Joel Beinin writes for Al Jazeera about the difficulty the US now has in deciding whether to make $53million arms sale to Bahrain.
After a false alarm announcing that a proposed $53m arms sale to Bahrain would be authorised, the Obama administration backtracked and postponed final approval of the sale pending a review of the findings of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) established on June 29. The BICI’s report was expected to be issued on October 30. But King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa authorised a delay until November 23. The commission’s mandate is to “engage in fact finding” and to compile a contextualised narrative of the events during the movement for democratic reforms in February and March. It will also determine if suppression of the movement involved human rights violations.
The commission includes several respected figures in the international human rights field. But the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights has already criticised its proceedings. On August 15 demonstrators, including workers dismissed for engaging in a general strike in March organised by the “Return to Work is My Right” group, stormed the offices of the BICI, forcing its closure.
If the proceedings of the Bahrain National Dialogue convened on July 1 and related developments are any indicator, the BICI report, whatever its conclusions, is unlikely to lead to substantive reforms. Before the initial session of the national dialogue, US Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner visited Bahrain to encourage the government to speak with its opposition. But soon after it began, the Shia-oriented al-Wefaq, the largest political opposition group in Bahrain, and the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions withdrew from the national dialogue. They claimed that regime supporters refused to include their grievances, including the rehiring of fired workers, on the agenda.
Last February 27, al-Wefaq’s 18 parliamentary representatives (out of a total parliamentary membership of 40) resigned to protest suppression of the democracy movement. Parliamentary by-elections were held to replace them on September 24, an indication that the monarchy is not inclined to engage in meaningful dialogue with its most substantial opposition.
The Obama administration is well-aware of Bahrain’s violent repression of the movement for democratic reforms. In a Middle East policy address given in May, the president pointedly stated that, “mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens.” In a much sharper expression of displeasure, in June, the US ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council included Bahrain in a list of countries requiring the special attention of the Council for violating human rights, along with Iran, Burma, North Korea and Zimbabwe. Ambassador Donahoe told the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that Bahrain “has arbitrarily detained medical workers and others perceived as opponents”. Nonetheless, these characterisations are polite diplomatic understatements.
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