While NATO troops are engaged in Libya and news outlets report on the unrest developing in Syria and elsewhere, one of the most severe opposition crackdowns which has thus far occurred in the Arab Spring in underway in Bahrain. While it does pop up in the headlines here and there, it does not seem to be getting the media traction it deserves, even as government officials are bordering on serious breaches of international law.
Bahrain has been accused of systematic crimes against humanity (warning: graphic images) and human rights abuses before, but recently the Bahraini government is pressing on with prosecutions against medical personnel who assisted injured protesters. Deputy Director of Physicians for Human Rights Richard Sollum has also detailed systematic attacks by security forces against ambulances and medics, medical professionals and more.
The actions committed by forces under the control of King Al Khalifa are more than just morally abhorrent, they are a flagrant violation of international law. Setting aside the brutal response which has greeted protesters in Bahrain, medical neutrality is globally considered sacrosanct. This is clear in both customary international law as well as the protocols of the Geneva Convention. Whereas King Al Khalifa may be able to shirk some of his culpability with regards to the protester crackdown as an internal matter of law enforcement, the government cannot order medical professionals to deny injured protesters the treatment they require per the International Code of Medical Ethics, which states that doctors “must give emergency care as a humanitarian duty.”
If media coverage of these atrocities has been somewhat lacking, government response has been virtually absent. In Britain, Liberal Democrat Lord Averbury has long criticized the regime of Al Khalifa and has called for the imposition of a travel ban on top tier government officials. British Foreign Office Minister Lord Howell, however, has said that the UK has no plans to impose an embargo on Bahrain because “not all aspects of this case are clear at the moment”. Some have described the conflict as sectarian violence where neither side is innocent. It is worth remembering, however, that this was the very same defense used for inaction as the Rwandan genocide was unfolding in April 1994.
Part of the reason that the British are uneasy at the prospect of criticizing King Al Khalifa is the good relationship they have enjoyed with him. This motivation is equally powerful across the pond in Washington, where the US and Bahrain have been said to have “about as good a bilateral relationship as anywhere.” The king, who was educated at U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, has been a key non-NATO ally in countering Iranian influence over the Middle East and is host to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
One can see how Western governments are in a tough position with regards to Bahrain, particularly when it does not receive as much attention as its much larger neighbors. However, as human rights abuses continue to increase in frequency and severity, silence from key leaders becomes more and more deafening.