All governments are temporary, and smart ambassadors build relations not just with whoever is in office today, but with the political opposition and other leaders of society who might be in charge tomorrow. It’s what they’re supposed to do. As President Obama said, “it is in the [U.S.] national interest to build relationships with people, as well as with governments. Therefore, agencies engaged abroad shall consult with representatives of civil society to explain the views of the United States on particular issues, seek their perspectives, utilize their expertise, and build strong partnerships to address joint challenges.”
What’s tricky is when opposition leaders or prominent civil society figures are in prison, as is the case in Bahrain. Nearly all of Bahrain’s peaceful dissidents have been forced into exile or jailed on politically-motivated charges. It’s difficult for United States Ambassador to Bahrain Justin Siberell to meet leading activists when they’re in prison. But he could try.
Nabeel Rajab is one of the world’s leading human rights defenders. He is currently serving a two-year jail sentence for telling the truth - that the Bahraini government bars reporters and human rights workers (including myself) from entering the country. Rajab is President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and faces up to a further 15 years in prison on a second set of charges related to comments he made on Twitter criticising the Saudi-led war in Yemen and exposing torture in Bahrain. He is also facing charges of “spreading false news” in relation to his letter from a Bahraini jail published in the New York Times.
Prison hasn’t faded his iconic status among Bahrain’s peaceful dissidents, and he represents a powerful force for nonviolence. Keeping him and other human rights activists in prison only makes it more likely that protestors will turn to violence to protest against the kingdom’s dictatorship. The U.S. State Department has rightly called for Rajab’s release, and that should be what Ambassador Siberrel presses as a priority. In the meantime, Siberrel could publicly ask to visit Rajab in prison.
More than 30 years ago, as a young researcher in the U.S.Congress working for Senator Ted Kennedy, I worked on issues of repression in South Africa, and on legislation that eventually became the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. As with Bahrain today, leading South African civil society and opposition figures of the 1980s were put in prison. Section 109 of the 1986 law stated that “the United States Ambassador should promptly make a formal request to the South African Government for the United States Ambassador to meet with Nelson Mandela.”
The U.S. Ambassador to South Africa at the time, Edward Perkins, tried every month to meet Mandela. The authorities never allowed him in to see the leading anti-apartheid activist, but the requests still mattered. “I know you’re trying to get in to see me,” wrote Mandela in a smuggled note to Perkins. “It doesn’t make any difference to me whether you do or not, just keep asking. The more you ask, the more powerful it makes me.”
I’ve met Mandela and Rajab. Both told me how worldwide attention helped them stay strong and to lead from inside prison. Ambassador Siberell publicly asking to visit Rajab in prison would be an important signal, one welcomed by Rajab’s family. It would show how the U.S. values the importance of leading figures in society outside the government, even those in prison.