THE BLOG
07/11/2016 03:44 pm ET Updated Jul 12, 2017

Four Things President Obama Should Do Immediately About Bahrain

Six weeks ago the Bahrain launched a new, surprising, wave of repression, and the kingdom's few remaining voices of dissent have now largely been silenced.

Since May 30 the main opposition group Al Wefaq has been suspended, its leader Sheikh Ali Salman has had his jail sentence increased from four to nine years, activists have been prevented from attending the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Bahrain's Foreign Minister lashed out angrily at senior U.N. and U.S. officials, leading dissident Zainab al Khawaja was forced out the country, and prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab was arrested and taken into custody.

It's time for President Obama to take a series of steps to reverse the dangerous decline. At the very least he should distance his administration from the crackdown. Here are four things President Obama can do immediately to take a stand on Bahrain:

1. Say something.

This should be a no-brainer. Obama has made public statements about Bahrain several times, but not for a couple of years, and not since the political crisis began to freefall. On June 30 Vice President Joe Biden called the king of Bahrain "to express the United States' strong concerns regarding recent negative developments...". This was a good move, but if the United States is to signal that it cares about the situation, the president has to say something publicly. 

Would it help? It could. In 2011 Obama publicly called out the Bahraini government for demolishing Shia mosques. The attacks stopped within days of his statement.

2. Reinstate the arms embargo.

Last year, the State Department lifted the administration's hold on selling arms to Bahrain's military, citing largely imaginary "meaningful progress on human rights reforms." Bipartisan legislation in both chambers of Congress proposes banning the sale of small arms that could be used against protestors until real reform is achieved. Obama should immediately and publicly do what the legislation calls for.

Would it help? Yes. While Bahrain can get these sorts of weapons elsewhere (and is fast becoming a favorite customer of Russian state arms dealer Rosoboronexport), the United States should not be seen as complicit in the repression. It would at least challenge Washington's appalling reputation as an enabler of Bahrain's state violence.

3. Direct U.S. Ambassador William Roebuck to attend the trial of human rights defender Nabeel Rajab.

The administration has expressed "deep concern" about the case against Rajab, one of the region's most prominent human rights activists, whose trial for tweeting criticism of the regime opens tomorrow. Having the American ambassador sitting in the courtroom sends a signal of disapproval of the proceedings. An even stronger one would be if the ambassador publicly stated afterwards whether, in his view, the hearing met international legal standards.

Would it help? Maybe. It would distance the administration from Bahrain's appallingly unfair political trials. Human rights defenders have complained that U.S. embassy observers at their trials didn't speak out about the unjust hearings, leaving the impression that perhaps embassy officials approved of the sham proceedings. Having Ambassador Roebuck speak out would help dispel this notion, and encourage a fairer trial.

4. Impose visa bans on Bahraini officials suspected of human rights violations.

Former senior State Department official Steve Seche resurrected this idea last week in a Boston Globe opinion piece, and it's a good one. By suspending visas and access to the U.S. banking system for those credibly linked to abuses Obama would be showing real, immediate consequences for the repression.

Would this help? Oh yes. This matters very much to Bahraini government officials and would be a significant, important deterrent to further abuses. Human Rights First and other human rights organizations would be happy to help the U.S. government identify cases of officials with credible evidence of links to abuse.