POMED Notes: “Bahrain: The Forgotten Uprising in the Arab Spring”
On Tuesday, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted Maryam al-Khawaja, Head of Foreign Relations at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Al-Khawaja discussed the human rights violations that have accompanied the Government of Bahrain’s crackdown on popular protests. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.
For full event notes, continue reading. Or, click here for the PDF.
Al-Khawaja began her presentation by outlining the recent events in Bahrain. She noted that the “situation is deteriorating,” and “we are on very thin ice right now.” The recent trials of activists jailed and abused for participating in protests violated international standards of a fair trial. Possibly the most alarming trend, al-Khawaja added, is the government’s “escalation” of the situation through sustained repression, imprisonments, and human rights violations. Not only have government tactics escalated, but protestors have also responded in-kind, ramping up their activities. In light of this recent escalation, as evidenced by life sentences against activists, al-Khawaja said there is not “much hope.” Previously, government initiatives like the National Dialogue and the Independent Commission of Inquiry had offered hope, but al-Khawaja says that both bodies have lost credibility.
Following her description of events on the ground, al-Khawaja addressed the response of the international community, saying it reflects a “double standard.” Influential international bodies like the United Nations Human Rights Council have not imposed the same penalties on Bahrain as were seen in Libya, for instance. This discrepancy is alarming, al-Khawaja argued, as Bahrain has exhibited the highest per-capita number of arrests during the crackdown, as well as the second highest per-capita number of deaths. A lack of firm repudiation of these actions by the United States has prompted growing hostility toward the U.S. administration and has perpetuated a general feeling that the country simply is not interested in the Bahraini situation. In particular, the proposed $53 million arms deal between the U.S. and Bahrain has fueled the idea that the U.S. is “directly complicit” in the ongoing human rights violations in Bahrain. Al-Khawaja emphasized that political issues are of secondary importance, and that the preservation of human rights is paramount. Continued international silence on Bahrain, she warned, could spark a more violent conflict with the potential to spread across the region.
Esfandiari started the question and answer session by inquiring about the roles of Iran and Saudi Arabia in Bahrain. Al-Khawaja asserted that since the 1920′s, the Government of Bahrain has sought scapegoats in “whatever is seen as the international threat” in order to galvanize Bahraini society into siding with the regime, and that Iran is simply the latest target. Al-Khawaja emphasized that “there is no evidence of Iranian involvement” in Bahrain, and furthermore, that she does not know any Bahraini who desires an Iranian-type government. Meanwhile, the concentration on Iran’s influence has distracted from Saudi Arabia’s role in Bahrain. Saudi Arabia’s troops are still present in Bahrain after being deployed to “squash peaceful protests.” “Unless these troops leave Bahrain,” al-Khawaja added, “we will not be able to see progress on the ground.” She urged the international community to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its actions, especially its role as the leader of a regional counterrevolution.
In response to a question about why the international community has met the Bahraini situation with silence, al-Khawaja listed Saudi influence and the presence of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. While security interests are often cited as justification for U.S. silence, al-Khawaja argued that if the situation were to continue unresolved, then the international community will see “much more of a security threat” than is currently present. Al-Khawaja added that “the situation in Bahrain is not about sectarian issues. It is about a legitimate demand for human rights.”
Al-Khawaja then spoke about Bahraini discourse regarding Saudi economic assistance, saying that protesters are mostly uninterested in economic issues, as their grievances entailed demands for “human dignity,” a call around which “people of all factions” rallied. At the same time, Bahrainis have realized that economic pressure is an effective means of threatening the government. Attempts to injure the economy, however, may also alienate some Bahraini citizens, particularly those who “were moderate,” and have sided with the government in light of the economic disruption sparked by the uprising.
The role of the U.S. is exploited both by protesters and pro-government Bahrainis. While the opposition claims that the U.S. has not done enough to aid their cause, the pro-government camp alleges that the “U.S. is partnering with Iran and the protesters to overthrow the government,” al-Khawaja said. As a result of the widening gap between the regime and dissidents, al-Khawaja observed that “we’re not in a situation where people can sit at a table and talk.” Before any dialogue between the government and the opposition can be legitimate, human rights violations must stop. In response to the question of how the U.S. can act so as to take action to stop these abuses without alienating a valuable U.S. ally, al-Khawaja answered that the U.S. can rest on “the basics.” In other words, the U.S. can center its response on human rights.
Esfandiari concluded with a question about the role of women in the Bahraini uprising, and al-Khawaja noted that women have remained “very strong” and “outspoken” in the face of the crackdown. They exercised a “huge role in the Pearl Square,” giving speeches and reciting poetry. Al-Khawaja noted that in most of the protests, 50 percent of participants were women. As a result, the counterrevolution has begun to target women. The Ministry of the Interior, she added, released a statement claiming that opposition leaders were exploiting women through protest activities and “asking families to keep women at home.” Nonetheless, women continue to participate.
Finally, al-Khawaja described daily life in Bahrain, saying that “people are basically living in terror,” as nightly raids and abuses by the security forces persist. The crackdown has “had a huge impact physically” as well as “psychologically” on the Bahraini people. She added that it is “remarkable” that protesters have remained peaceful, but she was unsure how long these peaceful tactics would continue.