Our guest blogger is Sarah Margon, Deputy Washington Director at Human Rights WatchIn May 2011, President Obama spoke publicly about the importance of supporting reform — and individual reformers — across the Middle East. He noted “the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator” and that the United States “supports a set of universal rights…[including] free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders.”
But in Bahrain, where massive nonviolent protests against the current regime began in early 2011, critical underlying issues have yet to be resolved and the U.S.’s support for such reform has been halfhearted.
Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, is in many ways a victim of the administration’s feeble push for greater reform. Nabeel recently spent three months in jail for a “tweet” calling on the Bahraini prime minister to resign. An appeals court overturned this conviction, but by that time Nabeel had been handed an additional three-year sentence for “illegal gatherings.” So he has been in jail since July 9, first for speaking out and now for exercising his right to peaceful assembly.
While the State Department appears committed to the fervent wish that Bahrain will actually reform, an August 1 hearing on Bahrain before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission illustrated that at least some Members of Congress are less sanguine. Co-chairman Jim McGovern (D-MA) brought up Nabeel’s case a few times, as did Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN). In both cases, Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner refused to call for his release.
The U.S.-Bahraini partnership is one of great strategic importance for both countries, due in part to Bahrain’s concern for its more powerful neighbors and its willingness to provide a key base for the U.S. Navy. But as recent political changes throughout the region have shown — and as President Obama himself has stated — such an alliance should not be at the expense of our commitment to universal human rights norms and principles.
The Al-Khalifa ruling family in Bahrain remains fundamentally averse to genuine reform — a position tacitly endorsed by the administration’s downplaying of ongoing abuses, its renewal of arms sales to Bahrain, and echoing of hollow reassurances that abuses have ended and reforms instituted — when it knows very well this is not the case. The U.S. response to Nabeel’s detention is only the latest in a string of insufficient responses from the Obama administration. And it is not likely to be the last.
When it comes to Bahrain, it is long past time for the administration to stop undermining its own commitment to genuine reform throughout the Middle East. By using its leverage to encourage implementation of changes to which the government says it has committed, the administration could help reverse what is a steadily worsening situation. If it doesn’t, the opportunity for peaceful reform in Bahrain may be lost.