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Balancing Bahrain’s human rights and security concerns

February 22, 2017 at 5:46 pm

Six years have passed since Bahrain witnessed an “uprising” that engulfed the small Gulf nation, inspired by calls for regime change across the Arab world. The Sunni monarchy quashed the protesting masses which were spearheaded by the Shia opposition Al-Wefaq party. However, protests still continue and the state maintains its heavy-handed policy in tackling dissent.

A few days ago, two civilians were reportedly wounded in Manama when an explosion went off during an anti-government demonstration. Earlier in July and August last year, other bombings in Sitra and Karannah killed three police officers.

Continuing abuses

Amnesty International’s 2015-2016 annual report highlighted the Bahraini government’s human rights failures. The human rights group said authorities in the country revoked the citizenship of over 200 Bahrainis accused of involvement in acts of terror, restricted Bahrainis’ rights to freedom of expression and assembly by prosecuting activists over what they wrote on social media sites and cracking down on those demonstrating against the detention of their relatives, while senior officials investigated following the crackdown on activists in 2011 were either acquitted or served short sentences.

Legitimate fears

There is no denying Iran saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity to spread Khomeini’s revolution to the region, oft-sung by its advocates as a model for a people’s resistance against the hegemony of the great power of the US.

Iran for years has been famed for defying the American and Israeli hegemonies, drawing sympathy from opponents of the US worldwide. However, Iran’s rhetoric of exporting its revolution forced the Sunni-dominated Arabian Gulf states to up the ante, not least of which was Bahrain. Upon the accession of Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979, the Iranian republic declared Bahrain as its 14th province, and so is it deemed by Iran to this day.

The proxy forces behind Iran’s prominence in the region are notorious for being multinational groups, trained by military experts at home or overseas, particularly in Lebanon, where Iran’s closest and strongest ally, Hezbollah, operates. Unsurprisingly, in mid-2016, these fears were substantiated when Hezbollah was blamed for the 1996 Khobar Towers truck bombing which killed 19 US military personnel at an airbase in Saudi Arabia.

The increasing influence of the Iranian “expeditions” in conflict hotspots as far as Syria and Yemen, and especially in Iraq, causes fear in Bahrain. The regional interference and the connection with violence found bitter criticism at home. Maryam Rajavi, a national leader of the struggle for democracy in Iran, expressed the aims and practices of Tehran in Syria in harsh terms, pointing fingers at it for the mounting threat of extremist ISIS-style groups. She went further as to accuse the Iranian regime of being “the source of crisis in the region and killings in Syria; it has played the greatest role in the expansion and continuation of [Daesh].”

Western pressure for reform

International actions towards a more inclusive environment have not achieved their desired effect since the 2011 crackdown. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein said in June 2016 regarding the government’s revocation of the citizenship of Bahraini opponents: “Repression will not eliminate people’s grievances, it will increase them.”

The statement was received by Bahraini officials with anger and a much resolved position that the country’s security is paramount. The foreign minister, Khalid Al Khalifa, at the time tweeted: “We will not allow the undermining of our security and stability and will not waste our time listening to the words of a high commissioner who is powerless.”

Britain was among the Western countries that stepped in with material pro-democracy and consultative support towards government reforms in its Gulf ally. Foreign Office data revealed that, in 2016, the UK spent £2.1m under a “reform assistance” package aimed at upgrading Bahraini security. The programmes were stated to be benefitting from UK experience and best practice.

Nonetheless, British human rights groups expressed outrage and regret over the increasingly poorer record of Bahraini violations and increased torture against dissidents, warning that the UK might be complicit in abuses due to its support.

Beyond the sectarian divide

Iran may have felt at ease, empowered following its nuclear pact with the previous US administration under Barack Obama, with the ban on international trade and capital being lifted in part. However, US President Donald Trump’s critiques of the agreement should not be understood by the Bahraini monarchy and media alike as a pro-Sunni position and, subsequently, a call to toughen its security measures against the Shia opposition.

Of course, the White House may be seeking to restore stability to their Sunni friends in the Gulf, thus counterbalancing Iranian ascendency. But Bahrain should seek its interests, which lie in containing its peoples through broadening the space of political freedoms, just as the Americans want their interests in Bahrain preserved, as the country hosts the US Fifth Fleet.

It’s time for Bahrain to loosen its grip over opposition parties and stop labelling them as terrorists without addressing their democratic capacity. Bahrain’s religious diversity should not be a reason for regional sectarianism being played out between Sunnis and Shias. Thinking in a sectarian manner will only provide radical groups the fodder they need to adhere to violence. The government should learn from bi-sectarian peaceful Oman, where Sunnis and Ibadis live together in harmony.

Just as the country moved forward in its economic reforms, with an oil dependent economy qualifying as the freest in the region, it is time to give an independent model for a freer polity. If the Bahraini government wants to advance human rights and maintain security, and lead in economic development, it should readdress its security measures against opposition members, capitalise on multicultural diversity, and create a social fabric strong enough to bear both the Sunni and Shia.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.