U.S. Lifts Arm Sales Ban On Bahrain Despite Continued Human Rights Abuses

A man holding prayer beads chants anti-government slogans against the conviction of Shiite cleric Sheikh Ali Salman, seen on signs, over insult charges, during a protest in Manama, Bahrain, Tuesday, June 16, 2015. CREDIT: AP
A man holding prayer beads chants anti-government slogans against the conviction of Shiite cleric Sheikh Ali Salman, seen on signs, over insult charges, during a protest in Manama, Bahrain, Tuesday, June 16, 2015. CREDIT: AP

The U.S. will lift its ban on arm sales to Bahrain, the State Department announced Monday in a move that is receiving heavy criticism from human rights groups.

Arms sales to the Gulf Kingdom were suspended in October 2011 after the government cracked down against civilian protesters. An independent investigation then set out 26 recommended reforms for the government to make and while Bahrain claims they’ve implemented reforms, local and international human rights groups, activists, opposition figures, and even the U.S. itself say not nearly enough has been done.

“While we do not think that the human rights situation in Bahrain is adequate — as our statement on the recent sentencing of Sheikh Ali Salman and the content of our recently-released Human Rights Report make clear — we believe it is important to recognize that the government of Bahrain has made some meaningful progress on human rights reforms and reconciliation,” the State Department said. Sheikh Ali Salman is head of the opposition Al-Wefaq block and is charged with trying to incite regime change.

Meaningful progress — according to the U.S. — means implementing less than 20 percent of the recommended reforms. Bahrain gave human rights training to security forces and now record police interrogations, but opposition figures and human rights defenders still rot in jail, criticizing the state is often met with prison time, and security forces continue to operate without any accountability when perpetrating acts of violence against protesters or torturing civilians.

The State Department’s own 2014 Human Rights Report on Bahrain states: “local and international observers continued to express concern the government did not make significant progress on other BICI recommendations, including dropping charges against individuals engaged in nonviolent political expression, criminally charging security officers accused of abuse or torture, and integrating Shi’a into security forces.”

While arms sales were suspended for the last four years, the U.S. administration still awarded Bahrain foreign military funding. “The Obama administration cut about $15 million in foreign military financing for Bahrain in 2012, providing $10 million,” according to Defense One. “The U.S. gave Bahrain $12.6 million in 2013, but assistance went back to $10 million in 2014 and $7.5 million in 2015.”

The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain and the country has been a close ally in the fight against the Islamic State, sending warplanes to Jordan to fight the radical group.

“Bahrain is an important and long-standing ally on regional security issues, working closely with us on the counter-ISIL [also known as the Islamic State or ISIS] campaign and providing logistical and operational support for countering terrorism and maintaining freedom of navigation,” the State Department statement said.

The arms sold to Bahrain though are often used as “tools of repression” according to Cole Bockenfeld at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED).

“Security forces used armored Humvees [sold to Bahrain by the U.S.] at the crackdown on Pearl Roundabout and to surround hospitals, [to prevent wounded protesters from treatment]” Bockenfeld told ThinkProgress by phone. Community policing is also nonexistent, Bockenfeld added, as Bahrain’s security forces are overwhelmingly Sunni and even patriate foreign nationals to beef up numbers against the majority Shia population (around 70 percent).

POMED released a statement yesterday saying that “the political and security situations in Bahrain have continued to deteriorate, there has been no progress at all toward political reconciliation, and the Government of Bahrain has refused to implement the kind of meaningful reform desperately needed in the country.”

“This decision to resume long-held sales is counterproductive and not in the interest of the United States,” POMED’s statement read.

Human rights groups also condemned the decision. “There is no way to dress this up as a good move,” Brian Dooley, a spokesman for Human Rights First, told the Guardian. “It’s bad for Bahrain, bad for the region and bad for the United States.”