December 9, 2011

U.S. Consistently Behind Bahrain’s Curve


Victoria Nuland thought she held some good news on Bahrain when she stepped to the State Department’s podium for Friday’s briefing. The Kingdom recently announced a string of measures relating to the Independent Commission of Inquiry, a government-organized investigation into human rights abuses, and the Obama administration is eager to publicize.

For starters, Interior Minister Sheik Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa ordered the country’s state public prosecutor to investigate cases involving death and torture at the hands of police. Bahrain's Information Authority subsequently announced a deal with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to allow access into “rehabilitation” and detention centers (ICRC delegates will reportedly lecture Bahraini officials on human rights).

“At the request of the Government of Bahrain,” UNHRC chairman Navi Pillay has tasked a delegation to land in Manama by next week, to be joined by Mike Posner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

“We’re also encouraged by the news that the Government of Bahrain has halted the trial proceedings of over a hundred athletes and dropped all charges related to their participation in the protests,” Nuland says.

Except the AP’s Matthew Lee was waiting to pop her bubble, starting with the latest clashes between security forces and oppositional protesters. Lee immediately asks, “Did you happen to check the news before you came out here, maybe from the last three hours or so? Are you encouraged by the fact that the Bahrain police have broken up a huge demonstration – or attempt to demonstrate?”

After responding that she hadn’t, Lee tells Nuland she “seems to be pretty happy with them on other issues,” at which point she asks whether Friday’s protest was peaceful. This deceptively loaded question assumes that a non-peaceful demonstration warrants the government’s response, when civil disobedience and low-intensity violence rarely justify the disproportionate force applied. At the same time, provoking excessive force and media attention represents a strategic objective for protesters who have lost all confidence in the government.

According to local and international accounts, a crowd originated in the northern Manama neighborhood of Jad Hafs with the intent of marching to the contested Pearl Square (a frequently attempted demonstration). Security forces opened fire with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets when some protesters began to run towards the square. Matar Matar, an ex-MP for Al Wefaq, told reporters, “Some demonstrators were brutally beaten while others suffered breathing problems due to the tear gas.”

Picking an ideal time to come under pseudo-arrest, Nicholas Kristof also seems to believe that Friday’s protests were aggressively suppressed. Tweeting from another demonstration in Sitra, Kristof observed that protesters came under attack from riot police as they chanted “Down with Hamad,” and received a dose of tear gas in the process. He was then “pulled into police car here in Sitra” by Pakistani policemen, unsure if he was being “detained or protected.” Bahrain’s Interior Ministry quickly responded that Kristof “sought police protection,” to his amusement.

The NYT columnist and activist was eventually released by a senior officer, but not before the psychological damage had spread across the Internet.

Friday’s pattern bears identical resemblance to pre-BICI policy in Washington. Asked about various abuses before the BICI’s release, Nuland would invariably respond that the administration is "urging restraint" and awaiting the BICI’s results. Now, as new abuses are committed, she refers to the BICI in retrospect, focusing on the government’s response to its own abuses rather than the abuses themselves. Praising King Hamad’s “reform” is easier than calling attention to daily clashes between security forces and protesters; the State Department last discussed Bahrain on November 28th, and only to praise the BICI as “transparent.”

When challenged on the report’s objectivity, spokesman Mark Toner responds, “Look, we very much want to see the democratic aspirations of the Bahraini people met by the government. Ultimately, that’s the goal here. But I also want to praise – we also want to praise the steps that they’ve taken to address some of the incidents that took place last spring and try to move the country on a better path towards reconciliation.”

Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, recently criticized the White House’s pressure as insincere.

While the Kingdom’s latest orders do appear to shift in the right direction for once, they remain discouraging in the grand scheme of Bahrain’s uprising. The BICI’s foremost objective has been achieved in the international community: remove the King from Bahrain’s chain-of-command and excuse the abuses that have occurred under his watch. The burden of responsibility is then transferred to protesters (for assaulting policemen) and the political opposition, which must “create and support a climate conducive to reconciliation.”

Already suspicious of the BICI’s slight of hand, Al Wefaq and Waad received minor representation in an oversight committee that includes officials implicated in the BICI. Attempting to keep pace with the street protesters who automatically rejected King Hamad’s inquiry as propaganda, Al Wefaq is gradually bringing its message into popular alignment. Senior member Khalil Marzooq used the government’s self-admission of abuses to demand the government’s resignation; Munira Fakro of Wa'ad described the committee as "expensive window dressing."

Rather than address the grievances of Bahrain's Shia opposition, U.S. policy is geared towards shutting down the island's uprising. Friday was symbolic of this policy: in front of King Hamad, and behind Bahrain’s political and tactical environment.

[Additional reading: How Bahrain Works Washington]

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