Over the last week at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, I've heard Bahrain described several times as an apartheid state. It's not a new comparison. A few days after the mass protests for democracy broke out in February 2011, New York Times columnist Nick Kristof wrote a piece from the tiny kingdom titled "Is This Apartheid in Bahrain?"
It's an obvious analogy: There is a minority (mostly Sunni) elite ruling over a (mostly Shia) majority. The last few years have seen systematic discrimination, a repression of fundamental rights, and torture and deaths in custody. People aren't divided by race but by sect, which typically dictates where they live, what jobs they do, and whether they can achieve political power. Many government supporters sound like many white South Africans used to: defensive about their privileges, with an inflated sense of entitlement and phobia of democracy.
The governments of the United States and the United Kingdom both backed the apartheid regime in much the same way they're now supporting the Bahrain dictatorship -- politically and militarily, while citing an unpersuasive "constructive engagement" policy. As with South Africa in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, public criticism of human rights abuses is muted, with "security concerns" trumping a push for democracy.
When American singer John Legend performed in Bahrain last month, the calls for him to boycott were reminiscent of activism during the Sun City era.
I was one of few people who managed to evade South Africa's security forces in defiance of the notorious Group Areas Act, which forced people to live in designated areas according to their race. For a year in the early 1980s, as a young white man living illegally in a "Blacks Only" township, I witnessed the cruelty and nonsense of apartheid: its absurd "pass laws" and racist legislation, its rule by fear and its police violence.
I've seen Bahrain up close too: its smearing of dissidents as terrorists, its tear-gassing, its bogus trials based on false confessions secured through torture.
The two systems are different. Bahrain has no Immorality Act, which outlawed physical relations between different parts of society (depending on their race). And during apartheid, only white adults -- about 9 percent of the population -- got a vote to select the country's prime minister. In today's Bahrain, the prime minister is appointed by the king (his nephew), and zero percent of the people get a say in who gets the job.
Whether or not Bahrain's regime is better or worse than South Africa's apartheid regime isn't important. Human rights activists shouldn't have to prove that the regime is like apartheid before the world takes their oppression seriously and steps in to help. Bahrain's political opposition shouldn't have to show they have Nelson Mandelas or Steve Bikos or Helen Josephs as leaders before their struggle is recognized as authentic, and they shouldn't have to organize mass sporting or economic boycotts in an attempt to get international help.
Then, as now, Washington, London and plenty of other Western capitals were on the wrong side of history during apartheid (although in apartheid's final years, the Reagan administration was forced by Congress to implement sanctions).
But autocracies don't last forever. Apartheid eventually broke under the weight of its own immorality and inefficiency. And call it what you like, unless Bahrain's repressive system radically changes, it'll collapse too.