Rethink U.S. arms sales to Bahrain

As longtime legislators who believe in the promotion of human rights and dignity, we are deeply disappointed by the U.S. State Department’s recent decision to resume arms sales to Bahrain. U.S. arms sales should never aid and abet the repression of peaceful protesters, and we are introducing legislation to roll back this misguided decision.

Bahrain’s ruling regime has cracked down on opposition leaders, human rights activists and even medics since massive popular protests erupted in 2011. Amid international condemnation, the regime established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to look into the crackdown. And when the BICI came back with 26 recommendations, the regime promised to implement them all.

Bahrain’s leaders now say they have put those dark days behind them and contend they have fully implemented the BICI recommendations. The State Department’s own reports suggest a different story, and in fact, State could last certify that Bahrain had implemented only five of the 26 recommendations.

A protester holds the Bahrain flag and runs for cover from tear gas in the village of Shakhora, west of Manama, on August 14, 2013.
A protester holds the Bahrain flag and runs for cover from tear gas in the village of Shakhora, west of Manama, on August 14, 2013.

Meanwhile, the regime’s campaign to harass, intimidate and bludgeon activists continues unabated, rights groups note. Bahrain’s leaders have repeatedly targeted leading human rights defender Nabeel Rajab because of his views, jailing him on several occasions. Nabeel is just one of the many dissidents regularly harassed or attacked by the regime. Bahrain’s prisons are bursting at the seams with people jailed on flimsy evidence and bogus charges.

So we were surprised and disappointed when the State Department announced last month that it would lift its ban on selling or transferring certain weapons to Bahrain.

We have long supported this ban both because it keeps U.S. weapons out of the hands of bad actors and because a privileged relationship with the United States should depend on respect for basic rights such as free assembly and expression. Unfortunately, State’s announcement sends precisely the opposite message to Bahrain’s rulers.

In light of this misguided decision, we joined together to introduce bipartisan legislation that would block the sale or transfer of certain weapons to Bahrain until Bahrain’s leaders have fully implemented the BICI recommendations. The Senate and House of Representatives should pass this resolution in short order and put real pressure on the Bahrainis to implement the reforms they have been promising for years.

People sometimes ask us why a senator from Oregon and a congressman from Massachusetts care so much about an island about the same size as Austin, Texas. One reason is that important U.S. allies and partners such as Bahrain ought to be held to a higher standard; another is that continued repression could lead to increased violence and instability, threatening the safety of several thousand U.S. Navy personnel in Bahrain and further destabilizing the Middle East.

In light of these concerns, we are disappointed that the administration has done so little to push Bahrain’s leaders on human rights. When Bahrain expelled top human rights official Tom Malinowski in July 2014, the administration’s response was surprisingly muted. Bahrain also denied Congressman McGovern and Brian Dooley, a director with Human Rights First, entry in August 2014.

While we understand that international relationships are multifaceted, we reject the argument that human rights concerns must naturally give way to geopolitical ones. Indeed, unaddressed human rights abuses often lead to geopolitical problems.

The more repressive a regime becomes, the more likely today’s peaceful protests become tomorrow’s violence and chaos — a story that has played out in other Middle Eastern countries.

The United States should only restart these arms sales in response to real reform, not continued repression. Washington has an opportunity to take a meaningful step to advance human rights in the region. Congress should seize this moment and pass this bill.

Ron Wyden is a U.S. senator representing Oregon and Jim McGovern is a U.S. representative representing Massachusetts’ 2nd Congressional District. The views expressed are their own.

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