by Husain Abdulla*
On February 14, 2011, large numbers of peaceful protesters turned out across Bahrain to demand fundamental changes to the island kingdom’s political system. Exasperated with the autocratic rule of the al-Khalifa family, they called for free and fair parliamentary elections, an end to the gerrymandering and other tactics that politically marginalize certain groups (particularly Shia Muslims, who form a majority of the electorate), and the immediate release of all political prisoners. However, security forces overseen by Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa—an uncle of the king who has served as prime minister since 1971—brutally crushed the protest movement, arresting, injuring, and killing many innocent citizens. As a result, more than 13 months after the protests began, the existing obstacles to Bahraini democracy remain largely intact.
Saudi Arabia has played a major role in ensuring that the Bahraini government does not accede to the demands of the protesters, and maintains a military presence in the country to backstop the local security forces. The larger kingdom is omnipresent in Bahrain. The Saudi flag often flies beside the Bahraini flag, and pictures of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah line Bahraini streets. With the support of the Saudis, the Bahraini leaders enjoy total impunity, and political reconciliation between the opposition and the incumbents appears impossible.
The United States is the only world power with the leverage to influence or counter Saudi Arabia’s involvement. This raises a fundamental question: What is the Obama administration’s vision for Bahrain? An effective U.S. strategy for resolving the stagnating political situation has not been forthcoming. While democracy and human rights in other Arab countries, most recently Syria, have been priorities for the U.S. government, the human rights of the Bahraini people seem to have fallen off the agenda. President Obama must propose a compromise, an agreement whereby the al-Khalifa family shares power with the opposition in a true constitutional monarchy. Such a policy would allow the United States to protect its interest in regional stability, while maintaining its commitment to the promotion of democracy and human rights.
In November, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), ordained by the ruling family to investigate the response to the protests, found the government guilty of mass human rights violations and offered a set of policy recommendations to immediately cease the abuses. Crucially, the BICI report also categorically refuted all claims that Iran was covertly assisting the protesters. This removes an important potential barrier to greater U.S. involvement in resolving the crisis.
It is widely acknowledged that the government has made no serious attempts to implement the commission’s recommendations. For example, none of the political prisoners have been released. Torture of political prisoners continues, and doctors face persecution and even prosecution for treating injured protesters. The government is reportedly planning to drop all the serious criminal charges against the doctors, but nothing concrete has taken place. For example, the doctors are still not allowed to return to their jobs or even practice medicine in private clinics.
Video from Freedom House's panel with Bahraini activists on February 15, 2012
The international human rights community is unified in its recognition of grave violations in Bahrain. The UN special rapporteur on torture plans to visit the country, but the authorities have sought to delay the trip. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay has consistently and publicly condemned the Bahraini government for failing to live up to its commitments under international law. She has called for all trials to be held in public, and for the government to work toward political reconciliation.
The expectation among Bahrainis is that political change is coming, and that a more representative and inclusive system will be implemented. But much blood has already been shed in the pursuit of such a system. The Obama administration has the power to prevent any further unnecessary loss of innocent lives by encouraging the reform-minded elements within the Bahraini establishment to engage directly with the opposition. The national dialogue initiative proposed last year by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the elder son of the king, represents an important first step in the right direction. In his proposal, Prince Salman addressed the overwhelming majority of the opposition’s demands, including ending gerrymandering, giving primary legislative power to the elected chamber of the National Assembly, reversing the exclusion of Shia citizens from the ranks of the security forces, and discussing the shape of a new government, among other political topics.
However, without greater U.S. involvement, Saudi Arabia will continue to act as the de facto ruler of Bahrain when it comes to taking serious political decisions. This scenario, in which a powerful neighbor intervenes to crush a democratic uprising and prop up a ruling family, would set a dangerous precedent for the region. The Saudi approach would also fail to end the current crisis, which has already dragged on for over a year. Only a fair political solution can restore peace and prosperity to Bahrain, and only the United States can break the deadlock that has prevented such a solution to date.
* Husain Abdulla is the director of Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain.