Don't Lift Arms Curbs on Bahrain

The restrictions were imposed in 2011 after the government of Bahrain violently put down the democracy movement there, and followed up with systematic human rights abuses. Not enough has changed in the past four years to justify a change of course.
07/13/2015 12:42 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2016
Bahraini Honor Guard parade as they prepare for the opening of the Bahrain International Airshow 2014, in Sakhir, south of th
Bahraini Honor Guard parade as they prepare for the opening of the Bahrain International Airshow 2014, in Sakhir, south of the capital Manama, on January 16, 2014. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images)

Obama administration's recent decision to lift curbs on arms sales to Bahrain should be reversed. The restrictions were imposed in 2011 after the government of Bahrain violently put down the democracy movement there, and followed up with systematic human rights abuses. Not enough has changed in the past four years to justify a change of course.

It is important to note that the Obama administration never imposed a full ban on the provision of arms and training to the government of Bahrain. According to an analysis by the Security Assistance Monitor, the United States has supplied Bahrain with over $40 million in military aid since 2012 for items such as upgrades to the engines of its F-16 combat aircraft, improvements in special forces, and coastal defense. The restrictions were only applied to equipment that might be used against demonstrators, such as Humvees and small arms and ammunition. By resuming sales of these items to Bahrain's military and national guard, the United States is giving up its best point of leverage in pressing its government to improve its abysmal human rights record.

The fact that restrictions on transfers to the country's Ministry of the Interior (MOI) will be maintained is small consolation. The administration has suggested that the MOI is responsible for the bulk of the serious human rights abuses in Bahrain. But as the State Department should know from reading its own Human Rights Report, responsibility for human rights abuses in Bahrain starts at the top. As Sarah Margon of Human Rights Watch has indicated, "Bahrain's jails are bursting to the seams with political detainees."

State Department claims of "meaningful progress" on human rights in Bahrain are belied by the recent prison given to sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of the country's main opposition party. Arbitrary arrests, torture, and violations of freedom of the press continue as well. If anything, the human rights situation in Bahrain is deteriorating, not improving.

The security arguments in favor of lifting the arms restraints on Bahrain are equally dubious. In lifting the ban State Department spokesperson cited Bahrain's role in the anti-ISIL coalition. But the best thing Bahrain could do to advance peace and security in the region is to give full political rights to its Shia majority. To do otherwise will just inflame the sectarian tensions that have hobbled the anti-ISIL effort while creating serious human rights abuses between Shia and Sunni communities in Bahrain and beyond. Holding Bahrain's feet to the fire on human rights will be far more important in containing and ultimately defeating ISIL than any military capabilities Bahrain might add to the U.S.-led coalition.

If anything, Bahrain's military activities in the region may be doing more harm than good. In Yemen, where it has contributed aircraft to the disastrous Saudi bombing campaignagainst the Houthi, the net result has been chaos, including large numbers of civilian casualties and a huge flow of refugees. A Saudi-led blockade on the country left many parts of the country without access to adequate quantities of food, clean water, and medicine, leading the United Nations to declare the situation there a category 3 emergency, the highest level assigned to humanitarian crises. Meanwhile, the focus on fighting the Houthi - who are enemies of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - has given AQAP more room to maneuver and to take control of additional territory.

The decision to lift arms restrictions on Bahrain raises a larger question about how best to fight ISIL and similar terrorist organizations. The best way to curtail ISIL's recruiting is to provide more viable, attractive options for individuals who would otherwise join the organization. That means fostering greater political participation, respecting human rights, and creating educational and employment opportunities for young men and women who might otherwise be tempted to take the extreme step of joining ISIL. A narrow military strategy that privileges the provision of arms over advocacy for human rights is counterproductive, both in Bahrain and in other repressive states in the region. If the Obama administration refuses to keep limitations on arms to Bahrain in place, Congress should press for them to be re-imposed until such time as the government of Bahrain makes genuine democratic reforms.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and a senior adviser to the Security Assistance Monitor.