Washington’s Gulf allies are looking increasingly like the repressive eastern European regimes of the 1980s. New Year's Eve in Bahrain saw a roundup of several key dissidents, including peaceful opposition figures and a leading moderate cleric.
Apart from the suffocation of opposition and of a free press, there's the rigged elections, the sham trials, and the torture. Then there's the striking similarity between old eastern bloc countries and the Gulf states on restrictions as to who is permitted to travel.
Bahrain, Saudi, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are notoriously difficult for human rights organizations to access. In a new development only introduced in recent years, Bahrain now also refuses access to internationally-respected journalists and UN human rights experts.
The regime, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, largely escapes Washington’s censure for its human rights abuses despite acting like 1970's Czechoslovakia.
The authorities are preventing Nabeel Rajab, one of the country’s leading human rights defenders, from leaving the country. Doctors says his wife Sumaya urgently needs surgery abroad, but the couple aren’t allowed to leave in what is clearly the latest in a series of attacks on Rajab’s work.
Rajab’s courageous nonviolent human rights work has landed him in prison, and also earned impressive international recognition. He’s the winner of the 2011 Ion Ratiu Democracy Award, given by the Washington, DC-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. Ratiu was a prominent Romanian dissident, a leading opponent of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Soviet-backed repressive regime. The award aims to bring “visibility and international recognition to the ideas, ideals and accomplishments of individuals around the world who are working on behalf of democracy.”
That’s exactly what Rajab is doing, and why Bahrain’s unelected government wants to pen him inside the country, just as the UAE dictatorship won’t allow prominent human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor to travel.
The country’s State Security Apparatus - UAE’s modern version of East Germany’s 1980's Stasi - controls most of what happens and is preventing Mansoor from leaving the country. Mansoor, like Rajab, has spent time in jail for his human rights work and also has a formidable international reputation. He’s the winner of the 2015 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, but wasn’t allowed to travel to Geneva for October’s award ceremony as the authorities refuse to issue him with a passport that would enable him to travel.
The Ennals Award recognized him as “one of the few voices within the UAE who provides a credible independent assessment of human rights developments. He regularly raises concerns on arbitrary detention, torture, international standards for fair trials, non-independence of the judiciary, and domestic laws that violate international law.”
Rajab and Mansoor are giants on the middle east human rights scene, both known for decades of peaceful activism, both consistent credible critics of repressive regimes, both board members of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights.
A few Washington voices have been critical of Bahrain’s treatment of Rajab, with Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) consistently highlighting the problem, but the administration should speak up publicly and urge its military ally to allow Rajab and his wife to leave the country. The administration should also press their UAE allies to provide Mansoor with the passport he’s entitled to.
President Obama’s administration talks big about the need for countries to promote civil society, not least as an antidote to violent extremism, and how denial of human rights fuels the grievances that violent extremists exploit. But when it comes to speaking out against abuses by its military allies in the Gulf, the White House and State Department too often lose their voices.
These mute responses on travel bans, not the administration's dozens of keynote speeches, are what expose U.S. double standards and define its foreign policy. Washington should stand by human rights leaders Rajab and Mansoor and publicly push their allies Bahrain and UAE to allow the pair to leave their countries.