Remarks by Carl Gershman At the Presentation of the Ion Ratiu Democracy Award to Nabeel Rajab of Bahrain

The Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, D.C.
December 1, 2011

I want to begin by congratulating Nabeel Rajab for receiving this important award, and also by commending the Wilson Center and the Ratiu Family Foundation and Democracy Center for their good timing. To have this event just a week after the public presentation by Cherif Bassiouni of the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry is highly significant. This is a critical moment when it is necessary to focus on both the opportunity for democratic change in Bahrain and also the formidable challenges that lie ahead.

The report of the Bassiouni Commission is a devastating indictment of the human rights abuses committed by the Bahraini security forces earlier this year when they brutally crushed the democracy protests that erupted in the wake of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. The report details both physical and psychological torture. It recounts how prisoners were whipped, kicked, beaten with rubber hoses; subjected to electric shock treatment; deprived of sleep; exposed to high temperatures; and threatened with rape. Five people died as a result of this treatment, and they were among 45 people overall who were killed in the crackdown.

Such treatment, according to the report, was systematic, perpetrated by Sunni-controlled security forces with nearly all of the victims being Shias. In addition, according to the report, because officials were not held accountable for this abuse and torture, which violated both Bahrain’s penal code and international treaties against torture to which Bahrain is a signatory, a “culture of impunity” has spread throughout the country. A climate of fear was also created as a consequence of these abuses and late-night and pre-dawn attacks on residences targeting individuals for their participation in protests and political activity. Some 30 Shia mosques were demolished, and thousands of workers were dismissed from their jobs because they supported the protests and took part in strikes permissible under Bahraini law.

This is a harshly critical report, and King Hamad is to be commended not just for commissioning the report – no other Arab government has allowed this degree of public scrutiny of its behavior – but also for allowing it to be broadcast to the nation and announcing that he accepted its recommendations. This took courage, as did his statement that “Any government that has a sincere desire to reform and progress should understand the benefit of objective and constructive criticism.”

All this is to the good. But there are very serious problems. Some have to do with the recommendations of the report, which deferred investigations of the abuses to the government, raising questions about whether the security forces would really be held accountable. In addition, the government has established a National Committee to examine the recommendations and report back in February, raising concerns that the urgency of the moment will pass without anything changing. Moreover, while the commission said that the members of any such committee should be jointly appointed, the composition of this committee has been unilaterally determined by the government. Even more worrisome, the day after the report was issued, on Nov 24, the security forces once again used force to put down a peaceful demonstration, suggesting that everything is proceeding as before.

The core of the problem is that the country is paralyzed by a complete stand-off, with no indication that the government or the opposition is ready to start a process of meaningful dialogue. And this is a deeply divided society. One member of the commission that presented the report, Sir Nigel Rodley, a former UN special rapporteur on torture, went so far as to compare Bahrain to Northern Ireland. Bahrain is so poisonously polarized along sectarian lines that it is possibly on the verge of much greater violence than we’ve seen so far.

It’s not just the country that’s divided. So is the government. The real power is not in the hands of the king or Crown Prince, who is an advocate of reform. It’s in the hands of the Prime Minister, who has been in power for the last 40 years and who shows no signs of leaving or changing.

And behind the Prime Minister stands Saudi Arabia, which is opposed to any reform and sees the opposition as simply Shia agents of Iran. In this regard, the report of Bassouni Commission found no evidence of any kind to support the government’s argument that Iran was behind the protests. It rightly said that these protests were entirely the product of the internal grievances of Bahrainis.

Indeed, are we to believe that leading human rights activists in Bahrain are the agents of a despotic Iranian regime? Among the Bahrainis who are in prison now are Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the co-founder and former president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights; Ali Abdul Emam, a prominent blogger and human rights activist, and Abdul Jalil al-Singace, a former fellow at Stanford and a personal friend who heads the Human Rights Bureau of the Haq Movement for Civil Liberties and Democracy. The idea that these human rights advocates and the people they work with – Nabeel Rajab among them — are somehow connected to the Iranian regime, which is against human rights, is both absurd and obscene. They have much more in common with the Green Movement in Iran, and the people who have died and suffered for freedom there, than they have with the thugs who repress them.

And what about Ibrahim Sharif, the Sunni moderate and civil society activist who is affiliated with the secular liberal National Democratic Action Society (or Wa’ad). He, too, is in prison. Is he also an Iranian stooge?

In fact, if there is not an accommodation in Bahrain, if the current standoff continues, it is only Iran that will benefit. The regime in Iran would welcome an explosion in Bahrain. It would love to have desperate Bahrainis, who have been abandoned by the international community, driven into its waiting arms. This is surely the view of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In her speech last month to the National Democratic Institute, she said that “Meaningful reform and equal treatment for all Bahrainis are in Bahrain’s interest, in the region’s interest, and in ours – while endless unrest benefits Iran and extremists.”

Secretary Clinton commended the government in Bahrain for recognizing “the need for dialogue, reconciliation, and concrete reforms,” adding that “we do intend to hold the Bahraini Government to these commitments and to encourage the opposition to respond constructively to secure and lasting reform.”

Regrettably, though, Bahrain is not now in a position by itself to initiate this urgently needed process of dialogue and reform. It is simply too divided and too beholden to Saudi Arabia. The United States must help. Bahrain, in fact, is one country in the complex and troubled Middle East where the United States has the ability to act effectively. It needs to take bold and meaningful steps to assure those committed to reform in Bahrain that the United States stands with them — that we will help them, support them, and defend them if they undertake a process of gradual and meaningful reform toward constitutionalism, greater equality and political enfranchisement. Only this can break the deadlock, can encourage the reformers in the government to feel sufficiently confident and secure to start a process of change to which the opposition can and should respond in a constructive way.

The award to Nabeel has been given by a Romanian institution, and the issue has come up in the discussions at this forum of whether the events of 1989 in Central Europe offer any lessons for the Middle East today, and for Bahrain in particular. I would suggest that a version of the Roundtable Negotiations that led to the agreement on transition in Poland in April 1989 – setting in motion all the momentous changes that followed – might have relevance in Bahrain today. The Roundtable talks brought to the same table the Polish government and the Solidarity opposition, with the Church as a witness. Something similar is needed in Bahrain, but it has to be a real process of negotiation. It’s important to have at the table the Walesas and Geremeks of Bahrain, and that would be the people I mentioned earlier. What a dramatic gesture it would be if al-Khawaja, Abdul Emam, al-Singace, and Ibrahim Sharif were released from prison to join talks on breaking the deadlock. It might even be possible to bring to Bahrain a couple of people from Poland to quietly serve as advisers. This is just a thought, but it’s an initiative that the United States might push, and it could have a real impact.

Will this produce instability and chaos? The Saudis will say it will, but in fact reform and negotiation are the only way to avoid an explosion. Does anyone really think that the monarchies of the Gulf can permanently shield themselves from the historic forces that are transforming the Middle East – what Nabeel earlier called a tsunami of change? They can’t hold back change but must find a way to adjust to it, to manage it, to accommodate it.

Bahrain is a small country, but it can play a leading role in this process, as Tunisia did for the Arab Spring. It can be a model for the peaceful and orderly transition from an authoritarian to a constitutional monarchy. It can lead by example. It has the economic capacity to do this. It has the human resources to do this. And it now has the opportunity to do this. Let us hope that, with U.S. help, they can seize this opportunity and realize its full potential.