POMED Notes: One Year after BICI, Bahrain’s Escalating Crisis and Options for U.S. Policy
On Friday, the Project on Middle East Democracy hosted a panel discussion on Bahrain entitled “One Year after BICI: Bahrain’s Escalating Crisis and Options for U.S. Policy.” Carl Gershman, the President of the National Endowment for Democracy, moderated the event, which featured a statement by Congressman James McGovern (D-MA) and remarks from Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch, Stephen McInerney of the Project on Middle East Democracy, and Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The discussion included an assessment of the Bahraini Government’s implementation of BICI reforms, as well as talk of internal Bahraini politics and the strategy of U.S. arms embargoes.
For full event notes continue reading, or click here for a PDF.
Rep. James McGovern pointed to POMED’s new report on the implementation of the BICI recommendations as evidence that the Bahraini government is not pursuing real reforms honestly and effectively. McGovern highlighted continued excessive force by police and security services, as well as impunity for high officials responsible for the violence. McGovern said that “a divided Bahrain will never be a reliable strategic partner for the U.S.,” nor will an unstable Bahrain serve as a regional bulwark against extremism and nefarious foreign influences. The congressman advocated halting the sale of military equipment to Bahrain until real reforms are implemented. The U.S. must be consistent on human rights with both our allies and our adversaries, McGovern argued. In response to several questions from the audience, McGovern cited a “growing consensus” in the U.S. Congress that there should be consequences for Bahrain’s continued crackdowns, possibly including a deal inspired by the recent Magnitsky bill for sanctions and restrictions on known human rights abusers in Bahrain. McGovern said that Iran is not the cause of the opposition and that it is impossible to blame Iran for peaceful grass-roots demonstrations in Bahrain.
Stephen McInerney began by summarizing POMED’s bleak assessment of progress towards the implementation of the BICI report recommendations. According to McInerney, the Government of Bahrain has only implemented three of the 26 recommendations laid out in the report, which was issued one year ago. Although 15 additional recommendations have been “partially implemented,” McInerney argued that “the spirit of the reforms” has generally been ignored. The government has made no progress on many of the most important issues over the past year, including holding perpetrators of the violence accountable, improving the behavior of police and security forces, establishing independent oversight bodies, and guaranteeing free expression and assembly. The government’s failure to address the BICI report recommendations is in fact only one part of a larger negative situation in Bahrain, which McInerney said is only getting worse.
Tom Malinowski said that Human Rights Watch shares POMED’s assessment of the BICI recommendations, but that “we should not talk about this report as though it guides the Government of Bahrain.” Rather, there is an important struggle underway within the royal family, and the hardliners are currently winning the policy debates. This has led to growing radicalization on both sides, including new threats from pro-regime Sunnis and accusation of treason against anyone willing to pursue compromises. The government-run press is also responsible for fomenting conspiracy theories and anti-U.S. rhetoric in Bahrain, which further poisons the atmosphere in Bahrain. Malinowski said that there are only three possible outcomes to the present impasse in Bahrain: a successful political dialogue that leads to compromise, a full-scale revolution that topples the monarchy, or a violent government crackdown against an attempted revolution. The American Fifth Fleet will be expelled in the latter two scenarios, which should lead the U.S. to support genuine political dialogue even more strongly, Malinowski argued. The U.S. should be actively engaged in minimizing hardliners in Bahrain and speaking out against dangerous anti-U.S. currents in the government press.
Frederic Wehrey identified three ways forward for the U.S. in Bahrain: relocating the Fifth Fleet and halting all security cooperation, maintaining the status quo partnership, or imposing clear conditions on future military aid. Wehrey said that the U.S. had previously failed at tying conditions to aid in 2011 and early 2012 because the conditions were not clear and the targets felt unduly penalized. Bahrain simply looked elsewhere for military assistance, and then the U.S. subsequently authorized military aid in 2012 in a poorly-planned and -executed initiative. Wehrey stressed the need for more foresight and planning when setting U.S. policy in Bahrain, especially when it comes to the Fifth Fleet. If the U.S. unilaterally pulls out of Bahrain, they will be deserting the opposition, Wehrey argued. The Fifth Fleet currently serves as a useful balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. must take advantage of this position, according to Wehrey.
In the Question and Answer session, Malinowski advocated integrating Shi’as into the Bahraini security apparatus but conceded that this was a difficult proposition. Malinowski pushed for confidence-building measures in the short-term while these larger reforms are being carried out. The panelists discussed foreign influences and interests in Bahrain, noting that Saudi Arabia especially has a large stake in the future of the country. Malinowski said that stronger U.S. support for the opposition in Bahrain will dispel the myth that the U.S. is supporting exclusively Sunni/Gulf interests in Arab Spring countries. McInerney noted that the Bahraini government has made public statements indicating that most or all BICI recommendations are already implemented, so there is little hope that the government will continue to make improvements in these areas. Indeed McInerney and Malinowski both viewed the human rights and political situation in Bahrain as steadily worsening.