U.S. Expanding Presence in Bahrain as Human Rights Conditions Worsen

Recent remarks by U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert confirm the planned expansions of Naval Support Activity (NSA) Bahrain, the main operating base serving as a garrison for the U.S. Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf. This decision to strengthen ties with Bahrain comes shortly after an announcement by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) of a new campaign designed to call attention to the torture and prosecution of activists by identifying human rights abusers within the Bahraini government. The decision to expand NSA Bahrain despite a clearly ongoing crackdown is an alarming development. The government’s reluctance to move forward on reform threatens its commitment to a more inclusive political system, thus undermining relations between the two countries.

NSA Bahrain became the primary base for U.S. naval operations in the region when the British vacated their garrison in 1971 upon Bahraini independence. Over 6,000 military personnel and DOD civilian employees are stationed at NSA Bahrain. Admiral Greenert announced plans to expand the naval footprint of the base at an all-hands call on November 27. He said that construction would focus on building “more infrastructure and capacity to support additional units on the base.” These units will include two more coastal patrol ships in the spring, as well as a long-term plan to bring new littoral combat ships (vessels designed for combat and maneuverability in the waters closest to shorelines) to the base by 2018.

Greenert’s assertion that there is “no really good plan B” for “that kind of deep relationship with any other country that we have with Bahrain” borrows a phrase from Commander Richard McDaniel’s recent report, “No Plan B,” but he misses McDaniel’s key argument that a stable and inclusive Bahraini government is necessary to maintain a strong security relationship. Many human rights organizations, including the Bahrain Council on Human Rights (BCHR), have been calling attention to heightened human rights abuses in the country since February of 2011. These organizations, along with some U.S. members of Congress, have called on the administration to halt some arm sales and assistance to Bahrain and develop plans to relocate the naval base if the crackdown by the Bahraini government continues. BCHR’s ’End Impunity’ campaign identifies 59 members of the police force, state security apparatus, government, and ruling family as complicit in violations including torture, extracting false confessions, and failing to provide oversight of the handling of detainees. Moving forward, BCHR plans to “call for individual sanctions and accountability for the people listed.”

Thus far, the U.S. has been reluctant to leverage its security relationship with Bahrain to push for reform. The tiny island state saw one of the most violent crackdowns against the “Arab Spring” movements of 2011, and since then there have been arrests of doctors accused of helping protestors, trials and court-ordered monitoring for children as young as eleven, and excessive restrictions on opposition groups. Investigations and reports were produced to address these actions and provide a roadmap forward. So far, however, the Government of Bahrain has not meaningfully implemented recommendations made by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) and the UN OHCHR. As recently as December 3, a “U.S. embassy observer was expelled from the trial” of activist Nabeel Rajab. The State Department had no strong reaction.

The U.S. has largely failed to seriously condemn similar violations, with current criticism being inconsistent and only one minor attempt affect change by a temporary arms sale freeze. The State Department’s response to the arrest of al-Wefaq opposition group leader Khalil Marzooq in September provides an illustrative example. When a reporter asked for a reaction during the Daily Press Briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf said only that the U.S. was “disappointed that opposition groups have suspended their involvement in the national dialogue.” A follow-up statement had to be issued the next day to clarify that the U.S. did recognize Marzooq’s detention as a serious issue; however, even these remarks used language no more severe than “not[ing] with concern” how the government has “diminished the space for civil society’s engagement.”

As Commander McDaniel noted in his report on Bahrain, “Clearly, the biggest threat to U.S. access is not democratic reform that leads to a constitutional monarchy, but a lack of reform that results in continued instability, unrest, and the empowerment of radical leadership.” The first step in this process is to pursue more consistent and firm messaging when communicating human rights issues abroad. Increasing the Fifth Fleet’s presence absent a real push for reform is an unsustainable long-term approach.

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