Bahrain: We Take Human Rights Violations Seriously

Manama responds to Freedom House's report knocking the country's democratic transition.

Dear Editor,

Despite our accessibility and continuous communication with Foreign Policy in correcting the misconceptions detailed in your articles, you continue to endorse loose claims irresponsibly and avoid providing readers with an official statement. This is evident in your most recent article, "Slouching Toward Democracy" by Vanessa Tucker, and we'd like to take this opportunity to promote balance through providing an official statement to the charges made.

The author begins her analysis by stating, "not every Arab Spring uprising has produced democratic progress." We want to first clarify that the Bahraini government never considered themselves a part of the "Arab Spring" movement, as the demands supported by the uprising did not represent the majority of the Bahraini population. Actually, Bahrain began on its path to democracy in 2002, well before the regional upheaval. This resulted in constitutional reform and introduced the bicameral Parliament, which has carried out three general elections to date. This was a historic undertaking and an unprecedented move ahead of most countries in the region. Therefore, for Tucker to suggest that "real reforms have not materialized" in the last decade is an assertion drawn from ignorance.

Secondly, the author demeans the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry's (BICI) report as another "democratic false start." This report was led by renowned international experts and its critical findings were acknowledged and accepted by the government, as well as most opposition parties and their leaders. As a symbol of commitment, the government enforced a three-month self-imposed deadline to implement the vast majority of the report's recommendations.

The government of Bahrain takes human rights violations very seriously, and has instituted corrective measures to address them. Today, the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) and an ombudsman in the Public Prosecution office receive and address any complaints regarding human rights. To date, these offices have probed 122 cases, including police officers up to the rank of colonel. Of the 122 cases, 13 were referred to court, resulting in three verdicts against the officers. Investigations and legal action are ongoing. These are more than a "few" held accountable. In fact, as recently as last week, the Bahraini courts charged seven more police officers for mistreatment and torture allegations -- all were lieutenants at the Ministry of Interior. Anyone with genuine interest in the country's progress would have picked this up from the highly publicized charges which were carried in international media.

Additionally, an ombudsman in the Ministry of Interior was established to supervise the new police code of conduct and to discipline security personnel. Reinforcing the government's insistence on policing reforms, the Ministry of Interior announced last week that it is hiring 500 police officers, including 100 women, from the country's five governorates, thereby making the police force more representative of all communities. The Minister of Interior reaffirmed the institution's move from public order policing to a human rights-based approach. The new cadets will receive training in compliance with internationally recognized human rights standards for the next six months. Moreover, the government has allocated $5 million to compensate those who died during the unrest, covering all cases mentioned in the BICI report.

These are merely the most recent examples of the reform progress directed towards human rights and not representative of all the steps Bahrain has taken in recent years. The number of reforms implemented in this short period of time were recognized and acknowledged by international governments in the recent U.N. Universal Periodic Review, where Bahrain's acceptance of over 90 percent of the BICI recommendations prompted the Human Rights Council to accept Bahrain's response with no objections.

On the political front, amendments to the constitution last month granted a significant shift of power to the democratically elected chamber of parliament. These include further oversight and scrutiny over the government, and provide that all new ministerial appointments must be approved by the parliament (who can vote to reject the entire government, including initiating a non-cooperation motion against the prime minister). It is quite bewildering how the author can label the implementation of reforms as "stalled."

Another clarification Tucker appears unaware of is the fact that no medical professionals were targeted during the unrest because they provided aid to injured protestors. The BICI report stated the medics "moved in and out of their roles as political activists and medical personnel" and that most of the ground floor of the Salmaniya Hospital, including the emergency section, the intensive care unit, and the administrative section, was taken over and controlled by medical personnel, resulting in difficulties in the emergency section.

Finally, it is important to highlight that Bahrain guarantees the right of expression to all. The country has 20 political parties, all of which have expressed their concerns through legal and peaceful means for many years. The welcoming of the BICI Commission is a clear indication that the government does not shy away from scrutiny, but invites it. However, the government rejects this right when it is exercised through illegal methods. Obstructing and causing harm to the lives of others, as well as to public and private property is a violation of the right itself. The country has experienced many of these so-called "non-violent demonstrations," which have resulted in injuries to over 1,500 officers, and thousands of vandalism cases.

Bahrain is a transitioning democracy, and as the author stated, this is "unachievable overnight, or even in a few years." Yet the author's opinion and dismissive attitude is indicative of the limited research that was carried out before publishing this article. We would hope that in the future the opinions and articles appearing in your magazine would be grounded in facts and provide the opportunity for constructive debate.


Belying the Bahraini government's claims of progress is the fact that the suppression of nonviolent activism, as outlined in my article and detailed in the Countries at the Crossroads Bahrain report, has continued far into 2012

The government is still brutally clamping down on protests. This includes its unprecedented "weaponization" of tear gas, which has resulted in serious head and body wounds, an increase in miscarriages and respiratory illnesses, and more than 30 deaths.

The government continues to deny freedom of speech to its citizens. Activist Nabeel Rajab was jailed in July 2011 for an "insulting" tweet in which he suggested that the prime minister was unpopular, and was later sentenced to three years in prison for "inciting" protests despite the lack of substantive evidence of his supposed offense. A number of journalists remain in exile and the government has also targeted social media users who voice their dissent online. In addition, the government has on multiple occasions refused or revoked the entry of independent human rights groups seeking to investigate abuses.

The three convictions of police officers Mr. AlBinali notes pale in comparison to the many unjustified convictions of human rights defenders, including the recent upholding of life sentences for eight peaceful activists. Convictions against doctors that Mr. AlBinali claims were not targeted were recently upheld and protesters must still avoid hospitals for fear of government harassment.

Mr. AlBinali points to Bahrain's participation in the U.N.'s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and acceptance of the UPR's (nonbinding) recommendations as a demonstration of its efforts. But there is real reason to doubt that the recommendations will be carried out given that the government later targeted the activists who testified during the UPR process. They were also publicly ridiculed in the pro-government Al-Watan newspaper.

Bahrain's failure to implement the BICI reforms is well-documented and has been criticized by a collection of governments and independent experts. Even the U.S. government, which has been lenient toward Manama on this matter, recently recognized that progress has stalled.

Finally, Mr. AlBinali describes a number of incremental political reforms over the last decade, but elections to date have been manipulated to weaken the opposition and the current prime minster (the king's uncle) has been in office since 1971. Until the system allows for a regular and peaceful rotation of power among competing parties or groups, it cannot be regarded as democratic.

The Bahraini government can continue its very well-funded campaign to deny the ongoing abuses, or it can begin a genuine, good-faith effort to build real protections for human rights.

Vanessa Tucker is the director for analysis at Freedom House, and oversaw the production of Countries at the Crossroads 2012.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

National Security

A Countervailing View

No, we did not think we could win a nuclear war.

William Burr is to be applauded for successfully gaining declassification of Presidential Decision-59, "Nuclear Weapons Employment," and related documents more than 30 years after its adoption. Unfortunately, his interpretation of what those documents said and meant is badly flawed. Moreover, the views he attributes to me neither were, nor are, mine. I have examined the internal memos of the State Department and the staff of the National Security Council, which I had not previously seen, as well as reread the policy guidance and implementing documents issued by President Carter and by me. It is important that these documents and the decisions and policies they mirror, as well as the lessons they carry, be correctly understood.    

PD-59 directed implementation of a revised policy for nuclear weapons employment in terms of force structure, command and control arrangements, doctrine, and plans. The purpose of PD-59 was to assure, and make plain to Soviet leaders, that they and their regime would not survive a general thermonuclear war; that there could be no victory in such a war because utter destruction would be the outcome. We in the Carter administration were concerned by Soviet military writings. Some of those indicated that while the USSR did not seek to fight a nuclear war, if it happened, they hoped to "win" by surviving as an organized state. Some U.S. analysts, including the "Team B" that issued its report toward the end of the Ford administration, believed that the Soviets intended to gain an ability to win. And indeed, extensive facilities in the USSR sought to protect the leadership from nuclear strikes by the United States, dwarfing any U.S. counterparts.                                                                                    

PD-59 had two goals. One was to disabuse Soviet leaders from the view, assuming they held it, that they could win or survive a nuclear war. We did that both by our declared policy and by the adjustment of our strategic forces and plans for their use if war came. The other goal was to reinforce the U.S. ability, already initiated in earlier years by Robert McNamara and James Schlesinger, to carry out nuclear strikes in a selective way. Burr writes, "Drafters of PD-59...believed they could control escalation during a nuclear war." Perhaps that was so for some, but I, who had the responsibility for implementing it, had a different view. As I wrote in January 1981 in my final report to Congress (echoing statements on the record before PD-59 was issued), "First, I remain highly skeptical that escalation of a limited nuclear exchange can be controlled, or that it can be stopped short of an all-out, massive exchange. Second, even given this belief, I am convinced that we must do everything we can to make such escalation control possible, that opting out of this effort and resigning ourselves to the inevitability of such escalation is a serious abdication of the awesome responsibilities nuclear weapons, and the unbelievable damage their uncontrolled use would create, thrust upon us."

Plans and controls that maintained the possibility of stopping short of escalation to mutual destruction -- even after initial use -- made sense. This "countervailing strategy" embodied flexibility, escalation control, survivability, and endurance. Our strategy included alternative mixes of targets: Soviet strategic forces; other military forces; Soviet leadership and control; and their industrial and economic base, which would automatically affect but not be directed at their urban populations. Two very able senior staff members produced the drafts of PD-59, which, as the minutes released by Burr show, were debated and revised by the members and advisers of the National Security Council. Walt Slocombe, later undersecretary of defense during the Clinton administration, was my action officer for PD-59 in the Defense Department. Bill Odom, then a brigadier general and later the director of the National Security Agency during President Reagan's second term, was the action officer on Zbigniew Brzezinski's staff.

As some of the declassified documents show, an agreed policy was reached, though differing individual perspectives remained. That may explain why Odom, according to Burr, describes me as "chasing [enemy] general forces in East Europe and Korea with 'strategic weapons' in a military exercise." That never happened. And it certainly does not correspond to anything I wrote or believed. Such a scenario was likely Odom's own, as indicated by his writing several years after PD-59: "[I]t became possible to provide precise locating data to [Strategic Air Command]...and then to strike targets in less than an hour. ... [C]onventional military forces already deployed to invade Western Europe could be hit with enough precision to cripple them and dramatically slow their offensive operations." Again, I emphasize, that was Odom's thought, but not mine, and I was second only to the president in the chain of command.                                         

My January 1981 report made clear my view that deterrence of nuclear war was vital because the use of nuclear weapons was likely to escalate to mutual destruction, and victory would not be a possible outcome. At first the Reagan administration turned away from that policy. T.K. Jones, a subordinate of Caspar Weinberger, Reagan's secretary of defense, argued that a fallout and blast shelter program "with enough shovels" could greatly reduce damage and casualties from a major nuclear exchange. President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative claimed it could successfully intercept a Soviet ballistic missile attack. Together, these were advanced as a way out of the threat of destruction by nuclear war, offering a vision of safety or even some sort of victory. But even during Reagan's first term, he returned to the Carter policy of deterrence of nuclear war by threat of retaliation and announced that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." Détente with the USSR was again sought, and with the end of the Soviet Union during George H.W. Bush's administration, the threat of mutual annihilation faded.                                                             

The Cold War has been over for more than 20 years and the security threats, both current and prospective, are different. Nuclear destruction does not now threaten the United States. But nuclear weapons remain. And looking forward, the lessons of strategic nuclear competition between the United States and the USSR inform and can ease the threat of nuclear war from or between other powers. The difficulties that hampered both the Americans and the Soviets, even with decades of experience, in signaling and in reading the short- and long-term intentions of the other, are likely to repeat or intensify for new or aspiring nuclear powers. Those nations offer a grave threat to international security in their interstate interactions and through possible leakage to non-state actors. It's therefore important that a correct interpretation of the past inform the present.                                  

Finally, a comment on Burr's effort to understand PD-59 from newly released documents. Public release of highly classified documents after, say, 20 years, can be in the public interest; that is the case for PD-59. But the effort to understand them well after the fact -- and out of context -- brings to mind the efforts of children who want to know what grown-ups are saying behind closed doors. My 12 years in senior positions in the Defense Department, including four as secretary of defense, tell me that those conversations usually don't differ much from what grownups say when the doors are open. That turns out to be true of PD-59 as well. For further details about the issues dealt with by PD-59, I refer the reader to pp. 38-45 of the Report of the Secretary of Defense to Congress, Jan. 19, 1981, which made clear my meaning and intent.