While much of the world’s focus has been on the civil war in Syria, the island kingdom of Bahrain continues to shake with anti-government protests that started in last year’s “Arab Spring.” While it has received less attention, human rights groups have documented ongoing government abuses.
Those concerns were enough to put a halt on a weapons sale from the U.S. to Bahrain last fall, but the Obama administration announced last Friday that it has decided to proceed with the sale, despite the ongoing upheaval and protests from both Congress and human rights groups.
“Bahrain is an important security partner and ally in a region facing enormous challenges,” wrote Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Nuland in an official statement announcing the sales. “Maintaining our and our partners’ ability to respond to these challenges is a critical component of our commitment to Gulf security.”
In a nod to the human rights concerns, the Pentagon said the weapons being sold to Bahrain will not include anything that could be used against protestors. Instead, it would be a package of equipment geared towards protecting the country from external threats, including engines for F-16 planes and harbor security boats.
“Sales of items that are sort of predominantly or typically used by police and other security forces for internal security, things used for crowd control, we’re not moving forward with at this time,” said an unnamed administration official on a conference call last Friday. “That would include things like tear gas, tear gas launchers, stun grenades – those sorts of things.”
In December, the Center for Public Integrity reported on concerns from the Government Accountability Office that equipment such as night vision goggles could be used by security forces to crack down on protests. The report also raised questions about how the State department often fails to investigate past abuses from foreign security forces slated to receive military technology, which can increase “the risk that [U.S.-funded] equipment may ultimately be used by violators of human rights.”
A $53 million sale was initially announced last fall, but was frozen in October while the U.S. waited to see improvements on the human rights situation. The administration has declined to disclose a total list of what materials will be sold to Bahrain, or how much the new package will cost.
Bahrain is a major strategic partner for the U.S. The island nation received $80.4 million in military financing from the U.S. between 2005 and 2010 and is home to a 60-acre U.S. naval base which houses the U.S. Fifth Fleet. The fleet patrols the waters of the Middle East and is responsible for making sure the Strait of Hormuz, which a significant portion of the world’s oil passes through, remains open. The fleet would also be a first line of defense against any aggressive moves from Iran.
The protests have largely been driven by a rift between Bahrain’s Sunni ruling family and its majority Shi’ite population, but have been exacerbated by human rights abuses suffered by protestors at the hands of government forces. In November, an independent panel formed by the Bahrani government issued a report detailing a number of abuses, including commonplace torture in police stations such as electrocution and threats of rape. In response to the report, the government promised to reform its internal security forces — something that has yet to happen, according to experts.
Human Rights Watch released a report in late April documenting ongoing abuses in the island nation. The group acknowledges that changes have been made, like putting cameras throughout police stations to record abuses, but found that the torture has simply moved outside the police station. In one case the group interviewed two teenage boys who were taken to an empty lot and beaten severely.
“The situation has not improved very much,” Joe Stork, Deputy Director for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, said in an interview. What improvements have occurred have been mostly cosmetic, “not a basic behavior change,” he says.
Stork believes the Obama administration cares about the human rights issue, but feels that political concerns trumped concerns over abuses. “To be meeting a Bahranian request for certain kinds of arms is a bad move in our view,” he says.
At least two leading Democrats in Congress agree the arms deal is a bad idea. “The U.S. and the Government of Bahrain share strategic interests, but if history has taught us anything, this is a time to demonstrate our unambiguous support for the aspirations of the Bahraini people for greater political freedom,” wrote Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) in a statement released Friday. The author of the so-called Leahy Law, which attempts to prohibit arms sales to foreign security forces facing human rights concerns, added that the deal “sends the wrong message.”
“This is exactly the wrong time to be selling arms to the government of Bahrain,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) added in a separate statement. Last October, Wyden introduced legislation to block arms sales to the country. “Reform is the ultimate goal and we should be using every tool and every bit of leverage we have to achieve that goal. The State department’s decision is essentially giving away the store without the government of Bahrain bringing anything to the table.”
The controversy may continue for some time. Stork says he expects the protests to continue. Protestors “feel betrayed they feel sick and tired of having their demands ignored,” he says. “I don’t see this ending, and I don’t think the government is capable of putting it down.”