Charlottesville, Virginia - Arab League names Bahrain as destination for the Pan-Arab Human Rights Court in the midst of increasing limitations to freedom of assembly and on-going talks between the Saudi supported government and Shia opposition forces over political reform
Charlottesville, Virginia – Arab League names Bahrain as destination for the Pan-Arab Human Rights Court in the midst of increasing limitations to freedom of assembly and on-going talks between the Saudi supported government and Shia opposition forces over political reform
As the debate over diplomatic solutions and possible military intervention in Syria continues, developments in other countries have taken a second place in international news. However, one event struck me as particularly interesting and especially nonexistent in the US media: Bahrain has been chosen to host a pan-Arab human rights court. This choice was made at an Arab League meeting in Cairo and announced by the official Bahrain News Agency at the beginning of September.
Aljazeera English cited the Bahrain foreign minister as saying that “The initiative to establish the court stems from the King’s firm belief in the importance of human rights and basic human liberties,” which was naturally met with much criticism from human rights activists in the country, as well as internationally, after King Hamad Al-Khalifa went to the Gulf Council Cooperation (GCC) to seek help in smothering Bahrain’s political uprisings in 2011. Protests broke out in the country’s capital Manama, in Pearl Square, during the early months of the Arab Spring, calling for greater political freedoms and an end to the royal family’s absolute power. As a response to the King’s request at the GCC, both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent troops in to suppress the peaceful protestors.
The US and Gulf countries; a marriage of convenience
The subsequent crackdown on human rights defenders, as well as medical professionals that treated the protestors, has become infamous and a stain on the country’s reputation. However, as Maryam AlKhawaja, the acting head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, argued, the lack of criticism from major western governments is nothing new.
“The Gulf states are not held accountable for their human rights abuses. No one will take this seriously. For them to have a court such as this is a slap in the face to those who have documented abuses in Bahrain, for which there have been no consequences.” She was quoted as saying by Aljazeera English. In other words, the choice of Bahrain as the locale for the pan-Arab Human Rights Courts and the lack of debate over this choice among both Arab and western governments represents a status-quo event of hypocritical hype—which all too often characterizes western relations with Gulf countries, epitomized by the US-Saudi alliance.
As the Shia majority called for political change against a Saudi allied Sunni monarchy, the United States found itself attempting to formulate a “diplomatic” response to the widespread violence, arrest and imprisonment of activists and doctors, and the Saudi led military crackdown in the country. The monument in the Pearl Square was also torn down, in an attempt to emphasize the royal family’s iron fist backed by a legion of supporting GCC-sanctioned tanks.
Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa claimed that the demolition of the monument, signifying the nation’s history as a location of pearl diving and a symbol of Arab Spring revolutionary fervor against autocracy, was an exercise in “restoring law and order” in typical despotic fashion.
US reaction to the crackdown was especially dismissal, even compared to the reactionary positions taken by officials as dictators were taken down in both Tunisia and Egypt. “Stunned” US officials advised Bahrain to show “restraint” after a particularly violent suppression of protests in April 2011. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed the government to quickly initiate a reform process that “advances the rights and aspirations of all the citizens of Bahrain.” Yet the US government never recalled its ambassador or mentioned the threat of sanctions, and this was at the height of the Arab Spring’s revolutionary zeal. In the over two years since this bloody event, the US has remained more or less silent on the subject of oppression in the island kingdom. The reason for this, of course, relates to the government’s general relationship with Gulf countries as a regional supplier of oil, an ally against hostile governments such as Iran and Syria’s Al-Assad, and the strategic significance of Bahrain in particular, as the location of the United States Fifth Naval Fleet.
The Tamarod Bahrain Movement
Mobilization against the Bahrain government has nonetheless continued in various forms for the last two and a half years, and the country’s own Tamarod movement was begun by activists on August 14th of this year. The government’s response to this initiative was a series of draconian laws restricting the freedom of assembly, to such a point that it was essentially a fiction, while also threatening to remove citizenship rights and apply severe sentences to opposition party members.
In reaction to these oppressive security measures, Tamarod Bahrain Movement leader Hussein Youssef told the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir that “Aug. 14 marked the launch of a political project that will endure no matter how complicated the security situation becomes, because our reliance is on the strategy of popular street action, which does not end even if the movement’s leadership is arrested.”
Regional influences on government-opposition talks
After a two month break in talks between the Bahraini opposition and government officials, they were reignited again on August 28, with a mind to both the domestic and regional situation. The sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict, especially the intensified Sunni Shia dichotomy, has strong implications on talks between the government and the opposition in Bahrain. A former Bahraini opposition member of Parliament, Abdulhadi Khalaf, who was also stripped of his citizenship by Bahrain’s King this year, described this dynamic to al-Monitor:
“The longer the Syrian crisis goes on, the bigger its implications for Bahrain. Inciting against the Alawites in Syria goes hand-in-hand with demonizing the Shiites in Bahrain….Before the Arab Spring, no one in Bahrain, no matter how arrogant, would have dared to call the opposition apostates. But that is normal today. The incitement campaigns aimed at raising funds or recruiting militants to fight in Syria have catalyzed and hardened the discourse of sectarian confrontation. Resolving the crisis in Syria through a regional and international agreement (Geneva II, for example) would make it easier to propose the same mechanism to resolve the crisis in Bahrain.”
On September 4, Bahrain’s justice minister issued an edict making it illegal for political groups to meet with foreign diplomats without state permission. Such a move was ostensibly seen as a mechanism to prevent any communication between domestic organizations and foreign governments, which could potentially challenge the royal family’s power. As talks continue between government and opposition members, the specter of sectarianism in Syria continues to cast a shadow over the proceedings and affect the willingness of the government to offer compromise with the Shia opposition groups. While the opposition groups aim for an inclusive settlement on political reform in Bahrain, one that incorporates all of the Kingdom’s diverse groups, some experts claim that the government is exploiting the regional fears of sectarianism from Syria to more or less bully the opposition into more concessions.
Western reactions to Bahrain’s crackdown
While the US continues to refrain from commenting on the discussion of reform in Bahrain, and doesn’t seem likely to change the location of its Fifth fleet anytime soon, the European Parliament issued a rather explicit resolution concerning the recent crackdown on civil liberties and protests, arguing that “The legitimate right of Bahraini citizens to express their opinions freely, organise gatherings and demonstrate peacefully must be respected.” The resolution passed in the European Parliament on Thursday, calling on the government to end “all acts of repression, release all prisoners of conscience, and respect the rights of juveniles.” The resolution also cited the need for the Ministry of Human Rights and Social Development to act in “accordance with international human rights standards and obligations.” Time will tell if the Bahraini government is serious about finding a solution to the opposition’s demands, a solution that quells sectarian divides instead of exploiting and intensifying them.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy
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