Ambassador Nominee States Intent to Flout Bahrain Law on Meeting Opposition
It was a question I was hoping for. At yesterday’s Senate Foreign Releations Committee hearing for Bill Roebuck, President Obama’s nominee to be the new U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain, Senator Rubio (R-FL) asked if, as ambassador, he would abide by the Bahraini law that forbids representatives of foreign governments from meeting with opposition figures without the presence of a Bahraini government official.
It’s a highly charged, sensitive issue that goes to the heart of what some members of the Bahraini regime feel is inappropriate meddling by the United States in its internal affairs. Others, however, believe that it violates international standards for diplomats and prevents them from doing their jobs.
In July, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski was expelled from Bahrain after meeting opposition members from the political group Al Wefaq. Current U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain Tom Krajeski has been attacked in the Bahrain’s state media and by its government for similar “interference” in internal issues.
Here’s the exchange:
Senator Rubio: If and when, as I anticipate you will be, you are confirmed as Ambassador of the United States, do you plan to comply with this requirement that they have a government representative anytime we meet with members of an opposition party?
Roebuck: No sir, Senator Rubio, we’ve made it clear to the Bahraini government that this is an unacceptable condition. It’s not only unacceptable in Bahrain, it’s worldwide. There are established diplomatic protocols for such meetings—and we use those types of—we expect compliance with those types of international norms in our meetings worldwide and that goes for Bahrain also.
Video of the hearing is here, and the question is at 1:14:23
Good for you, Bill Roebuck. Kowtowing to such a ridiculous law would send entirely the wrong signal to Bahrain and to other countries who might be tempted to copy them. This law is an effort to restrict the space that the political opposition or civil society can function in.
His was the right answer, but it triggers another question – if he’s confirmed in a vote by the U.S. Senate, how will the Bahraini regime respond to the arrival of an ambassador who has publicly declared his intent to break its law? This could further strain the already difficult diplomatic relationship. In addition to Malinowski’s expulsion, Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) was also denied entry to Bahrain last month (along with me.) And news of last week’s arrest of human rights defender Maryam al Khawaja has been met with alarm by some members of Congress. (See Senator Kaine ask Roebuck what the State Department is doing on her case at 44:15)
A letter urging Maryam’s release was signed by the co-chairs of the U.S. Congress Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, Congressman McGovern and Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA).
It’s unclear when or if Malinowski will be going back to Bahrain, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Bahrain government reacts to Roebuck’s arrival now that he’s stated he intends to ignore its law.