The issue of security sector reform in Bahrain has been central to US and international diplomacy intended to resolve the uprising in Bahrain by the Shiite Muslim majority that began in February 2011. The widespread abuses committed by the Bahrain security forces in the course of attempting to suppress the uprising have, by most accounts, only prolonged the continuing uprising, hardening the positions of the Shiite opposition, and bringing Bahrain a steady stream of international criticism.
That the security sector is a major factor in government-opposition differences does not come as a surprise to experts on Bahrain. Many close observers of Bahrain have long noted that the security forces are, by design, heavily dominated by Sunni Muslims who are loyal to the Al Khalifa regime. As a small state, Bahrain’s government often lacks sufficient manpower, and it has augmented the security forces with expatriates from mostly Sunni Muslim nations, such as Pakistan and Jordan. Bahrain’s security services had long been advised in heavy-handed tactics by British security expatriates, such as Ian Henderson. He was a focus of – and forced into retirement in 1998 by – earlier Shiite uprisings that protested at the Al Khalifa regime’s reliance on Henderson to train and organize the security forces. Even though he resigned because of Bahrain Shiite and international criticism of his policies – which led some oppositionists to refer to him as the “Butcher of Bahrain” - Henderson remained close to the former ruler, Shaykh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who died in 1999 and was succeeded by his son, current King, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
King Hamad came into office pledging reform and achieving adoption of a new 'National Charter' in 2002. That charter reconstituted a National Assembly, with a fully elected lower house and an appointed upper house of the same size as the lower house. Despite Hamad’s attempts to achieve political reform that better integrated the Shiites into the political structure, very little security reform took place during King Hamad’s rule. The few Shiites recruited to the security services remained largely confined to administrative tasks1.Security chiefs continued to wield substantial power with impunity, and with virtually no legal or administrative oversight. Even before the 2011 uprising, reports of torture and abuse of Shiite dissidents were widely noted, including a report by Human Rights Watch in 2010.
It was not unexpected that, when the uprising began, the security services would over-react with heavy handed tactics, use of live ammunition, rubber bullets, and tear gas, and widescale arrests of Shiite protesters. These abuses were discussed in minute detail in the November 2011 report of a King-appointed but well-respected Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), headed by the highly-regarded Cherif Bassiouni. Aside from recommending prosecutions of those security personnel and leadership responsible for the abuses, or compensating victims of past abuses, were recommendations intended to correct the longstanding security sector imbalances and deficiencies. Among these recommendations were:
- - Integrating Shiites into the security services to a far greater degree.
- - Taking away the National Security Agency’s (intelligence service) law enforcement powers.
- - Introducing greater transparency into the arrest and interrogation process.
- - Instituting a “code of conduct,” based on international best practices, so that the security services adhere to international standards of human rights practices.
- - Abolishing the military court system and transfer of all cases to ordinary courts.
Subsequent to the BICI report, the King established a National Commission to oversee the implementation of the BICI recommendations. According to a March 2012 Commission report, and those of a 'Follow-Up Committee' continuing its work, the government has implemented most of the above recommendations.2 As a prominent example, former Miami police chief John Timoney and former British police chief John Yates were hired by the government to mentor it on tactics that conform to international standards. One key recommendation that has not been implemented to a substantial degree, to date however, is the integration of a greater percentage of Shiites in the security forces, and at higher levels of responsibility.
Even though, by several accounts – including by those in the opposition - the government has implemented many of the BICI security sector reform recommendations, abuses have continued throughout 2012. This suggests that the BICI report and the National Commission and Follow-Up Committee oversight have failed to fundamentally alter the government’s approach to dealing with protesters and prominent dissidents. Large protests in the spring and summer of 2012 have been confronted with many of the same tactics as those used in 2011. As was noted by a representative of Physicians for Human Rights at an August 1, 2012 hearing on the situation in Bahrain, security forces continue to use tear gas against perceived opponents, not just to disperse protests but also to intimidate and harass the Shiite opposition. Several additional protester deaths were caused by these tactics in 2012, and some high-profile dissidents have also been wounded.
US arms sales issue
Underlying the US stance on the unrest in Bahrain is the longstanding security relationship between the United States and Bahrain, built around a common perceived threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran. The US relationship with the government of Bahrain has created a dilemma for the United States in that the security alliance has produced a close and intensive relationship not only between governments but also between the US military and the Bahrain Defense Forces (BDF). Addressing the continuing threat from Iran has required the United States to build up the very forces in Bahrain – the security sector – that have committed the repression of the Shiite protest movement. It should come as no surprise that, as the positions of Shiite dissidents have hardened over the past eighteen months, observers note that Shiite protests increasingly criticize the United States as an “enabler” and supporter of the regime’s repression of dissent.
Even though the BDF has not been directly involved in suppressing internal dissent – that role has been played by the Bahrain police force and National Security Agency – the widespread perception of the Shiite opposition and human rights groups is that any arms transferred to the BDF could potentially be used for internal repressive purposes. The US requirement for BDF cooperation in mutual defense matters has also caused the United States to focus on political solutions rather than security sector reform in its approach to the Bahrain crisis.
The dilemma for the United States is best illustrated by a proposed sale of anti-tank weaponry and armoured vehicles (HUMVEE) to the BDF. That sale, announced in mid-2011, was vociferously criticized by the Bahrain opposition – and some US Congress officials – as an abrogation of the US responsibility not to empower Bahrain’s security apparatus, particularly with equipment like HUMVEEs that could be used against Bahrain’s opposition. The proposed sale – although relatively small in dollar terms ($53 million) - was also seen by the Bahraini opposition as a sign of US support for the Government's position on the unrest. Yet, because of the widespread criticism of the sale, the Obama Administration placed the sale on hold pending an analysis of the government’s implementation of the BICI recommendations. Even though the government has implemented many of the recommendations, the sale remains delayed with no sign of completion in the near future.
The issue is not as simple as placing one particular sale on hold. US leaders, particularly US military officials, continue to require Bahraini security cooperation. In order to preserve that cooperation, in May 2012 the United States announced it would resume some arm sales to Bahrain, although not the HUMVEE’s or anti-tank weaponry. The Administration announced it would supply certain naval patrol boats and air-to-air missiles – pointedly noting that no such equipment could be used for crowd or riot control, or in any internal context. The main recipients of the equipment were to be the BDF and the Bahraini Coast Guard – both services that have been largely uninvolved in repressing protests. Still, the resumption of sales was viewed by the Bahrain opposition as evidence that it could not count on US political support for its cause, and that the United States is not committed to pressing the Al Khalifa regime to compromise with the opposition or to make sweeping security sector reforms.
The Al Khalifa government is likely to resist fundamental security sector reform, and those reforms that have been adopted are not likely to end the government’s repression of dissent and protest. What will succeed in those objectives is an overall political settlement between the government and the opposition. Such a political solution, while not impossible, will be difficult to achieve. Several different proposals that have been put forward by both sides – such as Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa’s Seven Principles, the consensus recommendations of a July 2011 National Dialogue, and the opposition’s Manama Document - have a large degree of overlap. Several accounts say that in early 2012 hardliners in the royal family and opposition figures came close to agreement on an overall political settlement that fuses these ideas, but a tentative agreement was scuttled by other hardliners in both camps3. Still, a solution – or even an agreed forum or mechanism to arrive at a solution – remains elusive and an agreement does not appear imminent as of August 2012.
This article is written in the author’s personal capacity, and not in connection with his responsibilities as a Middle East expert with the Congressional Research Service.
1 Author conversations with representatives of the government of Bahrain. 2011.
2 Reports of the Follow-Up Committee provided to the author by the Embassy of Bahrain in Washington, D.C. July 2011.
3 Author conversation with US officials, and Bahrain government representatives. June 2012.