Our guest bloggers are Sarah Margon, associate director for Sustainable Security at the Center for American Progress, and Martin Wolberg-Stok, sustainable security intern at CAP.
Earlier this week, a bipartisan group of Middle East experts and leading human rights organizations sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing their concerns about the ongoing political tensions in Bahrain. The letter urged the U.S. to hold the Bahraini government to its commitments for reform and to encourage constructive participation from the opposition
The impetus for this letter was the much-anticipated report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report, released earlier today. The report sought to address the violent events that occurred last February, when hundreds of thousands Bahrainis demonstrated peacefully in support of greater political freedom. Appointed by the King of Bahrain, the Commission was headed by an Egyptian-American professor and made up of independent, internationally recognized scholars and jurists. Despite this diverse group, the Commission still had an uphill battle given the surrounding environment of paranoia and mistrust to conduct its investigations.
In a move welcomed by many Bahrain watchers, the commission, found that the government’s security forces used “unnecessary and excessive force” and that many detainees were subjected to torture. The report effectively confirms the accusations from national and international human rights groups that the government of Bahrain was guilty of systematic human rights violations.
The response from the Bahraini government is notable, with a spokesman commenting that, “The government welcomes the findings of the Independent Commission, and acknowledges its criticisms.” However, many of the BICI recommendations center around the need for institutional change in Bahrain’s legal framework — a complex and potentially lengthy process. Indeed, as the report notes, the “systematic pattern of behavior…indicates that this [use of excessive force] is how these security forces were trained and were expected to behave.” Specific, concrete recommendations for changing these structural problems — and a willingness to implement them — are vital for any real progress to occur.
Given the unrest throughout the broader Middle East, the Commission’s report has gained international significance, including for many law and policymakers in Washington, who have walked a careful line in dealing with the Bahraini government over the last few months. As ThinkProgress reported last September, the administration came under pressure from rights groups for approving a $53 million arms package to Bahrain, seemingly ignoring the crackdown on protesters. Bahrain has been a critical ally of the United States in the Middle East and the island serves as the headquarters for the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the Fifth Fleet.
Notably, the report makes no attempt to whitewash the government’s abuses. Its recommendations largely mirror those in the letter to Secretary Clinton, which is certainly an encouraging sign. But leaders from the Bahraini opposition expressed concern that the Commission’s findings would not lead to reconciliation unless it faulted senior officials. On this front, the report is less encouraging, as it merely calls for the establishment of a “national independent and impartial mechanism” to determine the accountability of specific individuals responsible for the abuses.
Many opposition leaders and human rights groups have taken a cautious stance, and rightly so. The report could be a positive step toward reconciliation, but whether the Bahraini government will implement the recommendations, however, remains in question.
As for U.S.-Bahraini partnership, the State Department has said it will “review the Commission’s findings carefully and assess the Government of Bahrain’s efforts to implement the recommendations and make needed reforms.” This is particularly important given the $53 million arms sale that was suspended, pending the report’s findings. Equally critical, however, and looking more long-term, is the chance this report affords the Bahraini government to turn the corner on the country’s growing political unrest. And given the recent fate of other governments in the region who have been reluctant to reform, that’s an opportunity they might want to make good on — as soon as they possibly can.