Five Years After Failed Uprisings for Democratic Reform, New Blueprint Recommends United States Change Course in Bahrain

Washington, D.C. – To mark the fifth anniversary of the brutal government crackdown on mass protests calling for democratic reform in Bahrain on February 14, Human Rights First today released a new blueprint that examines conditions in Bahrain, the strengths and shortcomings of the U.S. response, and potential opportunities for the U.S. government to support civil society and strengthen respect for human rights. The blueprint, “How to Reverse Five Years of Failure on Bahrain,” draws on dozens of interviews with Bahraini human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists, academics, families of detainees, lawyers, U.S. government officials, and others. Despite repeated requests for permission to access Bahrain, Human Rights First has been denied entry to the country since 2012.


“On the fifth anniversary of the mass protests in Bahrain that threatened to bring down the country’s autocratic regime, Bahrainis continue to suffer severe repression and political instability,” wrote Human Rights First’s Brian Dooley, who authored today’s blueprint. “Many in Bahrain and across the region view the Obama Administration as supportive of the repressive leadership in Manama, which is rendering Bahrain less stable, undermining U.S. efforts to prevent violent extremism, and further damaging Washington’s credibility in the region.”


The blueprint outlines key missteps in U.S. policy in Bahrain since the 2011 uprising, which include failing to back up rhetoric in support of human rights and civil society with action, and decisions to downplay these priorities in favor of short-term military objectives. Human Rights First’s interviews with Bahraini activists and civil society leaders revealed an enduring human rights crisis in the country, marked by denial of basic rights including freedom of association, assembly, and expression, arbitrary arrests and torture of human rights activists and opposition leaders, and a failure to hold senior officials accountable  for the torture and killings that occurred during the 2011 crackdown.


Recommendations for the U.S. government in today’s blueprint include:

  • Senior U.S. government officials should publicly reaffirm President Obama’s call to Bahrain in May 2011 that “The only way forward is for the government and the opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.”
  • The White House should convene all relevant agency officials to conduct a thorough review of the bilateral relationship with Bahrain, in consultation with international and Bahraini civil society organizations. This review should examine the full range of U.S. engagement with and influence on Bahrain—including bilateral military cooperation and arms sales, security assistance and training, as well as the U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement, and the presidential memorandum on support for civil society, and targeted sanctions.
  • The U.S. ambassador should publicly state whether or not trials of political opponents and human rights activists observed by U.S. government officials meet international standards.
  • The State Department should promote its March 2013 guidelines, “U.S. Support for Human Rights Defenders,” and all relevant agencies should promote the September 2014 presidential directive on supporting civil society. They should be featured in Arabic  and English on the U.S. Embassy website in Bahrain.
  • The White House and Defense Department should withhold further arms sales and transfers to the police and military, contingent on human rights progress, starting with a request for the current representation levels of Shi’as in the police and military to be made publicly available along with recruitment and promotion targets for under-represented groups.
  • Members of Congress should support S.2009 and H.R.3445, a bipartisan bill that would ban the sale of small arms and ammunition to Bahrain until the government fully implements all 26 recommendations made by the 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI).

“Five years after Bahrain’s popular uprising began, the country’s human rights situation has worsened, and there has been no progress towards democracy. It is governed by a repressive regime that the Obama Administration has decided to support even though the current political conditions harm not only Bahraini but also U.S. interests. The U.S. government needs to fundamentally shift its approach and put human rights at the core of its relationship with Bahrain,” wrote Dooley.


Published on February 11, 2016


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