Four Years On, U.S. Should Push Bahrain to Reform Security Forces

02/13/2015 03:07 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015
AP Photo/Hasan Jamali

This post is co-authored with Staci Strobl, associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Four years ago, on February 14, 2011, the first in a series of large protests convulsed the smallest country in the Middle East, Bahrain. One of the popular grievances which prompted demonstrations, like elsewhere in the region, was about policing. Calls for wider democratic reform in a monarchy where the king's uncle has been the unelected prime minister for over 40 years were met with a violent crackdown from the security services, and many of the country's problems since have been fueled by the police acting as zealous protectors of state interests at the expense of securing and serving all Bahrainis.

Much of this is about demographics. The country is ruled by a Sunni minority, and the police and military are made up almost exclusively from the Sunni sect -- the majority-Shia population are barely represented in either service. An independent commission appointed by the king of Bahrain in 2011 recommended that the government "establish urgently, and implement vigorously, a program for the integration into the security forces of personnel from all the communities in Bahrain." It hasn't happened, and unrest continues to rock the U.S. military ally.

Security force recruits continue to be hired predominantly from the Sunni sect, either from the local Bahraini community or, increasingly in the case of police, from among recent arrivals from Yemen, Syria, Pakistan or a number of other countries. Whereas many indigenous Shia have fallen through the cracks of the citizenship bureaucracy and struggle to prove that they are indeed Bahrainis (the bidun), these Sunni newcomers working in the security services are fast-tracked to Bahraini citizenship.

Many locals view the police not as protectors of their rights but as agents of repression, many of whom do not understand their culture or context. Police have been attacked by violent protestors, and the Ministry of the Interior indicates that around 14 police personnel have been killed since 2011. (Local NGOs estimate the number of civilians killed in protest-related incidents at around 100.)

Bahrain's reluctance to address the lopsided makeup of its security forces exacerbates the country's dangerous polarization and sectarianism. Despite playing a role in the anti-ISIS coalition -- by joining bombing raids in Syria and hosting an international conference on cutting funding to ISIS -- a failure to reform the security services foments the sort of sectarianism that helps fuel ISIS. Yet the U.S. continues to train the Bahraini military -- which gets around 90 percent of its equipment from the U.S. -- while not using its power to insist that civil and human rights be respected.

It's hard to know just how few Shia are in the military, because Bahrain doesn't release statistics. Educated guesses put the total number of Bahrain defense employees at about 12,000, but with tiny Shia representation, a couple percent at most. It is also impossible to know for sure the sectarian breakdown of the police forces (the public safety division and the criminal investigation division). Interestingly, female police officers are more Shia-represented than their male counterparts. In a survey in 2004 which asked Bahraini policewomen their sectarian identity, approximately 3 percent said they were Shia. (The response rate of the survey was 40 percent of all policewomen at the time.) In 2005, when Bahrain implemented the new community-oriented policing force, 10 of the 20 female recruits were Shia. But the inroads Shia have made in female and community-oriented policing units have never been made among the police units and deployments that are exclusively male. Further, a number of male Shia police officers who were on the force have been dismissed under dubious circumstances after the events of 2011.

Police forces should reflect the communities they serve. This is a cornerstone of any model of democratic, human-rights-based policing, arguably what Bahrain -- or any U.S. ally -- should be developing or maintaining. Top police scholars routinely point to policing as not merely reflecting a state's commitment to the rule of law and human rights but producing these outcomes. As the most central public service with which people interact, policing is a key part of whether larger political reform ever succeeds.

Many other police forces have transformed their organizations after ethnic, religious or racial conflicts. Radical change is both necessary and possible. Policing was a focal point in internationally supported democratization efforts in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the 1995 Dayton Accord. Decentralization, well-resourced international assistance programs, a comprehensive plan to recruit non-Serbs, multi-ethnic training and mentorship, and police engagement in the co-production of security with burgeoning civil society groups all contributed to placing the new country on a realistic track to European Union candidacy.

A radical overhaul of security force representation was undertaken between 2001 and 2011 in Northern Ireland, when the police service went from a Catholic representation in its ranks of around 8 percent to 30 percent. This progress also involved a wider package of reforms, a vigorous recruitment process, a high-profile multicultural training program and substantial technical help from the U.S. government.

The U.S. also has considerable experience and expertise to share from various parts of its security services who have attempted to diversify their demographic makeup.

Although the first step is political will to reform, training is central to any meaningful reform program. Whereas Bahrain has human rights training for security forces, the effort is behind closed doors and does not engage in any of the best practices of human-rights-related security force training.

The gold standard is the type of multicultural training implemented in Slovenia after social unrest between Roma communities and the police. Embarking on a joint training program -- which empowered local Roma leaders as co-instructors of the training -- has repaired a decades-long distrust between police and Roma and increased mutual respect and understanding between the two groups. The program involved community meetings and media coverage, eventually becoming symbolic of a larger social movement toward multicultural tolerance. A recent evaluation of the training program by a team from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Democratic Control of the Armed Forces (Ljubljana) indicates that it is likely having crime prevention effects as well, as the two groups have formed relationships of cooperation and the co-production of safety that have had positive ripple effects.

If Bahrain is serious about reform, it might consider a variation of such a model. The U.S. government can encourage its military ally on this path by insisting on security force reform and withholding arms transfers until real progress is made. The U.S, should start with a request for an accounting of the current representation levels of Shias in the police and military to be made publicly available with a view to reinstating Shia policemen who have been dismissed, and establishing recruitment and promotion targets for underrepresented groups. Washington should insist that all future training of Bahraini security force personnel in human-rights-related curricula include Shia community leaders as part of a pedagogy of cross-cultural instruction and dialogue to bolster a meaningful repair of the relationship between the police and the public -- something that goes beyond the pubic relations campaign that has characterized Bahrain's "security reform" since 2011.