Bahrain and Qatar test America’s commitment to human rights; America fails test

In my latest piece at LobeLog, I look at the arrest (on what are almost certainly bogus charges) late last week of human rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja in Bahrain, and what it says about a monarchy that keeps promising to stop mistreating its people but that, in reality, is only trying to get better at hiding the mistreatment:

Bahrain’s ruling family, the Sunni Al Khalifa dynasty, has long been accused of oppressing the country’s Shia majority in favor of the Sunni minority. Most Shia are prevented from holding prominent government posts and from advancing economically, a situation that has been called “sectarian apartheid.” Shia Bahrainis are also barred from serving in the country’s security forces, which are manned by many Sunni immigrants who serve in exchange for Bahraini citizenship—a policy meant not only to ensure that security forces reliably comply with orders to oppress the Shia, but also to artificially shift Bahrain’s sectarian demographics by bringing in large numbers of Sunnis from abroad. Compounding sectarian tensions is the fact that Bahrain, unlike its Gulf neighbors, lacks the kind of oil and gas resources that could fund a strong social welfare system. As a result, high youth unemployment rates and levels of income inequality have contributed to strong feelings of discontent overall, but particularly among the already disenfranchised Shia population.

These tensions boiled over in February 2011 when protesters gathered in the capital, Manama, and were met by a quick and violent response from the Al Khalifa government. Bahraini police, already known for using torture to extract confessions from prisoners, had killed at least 55 protesters as of last February, a number that has undoubtedly grown as clashes have continued, though the government’s restriction on reporting makes finding an accurate estimate of the dead very difficult. Jay Romano’s vivid first-hand account of Sitra offers a picture of a country where entire Shia villages are virtually at war with the government, their buildings covered with posters of those who have been killed by security forces—an image of devastation belied by Manama’s veneer of placid modernity.

Given that this is happening in the home of the US Fifth Fleet, the tepid US response (SPOILER: we’re “concerned”) says as much about our inch-deep devotion to the idea of “basic human rights” as it does about the many sins of the Khalifa family. We have no problem lecturing Iran or North Korea or Syria about mistreating their citizens, because those countries are adversaries (a status that means we have no real ability to affect change there). But when it comes to our close allies, whose behaviors we absolutely could affect, like Bahrain systematically disenfranchising 80% of its population, or Qatar importing manual laborers from south and east Asia and then treating them like slaves, well, we might occasionally express our concern, but we’re never really going to make a big fuss about it.

Speaking of Qatar, it turns out that two British human rights investigators, there to interview Nepali laborers and report on the conditions under which they are made to suffer, just disappeared from the streets of Doha on Sunday. Having lived in Doha, admittedly many years ago but even so, let’s just say it’s not the kind of city where you fear being kidnapped by roving gangs of malcontents. As it turns out, the two investigators, Krishna Upadhyaya and Ghimire Gundev, had been texting friends saying that they were being followed by plain clothes Qatari security officers, so three guesses as to who actually snatched them up. The Qatari government is “looking into it.”

The obvious reaction to something like this is that of course America doesn’t really care about human rights; I mean, they’re a convenient club to bash any country we don’t like, but we won’t even really commit to protecting everybody’s basic rights here at home (not equally anyway), let alone anywhere else. I don’t disagree with that sentiment, but I will say that this stuff matters from the perspective of our place in the world and our ability to manage events to America’s benefit. When we promised to back that Shiʿa uprising in Iraq after the Gulf War, then stood idly by while Saddam slaughtered the Shiʿa by the tens of thousands, it mattered, and it matters still today in our inability to fully gain the trust of that community. When we demanded free and fair Palestinian elections and then slapped sanctions on the Palestinians for voting the wrong way, that mattered, and it still matters to the extent that it undermines whatever credibility we might have in the Arab World. I’d like us to live up to our asserted values, but if we’re not going to do that then we’d be better served by adopting an openly realist posture, making it clear to the world that our only real interest is US national interest, than we are by the continuing the pretense and making hypocrites of ourselves.

Our hypocrisy also matters from an internal perspective, because the fact of the matter is that the people who push for some of the most reckless foreign adventurism are the ones doing it under the supposed mantle of defending human rights. The New York Times had one of its regular wonk-offs a couple of days ago on the subject of Obama’s “don’t do stupid stuff” foreign policy. The “let’s kill as many people as we can” position was taken up by Kori Schake of the Hoover Institution (big surprise there), who argues that our current approach of killing somewhat fewer people than we could be killing “sacrifices the moral high ground of supporting those who share our values and protecting those who cannot protect themselves.” Examples like Bahrain and Qatar make it crystal clear that we don’t actually give a damn about “supporting those who share our values and protecting those who cannot protect themselves,” but as long as the fiction is maintained then its easier for people like Kori Schake to drive public sentiment toward her desired policies, which we know from recent experience would be worse for everybody than just doing nothing at all.

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