United States Secretary of State Michael Pompeo predictably avoided public discussion of human rights concerns during his recent visit to Bahrain, part of a nine-nation Middle East tour.
During a meeting with the King, Crown Prince, and Foreign Minister on January 11, Pompeo thanked Bahrain for its strategic partnership with the US and discussed a list of “critical priorities” from which the backsliding human rights situation in the country was notably absent. Pompeo addressed the parliamentary elections held last November, noting they resulted in the election of the first female Speaker of the Council of Representatives, but not that they were marred by serious repressive measures that compromised the integrity of the results.
In the run-up to the election, Bahraini authorities and courts disqualified or jailed almost all opposition leaders; shuttered independent media; and kept scores of activists, journalists, and human rights defenders in prison on bogus charges. The bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the US House of Representatives expressed concern about fairness of the elections concluding “it will be difficult under these conditions for the international community to recognize the upcoming elections as legitimate.”
The election of the first female speaker was more of an exception than a sign of progress given that several female activists continue to languish in prison. Security forces detained Hajer Mansoor Hassan, Medina Ali, and Najah Yusuf due to their human rights activism or that of their family members, and courts convicted them in flawed trials that relied on the use of coerced confessions. The three women are routinely harassed and abused by prison guards, according to their families and local human rights groups.
The Trump administration has removed human rights concerns from the bilateral relationship with Bahrain writ large. In 2018, the State Department approved five major weapons sales to Bahrain worth an estimated US$1.4 billion. In March 2017, the human rights conditions that the Obama administration had attached to a sale of F-16 fighter jets worth US$2.8 billion were dropped.
Pompeo’s failure to raise rights concerns in public during his visit only emboldens the Bahraini authorities and sends a message to Bahraini activists they should not look to the Trump administration for support. They may have better luck pressing the new US Congress to seize the opportunity it has to make clear that America supports basic rights in Bahrain, even if the administration does not.