Obama Administration Should Raise Human Rights Concerns During Conference of Coalition to Counter ISIL in Bahrain

Washington, D.C. – Human Rights First today urged the Obama Administration to publicly raise concern over the Bahraini government’s ongoing human rights abuses as the Kingdom hosts Sunday’s international conference of the global coalition to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The call came in a letter to Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL General John Allen, asking him to ensure that those leading the U.S. Delegation to the conference press the Bahraini government to cooperate with international efforts to promote respect for human rights in Bahrain, express public support for human rights defenders suffering persecution and repression due to their work, and draw attention to the continuing systematic discrimination suffered by Bahrain’s majority Shi’ite population.

“We are concerned that in forging close operational alliances with Arab states—states that have resisted popular demands for more inclusive, representative government and restricted the basic rights and freedoms of their peoples—the United States runs the risk of encouraging the spread of the violent extremism that it seeks to counter,” wrote Human Rights First President and CEO Elisa Massimino. “Uncritical support for repressive and non-inclusive regimes, such as the Bahraini monarchy, will undermine your efforts to build an effective international coalition to counter ISIL.”

In recent months, the Bahraini government has ramped up its crackdown on human rights defenders and peaceful opposition groups. Prominent human rights defenders Maryam Al Khawaja, Nabeel Rajab, and Zainab Al Khawaja are currently awaiting verdicts on politically-motivated charges. Last week, a Bahraini court suspended the opposition group al Wefaq, whose members are boycotting the upcoming November 22 parliamentary elections in protest. 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.

The government of Bahrain, 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 Bahrain 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.

“Heightened sectarianism is one of the major drivers of the type of violent religious extremism epitomized by ISIL. Therefore, we believe it is imperative that the United States send a clear message to participating governments from the region at the conference in Bahrain that fueling sectarianism is not an acceptable response to legitimate demands for political reform,” wrote Massimino.


Published on November 6, 2014


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