Tag: Bahrain

Note to Bahrain: Release Prisoners and Provide More Social Services

Thanks to a very awesome grad student of mine, I just realized that last week marked the second anniversary of the start of the Bahrain uprising.  Fueled by protests in Tunisia and Egypt, citizens of this small and very beautiful island state took to the streets to demand political changes.  For two years, the protests have not completely dissipated but haven’t escalated to the point of civil war either. What explains this continued state of violent limbo?

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War Crimes and the Arab Spring. Again.

The direct targeting of actors protected under the laws of war has been one of the most disturbing trends arising out of the Arab Spring. For example, the targeting of medical workers and ambulance drivers was well documented and reported on last year. Additionally, here at the Duck we’ve been following the issue. In recent months Dan Nexon wrote about the targeting of doctors who treated protesters in Bahrain and I’ve bloged about the growing concern of the ICRC who have seen themselves and their workers targeted. Unfortunately, this trend has continued into 2012. In January, the vice-president of the Syrian Red Crescent Abdulrazak Jbeiro was shot and killed in circumstances described as “unclear” – an act that was widely condemned by the the ICRC and officials world wide.

The deaths of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik are an example of another neutral actor in wartime that has frequently been targeted – the press. Accredited journalists are protected under the laws of war, specifically the 1949 Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I. If they are wounded, sick (GCI 13(4)) or shipwrecked (GCII 13(4)) they are given protections. If they are captured, accredited correspondents are to be given POW status. (GCIII 4A(4)). Additional Protocol I devotes an section to the protection of journalists:

Art 79. Measures or protection for journalists
1. Journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict shall be considered as civilians within the meaning of Article 50, paragraph 1.
2. They shall be protected as such under the Conventions and this Protocol, provided that they take no action adversely affecting their status as civilians, and without prejudice to the right of war correspondents accredited to the armed forces to the status provided for in Article 4 (A) (4) of the Third Convention.
3. They may obtain an identity card similar to the model in Annex II of this Protocol. This card, which shall be issued by the government of the State of which the Journalist is a national or in whose territory he resides or in which the news medium employing him is located, shall attest to his status as a journalist.

(A good and longer summary of the rules may be found here.

It is true that these rules in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and API are for international (and not internal) armed conflict. But as non-combatants the direct targeting of these individuals would also be illegal under any legal framework. Further, it can be argued that directly targeting aid workers and journalists is a clear violation of customary international law for both international and non-international armed conflict.

This is, of course, on top of the relentless shelling, bombing and targeting of civilians by Syrian forces. While the deaths of these journalists once again highlight what is going on, we should not lose sight of the fact that it would seem, at best, thousands of civilians have died in the conflict since last year. The methods employed by the Syrian armed forces come nowhere near the standards by which we measure the conduct of hostilities.
Worse, it is clear that civilians are suffering great deprivations as a result of the uprising and crackdown. This has lead the ICRC to specifically request access to the civilian population in order to deliver food, water, medicine and fuel.

Last year the ICRC launched a campaign about that which impedes the delivery of assistance and aid in areas of hostilities and armed conflict. Certainly, a consequence of the Arab spring has been to highlight how fragile many of these international norms are. I am not going to pretend that I have any amazing solutions to the crisis in Syria – everything seems like a pretty terrible option. But there can be no doubt that we should be standing up for the laws of war and demanding that Syria’s ‘allies’ (Russia and China) place pressure on Syria to respect international law. At a minimum this is the very least we – and they – can do. The right to deliver humanitarian assistance and the protection of aid workers has long been established in international law. And significantly, this includes UN Security Council Resolution 1502 which (having been adopted unanimously) both Russia and China voted for in 2003.

Criminalizing Medical Aid

The crackdown in Bahrain hasn’t received as much attention as those elsewhere in the Arab world. In part, that’s because what’s happening in Syria and Libya are more spectacular. In part that’s because Bahrain doesn’t have many enemies among western regimes. Still, the regime smashed down an iron fist, one that hit the Shia community particularly hard. Although the government has officially lifted marital law, it continues to stifle political expression.


The latest news out of the country concerns the trial of medical professionals for treason. Their crime? They provided medical treatment to those injured by government forces. At least the court is allowing possible evidence of torture into the trial.

Thirty-four medical staff attended court out of 47 – 23 doctors and 24 nurses – who were charged with anti-state activities last month. It was not immediately clear why some were missing.

The doctors and nurses face allegations ranging from possessing weapons to harming the public by spreading false news and seeking to overthrow the ruling system in the strategic Gulf kingdom, which is home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet

But the trial was adjourned for a second time to 20 June after the chief judge at the special security tribunal accepted a request that the detainees should be medically examined to establish if they had been tortured. Lawyers for Bassim Dhaif, a consultant orthopedic surgeon, said he had been forced to stand for two weeks resulting in loss of sensation, swelling and discoloration of his feet and legs. Abdulla Al-Durazi, a trainee surgeon, had suffered a broken nose since the last court hearing and needed specialist medical care. Some had signed false confessions under threat and lawyers demanded they be re-investigated. When the accused attempted to describe the torture to the court the judge ordered them to be silent and had one doctor, Zahra Al-Sammak, a consultant anaesthetist, escorted from the court.

The detainees say their only “crime” was to treat injured protesters. Demonstrations led by Shia, who comprise 70 per cent of the population, started in February in protest at the discrimination they say they suffer at the hands of Bahrain’s Sunni rulers. But the protests were crushed by the state and a campaign of intimidation began against the doctors and nurses. Protesters wounded were afraid to seek treatment and ambulances were blocked from going out to retrieve the injured, they said.

On Sunday, the security court sentenced a 20-year-old woman to a year in prison for reciting poetry critical of Bahrain’s king.

Robert Fisk works up appropriate outrage:

These are the very same doctors and nurses I stood beside four months ago in the Sulaimaniya emergency room, some of them weeping as they tried to deal with gunshot wounds the like of which they had never seen before.

“How could they do this to these people?” one of them asked me. “We have never dealt with trauma wounds like these before.” Next to us lay a man with bullet wounds in the chest and thigh, coughing blood on to the floor.

The surgeons were frightened that they did not have the skills to save these victims of police violence. Now the police have accused the doctors and staff of killing the patients whom the police themselves shot.

How could these fine medical men and women have been trying to “topple” the monarchy?

The idea that these 48 defendants are guilty of such a vicious charge is not just preposterous. It is insane, a total perversion – no, the total opposite – of the truth. The police were firing at demonstrators from helicopters.

The idea that a woman and child died because they were rejected by doctors and refused medical treatment is a fantasy. The only problems medical staff encountered at the Sulaimaniya hospital – and again, I was a witness and, unlike the Bahraini security authorities, I do not tell lies – was from the cruel policemen who blocked patients from reaching the medical facility.

In truth, of course, the Khalifa family is not mad. Nor are the Sunni minority of Bahrain intrinsically bad or sectarian. The reality is clear for anyone to see in Bahrain. The Saudis are now running the country. They never received an invitation to send their own soldiers to support the Bahraini “security forces” from the Bahraini Crown Prince, who is a decent man.

The transformation of Bahrain into a Saudi protectorate has received too little attention. For the Saudis, Bahrain was a “line in the sand” for, as they see it, the Sunni-Shia struggle. Indeed, the US naval presence is only part of the reason Washington remains relatively quiet. With US-Saudi relations already strained over American support for the Arab Spring elsewhere in the Middle East, Washington understands that pushing too hard on Bahrain could destroy the partnership entirely.

We Get Results! (Bahrain Edition)

Alex Cooley and I on Bahrain and US autocratic allies:

U.S. officials should make efforts to decouple the rationale of a given basing relationship from support for a particular regime. This means creating political space between Washington and the policies of authoritarian host countries whenever possible. With respect to Bahrain, U.S. officials should make clear that the U.S. military maintains its facilities for the defense of its territory and for regional stability — not for the purposes of propping up the ruling family. At the same time, Washington needs to signal that it believes that both countries’ interests are best served by greater political liberalization.

President Obama:

Bahrain is a long-standing partner, and we are committed to its security. We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law. Nevertheless, we have insisted publically and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail. The government must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate to forge a just future for all Bahrainis.

Bahrain’s Base Politics

Alex Cooley and I have just published an article at Foreign Affairs Online on Bahrain and the politics of the US overseas basing network. An excerpt:

U.S. policymakers have long struggled to reconcile their support for friendly authoritarian regimes with their preference for political liberalization abroad. The ongoing upheavals in the Middle East, like so many developments before them, shine a bright light on this inconsistency. In Egypt, the Obama administration struggled to calibrate its message on the protests that toppled longtime ally Hosni Mubarak; in Libya, it leads a multinational coalition intent on using airpower to help bring down Muammar al-Qaddafi; and in Bahrain, the United States stands mostly silent as Saudi troops put down popular protests against the ruling al-Khalifa family.

Washington’s balancing act reflects more than the enduring tensions between pragmatism and idealism in U.S. foreign policy. It highlights the specific strains faced by defense planners as they attempt to maintain the integrity of the United States’ worldwide network of military bases, many of which are hosted in authoritarian, politically unstable, and corrupt countries. Now, with the “Arab Spring” unfolding, even U.S. basing agreements with some of its closest allies are vulnerable.

Saudi and Emirati Intervention in Bahrain

Saudi APCs and Emirati troops are now on the streets of Bahrain attempting to squelch what was formerly a non-violent, secular, youth-led, economically rooted, democracy movement as America does little other than urge restraint from its allies. Such mealy mouthed statements toward a regime which is using live ammunition against unarmed protesters and then denying the victims of its rampage access to medical facilities indicates that the US foreign policy establishment has failed to adapt its posture toward authoritarian client regimes since the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Consequently, the monarchists’ narrative explaining the democratic demands of the protests in sectarian terms and foreign influence appears to be becoming self fulfilling.

The situation reveals the paralyzing contradictions in American foreign policy, economic interests, and political ideology, but perhaps more importantly the failure of the Obama administration to decisively restrain Saudi and Emirati intervention may threaten regional stability. The Iranian republic has already called on the monarchies to leave Bahrain “immediately.” There have been popular protests in Iraq, Iran, and Kuwait against the crackdown in Bahrain.

Despite the regime’s attempt to erase the memory of the protests, Manama is not pacified. If the underlying reasons for the unrest are not addressed quickly and substantively, a wider escalation could eventually involve the US.

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