding violent repression and to refuse to believe what’s not true.
Brian Dooley is director, Human Rights Defenders at Human Rights First.