Bahraini Foreign Minister Al-Khalifa convenes with Michael Posner, U.S. Assistant State Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Last Wednesday in Geneva, Switzerland, the United Nations Human Rights Council opened its doors for a day of comedy and political theater. Among the orders of business at the UNHRC's 21st Session: a list of 176 recommendations to help Bahrain's monarchy "improve the treatment of political activists, offer fair trials and ensure religious freedom." Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohammed Al Khalifa was on hand to play his part, gladly accepting the majority of recommendations as though he was being handed a trophy for model governance.
“Our actions, more than our words, should dispel any doubts regarding my government’s commitment to upholding human rights through the rule of law,” he said. “Let us follow the path of dialogue, not propaganda.”
Accordingly, Bahrainis shouldn't follow their Foreign Minister's trail of disinformation. In terms of strategy and tactics, however, one must give credit where credit is due. One of many pawns deployed by King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, Bahrain's Foreign Minister would participate in a full-scale information attack simultaneously coordinated with and directed against the international community. The King led his own assault on the UNHRC's Universal Periodic Review (UPR), "hailing the approval of the Periodic Review Report as a landmark national achievement for Bahraini people and evidence reflecting the international community’s vote of confidence for the Kingdom’s reform steps and commitment to its international obligations." Numerous ministers (and ally Saudi Arabia) rallied behind him to exploit Bahrain's guinea pig status, lauding the country's commitment to human rights amid the open wound of a suppressive counterrevolution. Foreign Minister Al-Khalifa, for example, placed UNHRC Commissioner Navy Pillay in his pocket when "affirming Bahrain’s keenness on continuing the reform process."
Also entering the fray: the hawkish uncle of King Hamad and Prime Minister of 41 years, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa.
A leading critic of Bahrain's democratic uprising, the Premier, "described the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC)'s approval of the kingdom's Universal Periodic Review report as an honorable international legal achievement and a new proof of the government's success in every field, especially regarding the protection of human rights and dignity, stressing that it is a positive and explicit response to the attempts to distort Bahrain's rich legal record."
Given these statements and the accumulation of repression since February 2011, Bahrain's monarchy is demonstrably committed to human rights - abuses. The regime's pushback against abolishment of the death penalty illustrates the absurd focus of its public defense. This amplified debate conveniently ignores the fact that fair trials and political freedom remain scarce commodities within Bahrain's opposition, especially when many opposition leaders and their supporters reside in prison cells. Weeks ago a Bahrain High Court struck down a group of activists' appeals and charged them with plotting an Iranian-sponsored coup. Only one defendant had the latter charge dropped; he was suspected of organizing "40 warships Iran was planning to send to Bahrain to support an attempted coup."
Meanwhile Nabeel Rajab, possibly the country's foremost democratic activist, has been jailed for three years (for instigating protests) and abused in prison as he awaits a hollow appeals process. Zainab Al-Khawaja joins her father, opposition leader Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, in prison after being arrested for staging a solitary protest in Manama. She has been jailed at least six times since February 2011 and physically beaten on more than one occasion. Since these efforts to decapitate the opposition's leadership have failed to stop the streets from mobilizing, the oppositional Al Wefaq has also been banned from holding large-scale protests in the capital and is now being threatened with a government lawsuit. Many of its ranking members, including Secretary-General Ali Salman, have already been assaulted on the streets and at their homes.
All those who protest against Hamad's rule continue to labor under a gassy, black-clad curtain of security repression. Maryam Al Khawaja, Zainab's sister and acting president of Rajab's Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), warned from the UNHRC's sidelines: "Use of excessive force is still a tool for suppressing daily protests, with unprecedented use of tear gas during protests and inside residential areas."
"The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) released their report on the 23rd of November, 2011 which was unwavering in its criticism of the regime’s conduct, and highlights the systematic torture, human rights violations, and a culture of impunity which characterized the government’s handling of the protests," reads the BCHR's latest account of human rights violations. "King Hamad vowed to address and correct these violations, but to date these promises have proven to be empty. Almost one year has passed since the publication of the BICI report, and the people of Bahrain have seen no progress, and no peace."
The inability of Bahrain's monarchy to join its words with actions forced a slightly sharper tone from Washington during Wednesday's session. Addressing the UNHCR on behalf of America was Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and de facto ambassador during Bahrain's uprising. Posner welcomed the government's initial steps to reform and pursue accountability before saying that "much more needs to be done," even criticizing police for overreacting to protesters and "using excessive force." This cycle drives peaceful and military resistance alike, and must be ended in order for Bahrain to stabilize.
"The government showed great courage last year in commissioning and accepting the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report, implementation of which 13 states recommended during the review," Posner told the UNHRC. "Ten months after the release of the report, however, we are concerned that the government is losing momentum on implementation."
Yet Washington as a whole has no intention of altering relations with Bahrain, and Posner's own statement is riddled with disinformation. While "encouraged to see the diverse representation from Bahraini civil society," he probably didn't speak with Al-Khawaja or other activists in attendance; Al Wefaq reacted by calling Bahrain the "graveyard of human rights." Nor does Posner, who is accustomed to issuing double-sided statements in favor of the government, mention the imprisonment of Rajab, Zainab, her father or any other activist. In the short-term, the Obama administration continues to appeal for "an environment where the society can engage in a meaningful dialogue or negotiation over its political future." Problematically, the conditions for dialogue simply do not exist.
"We're going to need a little more time to convince the UK government that they actually need to do more about stopping the human rights violations," Maryam said after meeting with Britain's Foreign Office. "They believe in using the diplomatic methods, of putting pressure on the Bahraini government, but it's been obvious after one year and a half of continuing violations that the diplomatic method is not working so we have to start looking at what does work."
This warning is more applicable to Washington than London - except who will listen when she expresses personal support for King Hamad's trial?
Longer term, regional developments will continue to trump Bahrain's democratic actors until they can directly alter the island's political situation and demand more accountability from the U.S. Posner would add afterward, "A stable, democratic healthy Bahrain, one where human rights issues are dealt with appropriately, is a country that's going to be a strong ally and we need that." Translation: Washington needs Manama to placate the opposition's desire for equal representation without ceding political power. The U.S. "values the strong security relationship" with Bahrain, home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, "particularly in light of things going on in the Gulf now." It's no coincidence that King Hamad met with CENTCOM commander James Mattis following the UNHRC's session.
If anyone is fooled by these statements, the monarchy and its allies have pulled more wool over their own eyes than Bahrain's opposition.