One year on, Bahrain is no closer to reform

Bahraini allies like the United States need to make clear to the ruling Al Khalifa family that the status quo is unsustainable.

Protests in Bahrain 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Protests in Bahrain 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It has been a year since the Kingdom of Bahrain received accolades for commissioning and then agreeing to implement the findings of a report investigating the protests and violence that occurred in the country from February to March, 2011.
However, 12 months later most of the the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) recommendations remain unimplemented, and the government has yet to demonstrate that it is interested in real political reform.
Recent actions by the government have revealed its duplicity as it bans public protests, continues to jail citizens for free expression, and revoked the citizenship of 31 activists and opposition leaders.
The government of Bahrain can (and does) publicly boast of its reform efforts, but its actions at home paint the real picture of a country that continues to be gripped by turmoil and repression.
If one were to look only to the government of Bahrain for details on the current situation in the country one would find a royal family committed to reform, slowly making progress in the face of difficult odds including an Iranian (and sometimes, oddly, American) conspiracy against it. The government claims to have implemented most of the BICI recommendations, and consistently raises the specter of Iranian involvement to remind the United States and other allies of their important security role in the region.
Unfortunately, the rosy picture offered by the Bahraini government is far from the reality on the ground according to human rights organizations, media and activists.
Evaluation of the implementation of the BICI report has been difficult due a lack of transparency. Many human rights organizations, including Freedom House, have been consistently thwarted in their efforts to enter the country.
Media attempts to gain access have likewise been rebuffed. To be sure, the complaints of the Bahraini government that reporting on the situation is based on incomplete information could certainly be remedied if they would only open up the process, and the country, to the international community.
Nevertheless, through reports from international organizations, media and brave activists on the ground, it is clear that the government’s stated commitment to reform has not been carried out over the past year. A new report from the Project on Middle East Democracy found that only three of the recommendations have been fully implemented, while some of the most important recommendations, including accountability for torture and abuse, release of political prisoners, and the end of controls over the media and free expression, to name just a few, have been ignored or only partially implemented.
Indeed, the chief investigator and author of the BICI report, Cherif Bassiouni, expressed his disappointment with the implementation of the report one year on, saying “you can’t say that justice has been done when calling for Bahrain to be a republic gets you a life sentence and the officer who repeatedly fired on an unarmed man at close range only gets seven years.”
If the government of Bahrain spent even a fraction of the time, effort and money it currently expends promoting its image abroad on actual efforts at reform, the crisis might be significantly alleviated. Instead, they spend millions of dollars on public relations efforts, trying to sell a positive image to their allies, while making token efforts at home.
For example, this month the Embassy of Bahrain will throw a reception at a ritzy Washington, DC, hotel to celebrate Bahrain’s National Day, and undoubtedly play gracious host to a long list of US diplomatic, military and business representatives. Likely not celebrating this year are the political activists like Nabeel Rajab, Abdulhadi al- Khawaja and others who remain jailed in Bahrain for voicing their dissent.
What can be done at this point to spur the Bahraini government to action? Bahraini allies like the United States need to make clear to the ruling Al Khalifa family that the status quo is unsustainable.
The current situation is a tinderbox that threatens to further destabilize the region, and will certainly impact the future of the US-Bahraini military relationship at some point down the road, regardless of whether either party is willing to admit it publicly or not.
There is still time for the government to truly embrace reform, but the longer the current situation continues the less likely a peaceful political resolution seems. And the alternatives are not good for the royal family, the Bahraini people, or the region.
The writer is the manager of congressional affairs at Freedom House.