Obama Administration Should Raise Human Rights Concerns at Manama Dialogue
Washington, D.C. – Human Rights First today urged the U.S. delegation to the Manama Dialogue to publicly raise concern over heightened sectarianism and ongoing human rights abuses in the Arab Gulf nations that are part of the coalition to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Manama Dialogue multilateral security conference is set to take place on December 5-7 in Bahrain.
“With escalating U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Syria and continuing serious unrest in several other countries in the Gulf region, this year’s Dialogue will take place at an especially sensitive moment,” said Human Rights First’s Brian Dooley. “As delegates to the conference discuss improving operational alliances in the fight agains ISIS, it is crucial that the United States make clear that its long-term security interests depend on its allies, including Bahrain, moving toward stable, more representative governments that respect the basic rights and freedoms of their people.”
Much of the financial support for violent extremist groups in Syria came from sources in the Arab Gulf region, encouraged by regional governments that saw in the Syrian conflict an opportunity to push back against Iranian influence by supporting an armed revolt against Iran’s ally, the regime of Bashar al-Assad. These governments now see it as in their interest to fight against the radicalism of ISIS, but their willingness to exploit sectarian divisions to advance political objectives remains a problem for the United States as it works to build an effective coalition to counter violent extremism at the regional level.
These concerns are especially acute in Bahrain, where the government, along with its backers in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council states, has stoked sectarian divisions in order to discredit the Bahraini opposition and secure the al-Khalifa monarchy’s grip on power. The Bahraini military, equipped largely by the U.S. government, is made up almost exclusively of recruits from the minority Sunni sect. Having such an unrepresentative security force helps to legitimize sectarianism and fuels popular grievances. From the early days of the Bahrain protests in 2011, the Bahraini government and its supporters have portrayed opposition protests as a zero-sum game where Shi’ite protesters, backed by Iran, are seeking to take away power from Bahrain’s current Sunni ruling elite, thereby undermining the protesters’ calls for more representative government and human rights.
“Washington’s uncritical support for repressive military allies runs the risk of encouraging the spread of the same type of violent religious extremism is seeks to counter,” added Dooley.
In recent months the Bahraini government has ramped up its crackdown on human rights defenders and peaceful opposition groups. Just this week, prominent human rights defender Maryam Al Khawaja was sentenced in absentia to one year in prison on politically-motivated charges. Her sister Zainab Al Khawaja is due to hear a court verdict on December 4 on charges of tearing up a picture of the king. Many peaceful opposition leaders jailed during the 2011 protests remain in prison, and Bahrain continues to jail those peacefully expressing their views including those who criticize the ruling monarchy on Twitter. Human Rights First continues to urge the U.S. government to publicly press the Bahraini regime to release its political prisoners.