POMED Notes: “Two Years Later: Prospects for Reform in Bahrain on the Anniversary of the Uprising”
The Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) and Freedom House co-hosted a panel discussion titled “Two Years Later: Prospects for Reform in Bahrain on the Anniversary of the Uprising.” The panel members were Frederic Wehrey, Senior Associate, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Mohammed al-Maskati, President, Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, and Maryam al-Khawaja, Acting President, Bahrain Center for Human Rights. The event was moderated by Charles Dunne, Director, Middle East and North Africa Programs, Freedom House, and opening remarks were given by Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN).
For full event notes continue reading, or click here for the PDF.
At the beginning of his opening statement, Rep. Keith Ellison acknowledged the recent death of 16-year-old Hussain al-Jaziri, who was killed by police the morning of the event. The congressman acknowledged the importance of the dialogue but urged the government of Bahrain to show seriousness by taking “real confidence building measures,” starting with the release of political prisoners Nabeel Rajab and Abdelhadi al-Khawaja. He discussed the role of the U.S., saying that he is committed to asking the American government to encourage meaningful and constructive dialogue in Bahrain, and that he would raise serious questions about keeping the 5th fleet in Bahrain if meaningful change does not happen. “I would like America to be firm on the side of human rights… in the long run it’s better for everyone,” he said.
Mohammed al-Maskati spoke following the congressman’s remarks. He focused on the violations of human rights by Bahraini security forces and the use of “repressive arms.” Al-Maskati played a video that depicted government forces firing tear gas on a gathering of people and then chasing and beating them with batons when they dispersed. He then went into specifics on the number of deaths around the country since the start of the uprising, citing the BICI report. Two more videos depicting the use of “repressive arms,” and police contempt for citizens, showed tear gas being fired into houses and a police officer slapping a man in the face after he failed to produce his identification card.
Maryam al-Khawaja spoke next. She began by emphasizing the importance of strong international condemnation of Bahrain’s blatant human rights abuses and described an emerging pattern where when one Gulf state violates human rights and receives no international criticism, the other Gulf states follow suit. In addressing the ongoing National Dialogue, al-Khawaja stated that “human rights and basic freedoms are not up for negotiation and they should not be used as a bargaining chip.” She then discussed the U.S.’ role in Bahrain, saying that “quiet diplomacy doesn’t work,” and that “it hasn’t worked in the past two years.” Al-Khawaja then urged the U.S. to “change the double standard” on human rights.
Frederic Wehery spoke last and focused on the future of Bahrain. He stated that the Sunni community will eventually become a problem for the regime when they start to realize the government’s claims of sectarian conflict are unfounded. He added that the idea of the Bahraini conflict as a “proxy contest” between Saudi Arabia and Iran “isn’t accurate,” despite the Bahraini government framing it that way. Wehery then discussed options for the U.S. government in dealing with Bahrain. He stated that if the U.S. is concerned about the stability of the regime and about the safety of American troops stationed in the country, “we need to act now.” He explained, “Anti-Americanism is growing… some Bahrainis now associate the crackdown with the U.S.” and he stated that “backroom channels… can only get us so far.” Wehery suggested that the U.S. prepare plans to move the 5th fleet, “to send a signal to this regime if we need to.”
A question and answer session followed the panelists’ presentations and the first question was asked by moderator Charles Dunne about the dynamics in Bahrain’s ruling family. Maryam al-Khawaja responded to the idea that the crown-prince is more moderate by saying that “the king loves using an iron fist” and the crown-prince uses tactics that aren’t as bad, however, “in the end, their goals are the same.
In a question about the nature of the protests Frederic Wehery noted that “the economic aspect is huge,” and al-Khawaja said “this is all about [the regime] keeping absolute power.” When asked about the regime’s support among the Bahraini people al-Khawaja said that she wasn’t worried about more people siding with the regime and that “the pillars of support that need to change are the pillars of support internationally.” She added that the U.S. and U.K. would be doing themselves a favor if they encouraged democratic change because “the situation is not sustainable.”