Since February 2011 Bahrain has been the scene of ongoing protests. Protesters are calling for greater freedom and democracy, respect for human rights and the removal of the country’s self-imposed monarchy. So far the regime has responded with harsh crackdowns, imprisonments, and systematic torture. The regime proclaims that it is implementing reforms, but so far this has not happened. It even employs a number of western PR-companies to shape the international public opinion of the situation, having spent no less that $32 million dollars since the beginning of the uprising in 2011.
According to Human Rights Watch and other international human rights organizations, the regime is continuously using severe and systematic torture. So far international media attention has been sparse and the international community has done very little to show its support for the protesters, let alone punish the regime for its crimes against its own people.
The U.S. is “deeply concerned”
On October 30th the Bahraini regime decided to ban all public gatherings in attempt to quell the protests. Following this the U.S. State Department issued a condemnation of Bahrain's crackdown on protesters, saying the U.S. is “deeply concerned” by Bahrain’s recent decision to outlaw public gatherings. The statement continues:
“Freedoms of assembly, association and expression are universal human rights. We urge the government of Bahrain to uphold its international commitments and ensure that its citizens are able to assemble peacefully and to express their views without fear of arrest or detention.”
Other governments including Great Britain, Sweden and Denmark have already criticized the Bahraini regime. However, Great Britain, despite its criticism, last month signed a defense cooperation agreement with Bahrain. One is left with the question; what is criticism good for if it is followed up by such actions?
Danish citizen imprisoned for life
The Danish government has been among the sternest criticizers of the regime. Denmark’s criticism is closely connected to the case of the Danish citizen and human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja who was arrested on April 9 2011 and on June 22 sentenced to life-impressionment for allegedly trying to overthrow the regime. In February 2012 he went on a 110-day hunger strike. After having lived in Denmark for several years, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja returned to Bahrain in 1999 where he co-founded the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. On March 30 2012, Amnesty International officially designated him a prisoner of conscience and demanded his immediate release. Last month Abdulhadi al-Khawaja received the Danish daily newspaper Politiken’s annual Freedom Award for speaking up for the respect for human rights in the country. Over the last months other members of the centre including his daughter Maryam al-Khawaja have received a number of awards for their human rights work. Nevertheless, like the rest of the international community Denmark has failed to put action behind its words.
The case of al-Khawaja is but one of many internationally acclaimed cases of imprisoned human rights activists in Bahrain.
What could be done
Voicing criticism of the regime’s denial of its citizens’ basic rights is a step in the right direction, but needless to say it is far from enough. The international community could and should do more than voice its concerns.
This summer prince Nasser bin Hamad of Bahrain was an honorary guest at the London Olympic Games, despite the fact that he has been known to personally torture prisoners. When members of the royal family can get away with openly torturing activists, only to be welcomed into the international community, it shows the regime that it can get away with anything. Incidents like this send a signal of implicit approval of the situation in Bahrain.
So what could the international community do? Recognizing that the international community has relatively little influence on what is going on on the ground in Bahrain, it is, however, far from powerless. At very least it should implement targeted sanctions against members of the Bahraini regime. This means not allowing these individuals to attend events like the Olympic Games. Targeted sanctions could also include arms embargoes; the freezing of assets in international banks and travel bans on regime leaders such as is currently the case with Syria and Iran.
While employing targeted sanctions against the Bahraini elite is not likely to end the conflict, it will send a signal that the international community actually do care about how the regime threats its citizens. More importantly it will send a signal to the human rights activists fighting on the ground that they are not alone in their struggle.
It is no secret that putting pressure on regime in Bahrain is complicated by a number of American and European interests in the country and the surrounding region. The important Western ally Saudi Arabia (which has its own share of human rights abuses) sees Bahrain as part of its sphere of influence, and Bahrain is home of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, but no economic and strategic interests of Western powers cannot justify turning the blind eye on the situation in Bahrain.