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Mar 5, 2013 | Publications

Some foreign ministries are quite keen to mark anniversaries.  Solemn tones can be invoked, momentous events recalled, official steps in according historical weight taken (and the process of historical revisionism begun.)

Already in 2013, the U.S. Department of State marked the tenth anniversary of the international day of zero tolerance to female genital mutilation/cutting (February 5); the two year anniversary of the arrests of opposition leaders in Iran and the anniversary of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination (both February 14); the anniversary of Kuwait’s liberation from Iraq in 1991 and the anniversary of ten years of war in Darfur, Sudan (both February 26).

The two-year anniversary of the abortive uprising in Bahrain on February 14 passed without such public commemoration by official Washington.  The State Department did issue a brief four-line press statement on January 22, welcoming the King of Bahrain’s “call to launch an inclusive, comprehensive political dialogue.”

Bahrain is a tiny, but unique country.  It is the only Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member state with a Shia Muslim majority, and was the GCC state closest to experiencing an Arab Spring revolution.  It has served as headquarters of the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf for six decades, has been designated a major non-NATO ally since 2002, and is, for the foreseeable future, the only viable home in the Gulf for the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

Like Djibouti, it is an inconvenient reminder of the autocratic nature of key Western allies.   Despite the deaths of protesters and a policeman in recent weeks, Bahrain’s “national consensus dialogue” continues.  In making sense of that process and for those interested in wider questions of regional stability, two recent reports on Bahrain are well worth attention.

In One Year Later: Assessing Bahrain’s Implementation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) Report, the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) finds that the Government of Bahrain has only fully implemented three of the BICI’s 26 recommendations, offered in the wake of the 2011 unrest.  The Government of Bahrain claims to have fulfilled 18 of the recommendations.

While POMED agrees that some more technical points, such as ensuring the National Security Agency (NSA) is restricted to intelligence gathering without law enforcement capabilities or powers of arrest (recommendation 1718) and that public order training for the public security forces is carried out in accordance with UN best practices (recommendation 1722c) have been implemented, other matters are incomplete.  Amongst these are: legislation to require the Attorney General to investigate claims of torture (recommendation 1719); establishment of a standing independent body to examine all claims of torture and excessive use of force (recommendation 1722b); and the integration of personnel from all communities (ie. the underrepresented Shia majority) in Bahrain into the security forces (recommendation 1722e).

POMED concludes: “it must be noted that despite extensive human rights training, police behavior remains brutal and excessive force pervasive. Human rights training cannot avert human rights abuses if the security forces do not implement what they have learned in practice…such trainings alone are likely insufficient to correct the behavior of security forces.”

In The Precarious Ally: Bahrain’s Impasse and U.S. Policy, Frederic Wehrey explains “a hardline faction has come to dominate the government of Bahrain’s response, framing the crisis as a security problem rather than a symptom of a broader political malaise that requires sweeping reforms.”

While in late 2011 the U.S. imposed some restrictions on defence assistance to Bahrain, Wehrey suggests this was ineffective and even counterproductive: “such restrictions had a negligible effect on the street. The regime was able to circumvent U.S. restrictions by purchasing small arms munitions from Brazil and China…the “pause” in arms sales engendered a current of distrust within the [Bahrain Defence Force] (BDF). Many in the BDF wondered why the institution was being punished when the overwhelming majority of abuses and deaths were caused by the regime’s internal security forces—the National Security Agency and the Ministry of Interior’s police forces.”

Wehrey argues for a re-think of the U.S.-Bahrain defence relationship, warning “the relationship may soon become a liability given the stalemate on reform, endemic violence, and mounting anti-Americanism.”


Aly Verjee is an Associate at the Security Governance Group.