U.S. Giving Undue Deference to Bassiouni Commission Report

What's a dictatorship to do when it wants to be seen to address its own human rights crimes? It can call in the United Nations to investigate or give access to reputable international human rights organizations. Or, it can do what Bahrain has done and think of a creative alternative.

Faced with widespread criticism of how he reacted to democracy protests that took place in his kingdom this year, the King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain announced in June the commissioning of an "independent inquiry" to investigate the Bahrain Government's brutal crackdown in February and March. Egyptian-born human rights law professor Cherif Bassiouni agreed to head the investigation (officially titled the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, or BICI). He was joined by four other international commissioners who, like Bassiouni, have considerable experience and reputations in human rights work.

King Al Khalifa and members of his royal family rule have ruled Bahrain for decades. His uncle has been the unelected Prime Minister since the Nixon Administration, and King Al Khalifa has served as the nation's Emir or King since 1999. It was under that authority that he established and is paying for the Bassiouni Commission. Its report is this morning, after which time Bahrain's rulers say they will address whatever recommendations the investigators make.

We will have to wait and see what the Bassiouni Commission report says before making a definitive judgment on how independent a commission paid for by a dictatorship really can be, but its conclusions are really just part of the story. What's of real concern is the inflated importance being afforded to the Bassiouni Commission by both the Bahraini regime and the U.S. Government.

The U.S. State Department repeatedly cites upcoming the Bassiouni report as vital to determining its next steps on Bahrain. When half a dozen Senators recently objected to a proposed $53 million proposed arms sale to the dictatorship, Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs David Adams responded to Sen. Ron Wyden (D- OR) explaining, "The department will review the [Bassiouni] commission's findings carefully and assess the government of Bahrain's efforts to implement the recommendations and make needed reforms. We will weigh these factors and confer with Congress before proceeding with additional steps related to the recently notified arms sale."
I don't disagree that the United States should pin military aid on Bahrain making real reforms to end human rights abuses and holding accountable those responsible for these crimes, but it should not base its decisions solely on Bassouni's report.
What about existing evidence that the U.S. already has in its hands? Will they not consider that as they consider the arms sale or other dealings with Bahrain? When it comes to deciding what benchmarks to use to measure progress on reforms, will the U.S. not weigh the human rights abuses already documented in recent months by Human Rights First, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), International Solidarity Center, Medecins Sans Frontiers, Physicians for Human Rights and others. These groups have reported credible and well-documented cases of torture and attacks on protestors, as well as unfair trials and mass firings of workers and at least four deaths in custody.

The U.S. Government would be wise to consider these findings from of some of the world's leading international human rights organizations as it makes up its mind on whether to sell weapons to the Bahraini security forces or provide further aid or support to the regime. It should not hang its hat solely on the findings of an "independent inquiry" funded by the Bahraini King. But at the moment, it seems the U.S. is waiting for the Bassiouni Commission to deliver some higher truth. It would be wise to call it what it is: It's another report on the human rights situation in Bahrain, not the Oracle of Delphi.

The BICI has lost the support of many Bahrainis during the evidence-gathering phase. Some thought it couldn't be trusted if it were paid for by the Bahraini King. During an August 8 interview, Bassiouni himself appeared to clear the Bahraini government of a policy of excessive force or torture. As the commission's investigation continues, human rights groups have largely been denied access to Bahrain. During my recent trips to Bahrain, some of the human rights activists I spoke to were hesitant to co-operate with the commission for fear of reprisal. Some eventually did, others didn't.

The concern goes beyond Bahrain's borders, too. A resolution currently in the EU Parliament appears skeptical of the Bassiouni investigation's independence, and "Calls for the admission of international observers to the trials of political prisoners as well as for them to be allowed to monitor the work of the independent commission investigating human rights violations to ensure objectivity according to international standards."

Nobody knows for sure what the BICI will say today and it would be unfair to suggest it won't ultimately agree with the consensus narrative already outlined by the eminent international human rights organizations. But the U.S. Government appears to have too many eggs in the Bassiouni basket. It's the standard the Bahraini Government wants to be judged by, and the U.S. should not so readily agree.

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