This week secretary of State John Kerry visits one of Washington's repressive Gulf allies, Bahrain, three weeks before President Obama meets Gulf monarchs at a summit in Saudi Arabia. Bahrain is a long-term Washington military ally and hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet but violently suppresses peaceful political dissent. Its leading human rights activists are targeted, forced into exile, or jailed.
Since the regime crushed mass protests for democracy in early 2011, the country has become dangerously polarized and threatened by sectarianism and an economic crisis. Wholesale political reform is the best way to ensure future stability in the country. Here are six things Secretary Kerry should do during this week's visit to Bahrain:
- Publicly call for the release of political dissidents. In February this year the State Department publicly encouraged "the release of opposition figures like Ibrahim Sharif and Sheikh Ali Salman". Secretary Kerry should publicly repeat these calls, and call for the release of other dissidents including prominent human rights figures Zainab Al Khawaja, her father Abdulhadi Al Khawaja and Naji Fateel.
- Don't be a doormat. Since 2011 Bahrain's ruling family has pushed the U.S. government around, revealing itself to be an erratic ally. The U.S. ambassador and senior administration officials have been vilified by the government-backed Bahraini press and cabinet. Last year the king of Bahrain rejected an invitation for President Obama to attend a summit at Camp David, opting instead to attend a horse show in the UK. In 2014 U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern was refused entry to Bahrain and Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski was expelled from the country after he visited opposition leaders
- Visit opposition leaders. Secretary Kerry needs to show that the U.S. government's relationship with Bahrain is not confined to one with its ruling family, but also with its political opposition, civil society and public. While most of Bahrain's leading opposition figures are in prison, some are not. He should visit them, and could also ask to visit those in prison, including Ibrahim Sharif and Sheikh Ali Salman. He should make clear that engaging with legitimate opposition figures is a standard part of American diplomacy, and that State Department officials will not be cowed or intimidated by what happened to Malinowski.
- Don't say things that aren't true. Kerry has an unhelpful habit of praising a non-existent transition to democracy in Egypt. Rewarding President al-Sisi's government with rhetorical support damages the State Department's credibility in Egypt and undermines U.S. aims on preventing violent extremism. He should not make the same mistake in Bahrain.
- Meet Bahraini human rights defenders. Again, Kerry could request access to leading human rights defenders in jail and meet those who are not, including leading HRD Nabeel Rajab, who is currently not in jail but is not permitted to leave the country. President Obama's September 2014 Presidential Memorandum - Civil Society directs that "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." Secretary Kerry could, for example, take the opportunity to explain to Bahrain's civil society the State Department's June 2015 decision to lift restrictions on selling arms to Bahrain's military. The memorandum also directs that "When traveling overseas, senior U.S. officials of agencies engaged abroad shall seek opportunities to meet with representatives of civil society, especially those who face restrictions on their work and who may benefit from international support and solidarity." Bahrain's civil society leaders certainly face restrictions on their work and would benefit from meeting with the secretary.
- Tell Bahrain's security forces it's time to diversify. The kingdom's security forces are drawn almost exclusively from the minority ruling Sunni sect--the majority Shia population are barely represented in either the police or military. An independent commission appointed by the king of Bahrain in 2011 recommended that the government "establish urgently, and implement vigorously, a program for the integration into the security forces of personnel from all the communities in Bahrain." It hasn't happened, and the U.S. enables this unhealthy imbalance by arming and training Bahrain's security forces without linking that support to challenging the "Sunnis Only" mentality of the military and police. Kerry should make clear that from now on Bahrain's security forces must radically address this imbalance to receive continued U.S. support.