Middle East

US urged to consider 'Plan B' to force Bahrain reforms

US flag flies at Bahrain's Salman Port in Manama (12 May 2013)
Image caption The Fifth Fleet base is of vital strategic importance to the US and the Gulf

A human rights group has urged the US to consider using the threat of removing the strategically vital Fifth Fleet from Bahrain as leverage to push for reform in the Gulf island kingdom that has been wracked by more than two years of anti-government unrest.

The Washington-based Human Rights First argues in a report released on Friday that the US government should "develop a new strategy and publically inform the Bahraini government that the future of the Fifth Fleet requires political and social stability".

The Fifth Fleet, as well as US Naval Forces Central Command, are headquartered at a sprawling facility called Naval Support Activity-Bahrain. It is home to a carrier strike group, an amphibious ready group, and about 5,000 US personnel.

The Human Rights First report, entitled "Plan B for Bahrain", says the US should warn that "there will be consequences to the partnership if the government of Bahrain does not adequately reform".

It also calls for withholding arms sales and the application of the Leahy Law, which can be used to deny assistance and equipment to police and security forces in countries where there are gross human rights violations.

Since 2000, the US has sold Bahrain some $1.4bn ($870m) of weapons, although some deliveries are on hold or have been scaled back since the authorities launched a deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

A $580m (£360m) military construction project, mainly to allow larger ships to dock at the US naval facility, is also underway and is expected to be completed by 2015.

Stalemate

In February 2011, thousands of peaceful demonstrators occupied the iconic Pearl Roundabout in the capital, Manama. They were demanding democratic reform and an end to discrimination.

In a country where the Shia Muslim majority has long complained of unfair treatment at the hands of its Sunni Muslim rulers, many but by no means all of the protesters were Shia.

The roundabout was cleared by force and in the months that followed, dozens died, including several police officers. Hundreds of Shia were also arrested, thousands were arbitrarily sacked from their jobs, and at least three were beaten to death in custody.

Image caption Angry Shia youth are increasingly turning to violence

The crackdown caused an international outcry and the Bahraini government responded by appointing an independent panel of human rights experts. Their report released in November 2011 was a damning indictment. It called for sweeping reform of the police, the judiciary and the media.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa promised to carry out the reforms. However, critics have complained that not only is that not happening, but that human rights abuses are on the increase.

A national dialogue process intended to find a solution to the crisis has reached an impasse, with the opposition charging that the Khalifa family have no intention of making good on its promises.

And with no political solution in sight, increasingly angry Shia youth are turning to violence.

Major roadways are blocked on an almost daily basis with burning tyre barricades. When the police arrive, they are showered with Molotov cocktails and hit by projectiles fired from homemade guns. The police respond with tear gas, and with volleys of stun grenades and bird-shot.

Political opposition societies have repeatedly condemned the rioters' actions and the security forces' handling of both peaceful and non-peaceful protests. However, the government response has been to blame the opposition for the riots.

Recently, the leaders of the main Shia party, Wefaq, have been detained by the security forces.

Sheikh Ali Salman, Wefaq's secretary-general, was summoned for questioning two weeks' ago over allegations that he had insulted the interior ministry by alleging human rights violations by the police. His assistant, Khalil Marzook, was detained for five weeks on charges of inciting youth violence and trying to overthrow the government.

Actions like these and the ongoing clashes on the streets have further ratcheted up the tension.

'False stability'

Brian Dooley of Human Rights First says: "The US administration has been reluctant to use its influence to push for reform and it has tried hard to keep the Fifth Fleet out of the conversation."

Mr Dooley argues that there is what he calls a "false stability" in Bahrain.

"The jails are packed with political prisoners and the economy is in a downward spiral. You don't get real stability through repression," he explains.

Image caption The US has urged the Bahraini government to compromise with the opposition

However, it seems unlikely that the US will take any action that threatens the presence of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. It is of vital strategic importance to US interests and to the Gulf.

The fleet guards the Strait of Hormuz and is an emphatic statement of US power in a region witnessing a tense stand off as Shia Iran continues to challenge the traditional authority of Sunni Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis, long time allies of the US, sent troops into Bahrain in March 2011 as part of a Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) force to quell the uprising there and restore order.

Michael Stephens, the deputy director of Rusi Qatar, told the BBC that the Fifth Fleet "provides a credible level of deterrence" while the US conducts negotiations with Iran over its controversial nuclear programme.

If anything, Mr Stephens believes, the Human Rights First report is likely to increase the intransigence of the Bahrain's rulers.

"The government needs to start the reform process," he says. "It's going nowhere right now, but quiet diplomacy rather than threats is the way forward. Holding threats never works in the Gulf."

No-one from the Bahraini government was available to comment.