Rights Groups Urge Congress To Block The Pentagon’s Arms Sale To Bahrain

Our guest blogger is Martin Wolberg-Stok, sustainable security intern at the Center for American Progress.

Bahraini army vehicles occupy Pearl Square in Manama, Bahrain (AP)

The Department of Defense notified Congress on September 14 of its plans to sell the government of Bahrain a package of arms worth $53 million, touting the island nation as “an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East.” This disturbing news comes as the Bahraini government continues to crack down on protests that began in February of this year. In March, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Bahrain and met with the country’s king and crown prince, telling them that “citizens’ desire for governmental change and reform across the region was real and irreversible” and urging them to engage in dialogue with the Bahraini people.

Speaking last week before the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama declared that the United States “will always stand up” for “universal rights.” Indeed, the President had strong words to say about Syria’s crackdown on peaceful protesters, urging the United Nations Security Council to “stand with the Syrian people” and sanction the Syrian regime.

But President Obama’s words were far tamer when it came to Bahrain, a country that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, has called a “critical ally.” The United States Navy has used Bahraini ports since 1947 and the island now serves as the headquarters for the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the Fifth Fleet, which together are responsible for an area that stretches from the Persian Gulf to the Horn of Africa. In his speech at the United Nations, Obama praised the steps Bahrain has taken toward reform, though he warned that “more is required” and that our “close friend” should “pursue a meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change that is responsive to the people.” Despite multiple claims of torture of pro-reform activists at the hands of Bahraini security forces, the President made no mention of Bahraini human rights abuses in his speech. This stood in stark contrast his strongly worded comments about the Syrian regime.

In response to the administration’s hypocrisy in the face of Bahraini human rights abuses, the Project on Middle East Democracy has drafted a letter to Congress, signed by a group of organizations including Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, urging members of the House and Senate to block the arms sale to Bahrain. According to the New York Times and various human rights groups, more than 30 people have died and scores more have been injured since the protests began in February. Thousands more have been arrested or fired from their jobs. The ironic decision to sell defense equipment to Bahrain comes at a time when the Obama administration is increasingly promoting the importance of preventive diplomacy and conflict prevention. The Pentagon’s press release claims the sale will “contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a major non-NATO ally,” but at what impact to America’s credibility in the region?