Thursday, 17th July 2014

Malinowski’s expulsion unlikely to change the status quo in Bahrain

The three-year, slow-burning conflict in Bahrain remains a minor headache to most international governments, in a region full of thumping migraines. But as l’affaire Malinowksi reminded us this month, for all the West’s efforts to coax the Al-Khalifa into submission with the vocabulary of “longstanding bilateral relationships” and “strong partnerships”, the problem of Bahrain will not fade away. Manama’s aggressive decision to expel the US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour, Tom Malinowski, displayed utter disregard for Washington’s opinion, and again demonstrated the lengths to which Bahrain will go to silence potentially critical voices. (Malinowski at least made it in to Bahrain, more than UN special rapporteur on torture Juan Méndez has managed to do on more than one occasion, GSN 966/7, 946/5).

The official reason for Malinowski’s ejection was that – in defiance of a September 2013 ruling stating that foreign diplomats can only meet political parties in the presence of a government official (GSN 955/5) – Malinowski met the leaders of the main opposition group Al-Wefaq. But the ruling has been widely ignored until now, and to enforce it – not only by declaring Malinowski persona non grata, but also by interrogating and then charging the senior leadership of Al-Wefaq – shows that the government feels particularly threatened by Washington’s latest envoy.

The reason for this is likely to be two-fold. Firstly, Malinowski, a former director of Human Rights Watch, has made very clear his position. In 2012, he wrote a much-quoted piece in Foreign Policy entitled ‘Prison Island’ which documented Bahrain’s lack of progress on reform. “The government has not ended human rights abuses against protesters,” he wrote. “Police torture and abuse have simply moved from police stations to the alleyways and back lots of Shiite villages.” His opinion of the government’s intransigence does not seem to have changed. “Seems Bahrain government decision not about me but about undermining dialogue,” he posted on Twitter after being asked to leave. “Those committed to reconciliation should not be deterred.”

More worrisome than Malinowski’s views on the Al-Khalifa’s repressive tactics, however, are his views – also expressed in the 2012 article – on Washington’s half-hearted approach to Bahrain. Malinowski argued then that the US ought to suspend arms sales to Bahrain until the government resumes political reform, and make it clear that the US will not maintain a military presence in Bahrain if government repression reaches an intolerable point. “Showing a willingness to reconsider the partnership may be the best way to save it,” he wrote.

Now that he is in government, his convictions represent a far greater threat. In the years since the uprising began in Bahrain, the government has grown accustomed to relatively benign allies in the West, who have on the whole been careful to twin criticism with praise and always reaffirm their loyalty to the Bahraini government. The prospect of a state department interlocutor who might be willing to state things as they are and push for the department to be proactive is unsurprisingly distasteful to Manama.

Washington’s immediate response contains little to suggest that this latest spat will seriously change the status quo, however. The fact it took secretary of state John Kerry six days to pick up a phone and remonstrate with the Bahrainis suggests the department is unwilling to be gung-ho. Malinowksi’s expulsion (and his outspokenness) represent an excellent opportunity for the West to increase pressure on Bahrain. Given everything else happening in the neighbourhood, however, it is an opportunity that is, again, likely to be squandered.

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