AS Libya and Syria dominate headlines as far as unrest in the Middle East is concerned, the tiny Gulf monarchy of Bahrain has slipped off the international community’s radar. A little over a month since the Bahraini state decided to crack down on the opposition demanding political change and social reform, the situation on the strategically important island remains tense.
Human rights watchdogs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as credible international media outlets, have all reported on the Bahraini state’s alleged suppression of domestic dissent. According to the Bahraini opposition around 500 people are in detention while midnight raids and ‘enforced disappearances’ carried out by the security forces have become common since the sheikhdom was placed under martial law on March 15.
Doctors, lawyers and human rights activists have all been hauled up while several deaths in custody have also been reported.
Yet in the face of these serious allegations of state-sponsored violence, the US and the European Union have offered only weak criticism. As for the UN and the Organisation of Islamic Conference — the supposed voice of the ‘Muslim world’ — there has been largely deafening silence. Hence it is legitimate to ask why those who call the shots on the world stage appear overly passionate about protecting the human and civil rights of some people, yet appear less interested about the welfare of others.
The movement for change in Bahrain took off in mid-February when thousands of Bahrainis took to the streets demanding political reform. It was a decidedly non-sectarian struggle, yet official spin doctors have succeeded, to an extent, in painting it as a communal tussle between the island’s Shia majority (supported by Iran and Hezbollah) and the Sunni Al Khalifa royal family. This version of events is debatable.
What made matters worse, apart from martial law, was the arrival of Saudi troops under the Gulf Cooperation Council umbrella. From thereon, the Bahraini government has taken a very rigid stance, perhaps permanently alienating the majority community. While Hillary Clinton has condemned the “Syrian government’s brutal repression of demonstrators” and Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, has said “the Syrian people must be allowed to express their grievances without fear of intimidation, repression and arrest”, the American and European criticism of Bahrain has been much milder.
Pakistan, on the other hand, has defended the GCC intervention in Bahrain, termed by that country’s opposition as an ‘invasion’, for reasons of ‘stability’. Pakistan has also agreed to “greater defence cooperation” with Bahrain; the military’s Fauji Foundation and Bahria Foundation have already recruited former servicemen to beef up Bahrain’s security apparatus.
The western approach towards speaking up for the human rights of different populations appears a selective process. While many western governments have spoken out against rights abuses allegedly carried out by the Syrian, Libyan, Iranian and other governments, Bahrain has been treated with kid gloves. There are reasons for this. For example, the US is not willing to withdraw support (yet) for beleaguered Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, despite his bloody suppression of dissent, as he is seen as a bulwark against Al Qaeda in Yemen.
Similarly, many in the West believe the autocratic Gulf sheikhdoms are their best bet against growing Iranian influence. But are (unfounded) fears of preventing the creation of a mini-Islamic Republic at the doorstep of the Arabian peninsula a good enough justification for ignoring the alleged abuses of these states against their own people? Once again the desire for ‘stability’ seems to be much stronger than any desire to uphold human rights.
As far as Pakistan and other Muslim-majority nations are concerned, the double standards are just as glaring. It is not clear whether the Muslim world fears change or leaders of Muslim nations want to keep the status quo.
Clearly, the human and civil rights of Bahrainis and Yemenis are just as important as those of Syrians, Iranians or Libyans.
There is an inherent problem with the policy many western governments pursue of speaking softly to allies who flout human rights, but carrying (and often using) a big stick against regimes they don’t like. There cannot be special exceptions to preserve ‘stability’. So what can be done about the situation in Bahrain? For starters, the US and the EU should stop supplying regimes accused of crushing domestic dissent with the toys and technology these regimes can and do use against their own people.
The OIC must break its terminal silence over internal disputes in member states and speak out with the same passion with which it criticises atrocities against Kashmiris and Palestinians, whenever governments in member states use force against their own people.
As for Pakistan, if it can’t speak out against excesses, the least it can do is stop acting like a cheerleader and supporting ‘brotherly’ Gulf countries in their endeavours to crush domestic dissent. The military should also prevent its allied firms from supplying manpower to serve as mercenaries for regimes that crack down on their own people.
Bahrain is not a sectarian or strategic issue. It is a human rights issue and must be treated as such. The world should avoid looking the other way for reasons of realpolitik and ‘stability’.
The writer is a member of staff. firstname.lastname@example.org