Arms sales to Bahrain under the scanner

As Bahrain’s human rights record is probed, the US postpones a proposed weapons deal with the troubled Gulf state.

Bahrain king
 The Obama administration has told lawmakers to delay a $53m arms deal to the island kingdom of Bahrain [EPA]

After a false alarm announcing that a proposed $53m arms sale to Bahrain would be authorised, the Obama administration backtracked and postponed final approval of the sale pending a review of the findings of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) established on June 29. The BICI’s report was expected to be issued on October 30. But King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa authorised a delay until November 23. The commission’s mandate is to “engage in fact finding” and to compile a contextualised narrative of the events during the movement for democratic reforms in February and March. It will also determine if suppression of the movement involved human rights violations.

The commission includes several respected figures in the international human rights field. But the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights has already criticised its proceedings. On August 15 demonstrators, including workers dismissed for engaging in a general strike in March organised by the “Return to Work is My Right” group, stormed the offices of the BICI, forcing its closure.

If the proceedings of the Bahrain National Dialogue convened on July 1 and related developments are any indicator, the BICI report, whatever its conclusions, is unlikely to lead to substantive reforms. Before the initial session of the national dialogue, US Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner visited Bahrain to encourage the government to speak with its opposition. But soon after it began, the Shia-oriented al-Wefaq, the largest political opposition group in Bahrain, and the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions withdrew from the national dialogue. They claimed that regime supporters refused to include their grievances, including the rehiring of fired workers, on the agenda.

Last February 27, al-Wefaq’s 18 parliamentary representatives (out of a total parliamentary membership of 40) resigned to protest suppression of the democracy movement. Parliamentary by-elections were held to replace them on September 24, an indication that the monarchy is not inclined to engage in meaningful dialogue with its most substantial opposition. 

The Obama administration is well-aware of Bahrain’s violent repression of the movement for democratic reforms. In a Middle East policy address given in May, the president pointedly stated that, “mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens.” In a much sharper expression of displeasure, in June, the US ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council included Bahrain in a list of countries requiring the special attention of the Council for violating human rights, along with Iran, Burma, North Korea and Zimbabwe. Ambassador Donahoe told the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that Bahrain “has arbitrarily detained medical workers and others perceived as opponents”. Nonetheless, these characterisations are polite diplomatic understatements.

Harsh treatment

Some of the ammunition the military and police fired at non-violent pro-democracy protesters may very well have been made and supplied by the US.”

International human rights organisations estimate that since protests demanding democratic reforms began in February, at least 35 Bahrainis have been killed by armed forces of the regime and its allies, over 1,400 have been arrested, and as many as 2,600 have been dismissed from their jobs, including leaders of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions. Four people have died in custody in suspicious circumstances. Harsh prison sentences have been imposed on 21 prominent political leaders. 47 doctors and medical workers who cared for wounded protesters were tried in military courts; some received sentences as long as 15 years. After loud international condemnation, a new civilian trial was ordered for 20 of them.

When the near-finalisation of the $53m arms sale – which includes Humvee combat vehicles, missiles and rocket launchers – was announced, Stephen Seche, Deputy US Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Peninsula Affairs, said, “Congress has expressed no opposition to this sale”. This is formally correct, in the sense that no resolution opposing the sale was adopted, although one has since been introduced. But at least five congressmen had written to the Obama administration expressing their concerns about supplying arms to a regime engaged in such recent and blatant violations of the human rights of its citizens.

In the months before the protests began in February, the US sold more than $200m in weapons and equipment to Bahrain, including $760,000 for firearms. Some of the ammunition the military and police fired at non-violent pro-democracy protesters may very well have been made and supplied by the US.

In his May Middle East policy address, Obama proclaimed that, “The United States supports a set of universal rights. And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders – whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran.” It remains to be seen whether this applies to residents of Manama and other Arab capitals, where relationships between autocrats and the US government remain reliably stable, and military alliances have historically trumped human rights.

Joel Beinin is the Donald J. McLachlan professor of history and professor of Middle East history at Stanford University. He is the principal author of The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.