President Barack Obama's administration has sided with Bahrain's ruling regime over its domestic protest movement more clearly than in any other country affected by the Arab Spring. But that position is unwise and unsustainable, according to one of Bahrain's leading human rights activists, who visited Washington last week.
Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, came to Washington to receive the Woodrow Wilson Center's 2011 Ion Ratiu Democracy Award for his work documenting human rights abuses conducted by the Bahraini ruling family's security forces since protesters took to the streets in the capital of Manama in February. He was not invited to the State Department for any meetings whatsoever. He did visit the National Security Council, and met with senior director for democracy Gayle Smith, but wasn't given time by any official who works directly on Bahrain.
Rajab sat down on Dec. 4 for an exclusive interview with The Cable. His main message was that the Obama administration's defense of the Bahraini government, including a new push to sell it more weapons, is sowing seeds of distrust and resentment of the United States among the Bahraini people. He urged the Obama administration to use its influence in Bahrain to press the regime for improvements on human rights.
Rajab said that the United States was repeating the mistakes of the past by siding with a minority regime that has brutalized its Shiite majority population. Here are some excerpts:
JR: What is your main message to the Washington foreign policy community?
NR: What I have realized is that there's a difference between the way the American government and the American people look at the Arab uprisings or the Arab revolution. I have received great support from American civil society, human rights groups, etc., in support of the Bahraini revolution. But that is totally different than the position of the United States government, which has disappointed many people in the Gulf region. And they have seen how the U.S. has acted differently and has different responses for different countries. There is full support for revolutions in countries where [the U.S. government] has a problem with their leadership, but when it comes to allied dictators in the Gulf countries, they have a much softer position and that was very upsetting to many people in Bahrain and the Gulf region. This will not serve your long strategic interest, to strengthen and continue your relations with dictators and repressive regimes.... You should have taken a lesson from Tunisia and Egypt, but now you are repeating the same thing by ignoring all those people struggling for democracy and human rights.... Those dictators will not be there forever. Relationships should be maintained with people, not families.
JR: The Obama administration says they are encouraging both sides to work together toward reform. Do you not see that as helpful?
NR: The U.S. is more influential in Bahrain than the United Nations. If they are serious about something, they could do it. They have lots of means to pressure the Bahraini government but so far they are soft. They act as if both sides are equal. You have people fighting for democracy and human rights and struggling for social justice. Then you have a repressive government with an army. You can't speak as if they can be treated in an equal manner. It's the government that is killing people. It's the government that is committing the crimes. The pressure should be put on the government. All of the statements by [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton and [President] Barack Obama have no impact on the ground because the government was not really being forced to listen to it.... This government has to be told that their relationship with the United States is not a green light to commit crimes, because that's how it is understood by the government. And no one in the United States has told them, no, it's not like that.
JR: What do you say to those who argue that revolution in Bahrain risks instability and the rise of anti-Americanism?
NR: This is the image of the United States in our country: that this superpower supports dictators and doesn't want democracy in our region, because they [are] told that democracy would not serve their interests. They were misled by governments in our region that democracy will bring extremists to power who will fight against U.S. interests. Democracy is not against anybody's interests. Democracy is about living together, sharing together, tolerance, working together, and that's what we are fighting for.
JR: What's the significance of the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which was released last week?
NR: It was not perfect, it was not an independent group, it was a group made by the government. But a big part of the report is good and talks about the abuses we have been talking about... It needs to be implemented and I don't see so far any positive reaction from the government. They appointed a commission to implement the report, a big part of which is made up of people who were part of the problem. Here is where the United States needs to speak, to tell them not to waste this opportunity to create real reform.
JR: What does the U.S. sale of $53 million worth of new weapons say to you and your fellow activists?
NR: This is the hypocrisy, this is the double standard. You can't ask Russia to stop selling arms to Syria at the same time you are selling arms to Bahrain while they are killing their own people. How do you convince the Bahraini people this is for their own benefit? What message are you trying to send to the Bahraini people when you try to sell arms? Even now, there are people in the State Department who want to push this sale. Rather than this, there should be more sanctions on the Bahraini government.
JR: The Bahraini foreign minister told us in an interview that the police, not the military, have been dealing with the protests. Is it true?
NR: The military has taken part in suppressing the protests. They have killed people, they have tortured people, they have arrested people, they have detained people. They have established checkpoints and humiliated people at checkpoints, raided houses, robbed houses, demolished mosques. They have taken part in every crime committed in the past months.
JR: You are not seeking total regime change, so what is the end state you want to see in Bahrain?
NR: When the people of Bahrain came out on Feb. 14, they didn't want to overthrow the government, they wanted to reform the government. They want elected government. We've had a corrupt prime minister for over 40 years. We want to separate the government from the royal family. We want a parliament that has power... We want to have an end to the corruption, we want human rights violations to stop, we want sectarian discrimination to be stopped. But the resistance of the government has created a movement to overthrow the government. And if they will continue to resist reforms, that movement to overthrow the government will increase.
JR: What has the government done to you to try to silence you?
NR: They have attacked my house on a weekly basis, you can see it on YouTube. They attacked me, 25 masked men kidnapped me from my home last March. They blindfolded me, handcuffed me, beat me, then took me back home. This has happened a few times. My house is targeted, my mother's house is targeted, all because of my work. But I am better off than the others, because I am free and not dead, because there are people who have been killed and who are behind bars now.