Bahrain: a response to the President’s Office

A defence of the authors’ original claims about how the roots of conflict in Bahrain must be addressed.

We are writing in response to Miss Ebtisam Khalifa Bahar, of Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority. Though we agree with the sentiment expressed by Miss Khalifa Bahar that ‘restoring national unity’ is paramount to ending the crisis in Bahrain, it appears that we disagree over the means of achieving this unity. As we have argued in our article, we believe that in Bahrain, as in all countries where serious social and political conflicts exist, real resolutions can only be achieved when the roots causes of the conflict are addressed. Though we did indeed discuss some of these root causes in the Bahraini context, the main purpose of our article was to draw attention to the role of western governments, the US and UK in particular, in prolonging this conflict through the provision of military and other forms of ‘security’ support. As history has shown, as in  Tunisia and Egypt, economic and/or military support for repressive governments serves to exacerbate such underlying problems as gross inequality, a restricted public sphere, and state violence.

As for the root causes of this conflict, though we never claimed to speak on behalf of the Bahraini opposition and/or Bahraini human rights organisations, as an academic and attorney interested in human rights, we have followed the release of the BICI report, the shadow human rights report, as well as investigations into the extensive rights violations committed by the Khalifa regime in the context of the February-March uprisings by various reputable human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights. We have also researched and critically assessed scholarly work as well as other reputable sources, including the US State Department’s annual human rights reports and international and regional news reports, on the causes and consequences of the 2011 uprisings. 

Our research indicates that many Bahrainis and outside human rights experts agree that the causes of ongoing tensions in the country include many of the issues we raised in our article, including institutionalised discrimination against the Shi’a majority population, as well as their systematic exclusion from key positions of power in the government and the military. As such, we described this as a form of ‘elite generated’ sectarianism. Though the Shi’a population suffer from these forms of discrimination, they are certainly not the only sector of society to lack civil liberties and human rights protections under the Khalifa regime. According to the US State Department’s Annual Human Rights report, the human rights predicament for most Bahrainis in 2010 was dismal: 

‘Citizens did not have the right to change their government... Discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, nationality, and sect, especially against the Shia majority population, persisted. There were multiple allegations of mistreatment and torture, especially of Shia activists associated with rejectionist and opposition groups...The government restricted civil liberties, including freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and some religious practices...The Shia are underrepresented in positions of leadership in the civil service, police, and security forces.’ 

While we feel the death of any peaceful individuals attempting to exercise their political rights as a result of state violence is unacceptable, as Miss Khalifa Bahar has raised the issue of numbers, it is important to challenge her assertions. Even assuming that the number of Bahraini deaths she has provided is correct (though the shadow report total stands at 45), 35 deaths in a country of 1,235,000 would present a similar proportion of deaths relative to the population as that which occurred in the uprisings in both Tunisia (300 out of a population of close to 10.5 million), and Egypt (850 out a population of around 81 million people), where state violence was similarly deployed against peaceful protesters.  Furthermore, a statistical comparison including other areas of human rights violations (e.g. excessive use of force, arbitrary arrest, detention without due process, torture, impunity for perpetrators of rights violations, etc.) bears out our original claims.

As we have seen in many of the ‘Arab spring’ uprisings, repressive regimes often attempt to deligitimise the opposition by blaming protests on outside forces. In light of this, the burden of proof is on the Khalifa government to substantiate its accusations of Iranian involvement in the Bahraini pro-democracy uprisings in order to demonstrate that these are more than just diversionary tactics. This is especially the case considering the extremely sensitive geopolitical context in which these accusations are being made, including threats to Iranian sovereignty from states with recent histories of aggression, invasion, and occupation in the region, including the US, UK, and Israel. The validity of these claims must be evaluated in the context of recent revelations from Wikileaks, which seriously undermine past claims made by the Khalifa regime regarding Iranian intervention in Bahrain. According to a 2008 cable from the US embassy in Manama:

'Bahraini government officials sometimes privately tell US official visitors that some Shi’a oppositionists are backed by Iran. Each time this claim is raised, we ask the GOB [Government of Bahrain] to share its evidence. To date, we have seen no convincing evidence of Iranian weapons or government money here since at least the mid-1990s... In post’s [embassy’s] assessment, if the GOB had convincing evidence of more recent Iranian subversion, it would quickly share it with us.'

Furthermore, the regime’s allegations of Iranian involvement in the pro-democracy uprisings of the 90s have been widely dismissed and according to a report by the reputable International Crisis Group(ICG), there has been no evidence of ‘direct Iranian involvement in the current Bahraini uprising so far.’ The ICG report also states there that there has been ‘no credible indication of disloyalty or irredentism on the part of Bahrain’s Shiites. Indeed, there is little evidence that the Shiite community’s political objectives have been shaped by outsiders.'

Far from seeking to foment tensions, our article was written with the intention of challenging the entrenched interests and power structures that both cause and prolong conflict in Bahrain, as well as elsewhere in the region. 

About the authors

Corinna Mullin is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Tunis as well as a Research Associate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Her current research focuses on the dynamic relationship between the Arab revolutions and international relations, focusing in particular on: legacies of western intervention in the region, the role of international actors in transitional justice, as well as the impact of the revolutions on Tunisian and Egyptian foreign policies.

Azadeh Shahshahani is a human rights attorney based in Atlanta, and is President-elect of the National Lawyers Guild.