Press Background Call on the One-Year Anniversary of the Release of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry Report
MODERATOR: Thank you, [Operator]. And thanks to everyone for joining us this afternoon, just a couple of days out from Thanksgiving. We did want to do this call, obviously, as the invite said, we wanted to talk a little bit about U.S. policy in Bahrain on the one year anniversary of the release of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report. And joining us today are two speakers. [Senior Administration Official One] is here, as well as [Senior Administration Official Two]. And – or forgive me, I’m sorry, [Senior Administration Official Two].
And just a reminder before I do hand it over to [Senior Administration Official One], that this is an on-background call, so henceforth they’ll be known as Senior Administration Official Number One and Senior Administration Official Number Two. So without further ado, I’ll get it – I’ll hand it over the microphone to [Senior Administration Official One].
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, [Moderator], and thanks for being on the call. As [Moderator] indicated, Friday is the one year anniversary of the release of the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. And we thought this is a good time to take stock of where we are and reflect on things still that remain to be done.
I should say at the outset that, as we’ve said repeatedly, we have an important security relationship with Bahrain. For more than 60 years we’ve worked in close collaboration on a range of regional security interests, and those interests are still extremely important, especially given some of the instability in the Gulf and actions of the Iranian Government.
We also have said in the past that we commend the Government of Bahrain for establishing the BICI Commission, which is a quite extraordinary effort, bringing in five independent experts to do a very thorough review of the violence and related incidents that took place last February and March. They had wide access both to government and people outside. They produced a 500-page report, very hard-hitting report, and they made a series of recommendations, a number of which the government has acted on in whole or in part.
But I think it’s also fair to say, and this is where we come to the one year anniversary, that we remain concerned about increasing violence in Bahrain, by limits on free expression and assembly, and a political environment that’s become increasingly difficult and that’s made reconciliation and political dialogue more difficult. In the last month, we’ve seen street demonstrations where protestors throw Molotov cocktails, are violent in their own actions. And we’ve also seen excessive use of force by police and security forces.
And we’ve said repeatedly that there needs to be created an environment where the possibility of genuine dialogue and negotiation is possible. The society is now deeply divided, and we believe that a more prosperous and rights-respecting Bahrain is both good for the Bahraini people, but it’s also in everyone’s best interest in terms of security. So we view the issues of security and human rights as overlapping and reinforcing, and we have continued to call for both the government and the political opposition to find a way to come to the table to negotiate their differences.
Let me just stop with that and turn over to [Senior Administration Official Number Two], and then we’re glad to answer your questions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Great, thank you, [Senior Administration Official Number Two]. Now just a couple of other points I would add, and I think from our perspective, we think that the anniversary of the BICI report offers an opportunity for the Government of Bahrain to really reflect a bit in a thoughtful way about what it has achieved, what it has not achieved, and how we can narrow the gap between the two, and at the same time narrow the divide between its own interests and purposes and the opposition. Because that divide has been growing, and we are quite worried about the fact that we’re not seeing any active efforts at this moment to try to bridge that gap in any meaningful way, and we’re trying to encourage both parties to see it in their interest to do so.
Certainly, in terms of what we believe needs to be focused on perhaps most sharply at the moment are issues of accountability for misdeeds and misconduct of officials of the Bahraini Government as well as the detention – and ongoing detention of individuals held for what are, for the most part, as we can ascertain, infractions of free expression and criticism of the government.
As [Senior Administration Official Number One] noted, we have enormous strategic interests in Bahrain. It has been a partner in regional defense for years now, 60 years, I think, since the Fifth Fleet located there. And we really need to do the best job we can to balance those requirements and those interests with those we have at the same time in encouraging reform, given our commitment to the fact that reform is the only way we can see that genuine stability and prosperity will emerge in the region.
And with that, let me pause.
MODERATOR: Great. Thanks to both of you. We’re now ready to open up to questions. So go ahead, [Operator].
OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, press *1 on your touchtone phone. You will hear an acknowledgment tone. If you’re using a speakerphone, pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question, press *1 at this time.
We have a question from Roy Gutman with McClatchy Newspapers. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. What do you think of the actions of the government in the past month or so? For example, depriving something like 30 people of their citizenship, banning all protests and all marches, and I guess – and all expression – all free expressions of criticism of the government. I mean, is the government sort of running out of ideas and are they running out of steam? Have they – are they competent enough to actually cope with the fact that much of the population is very much up in arms?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I’m not going to characterize this quite, as you put it, Roy, but the – we have said repeatedly that there needs to be an environment in Bahrain where people are able to express themselves freely, to assemble, to demonstrate, to speak, to engage in a real debate about the differences in the society. And we’ve both called on the political opposition to speak out forcefully against violence, and there has been violence on a regular basis by the demonstrators, but at the same time we’ve pushed – we’ve said to the Government of Bahrain and we’ve said publicly that there needs to be space for peaceful demonstrations for people to express their views, and we have concerns about bans on demonstrations or taking away citizenship. The differences are real and there needs to be a place for people to express those differences, and as I said earlier, to negotiate their differences.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I might just add to that I think it’s our view that all of the parties involved in the political life in Bahrain have a responsibility to take actions that will, in fact, as I said earlier, narrow the difference between them. And we have both the government – well, we have the government on one side, we have the Shia opposition, and we have an emerging Sunni opposition, which has influence as well in the political debate that’s ongoing at the moment. So all of these parties need to find the way to bridge these differences, to move closer to each other, rather than take actions that tend to exacerbate the sense of grievance each of them shares.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Ready for the next question, if there is one.
OPERATOR: There are no other questions. If you do have a question, press *1 on your touchtone phone at this time. We do have a question from Indira Lakshmanan at Bloomberg News. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes. Thanks for doing this. I wanted to ask about the U.S. military presence in Bahrain and find out from you whether the rising level of violence and the crackdown is reaching such a level that the U.S. is having to rethink its commitment to keeping the Fifth Fleet headquartered in Manama, and how concerned you are about the crackdown having any ripple effect or potential violence against U.S. service personnel – personnel or attacks on Fifth Fleet installations?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: As I said at the outset, we have a longstanding and strong security relationship with the Government of Bahrain. And we have every expectation that that is – will be ongoing. At the same time, it’s clear that the political instability and the issues that we’re discussing here need to be addressed both to maintain and build more stability and security in Bahrain and also to fulfill peoples’ expectations about human rights.
So this is an agenda. The things we’re talking about and that were outlined in the BICI report are of concern to the U.S. Government across the board. And there has been a clear articulation, both by the DOD and State Department interlocutors, that these issues are a priority to the United States, and we’ll continue to address and push on them.
QUESTION: Thanks. And can you also address how much the U.S. believes Iran is involved in the conflict? You mentioned it in your opening remarks, but can you elaborate? Are they behind the protests? Or how involved are they in the conflict?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I think it’s – there are different reports of one sort or another about specific contacts engagements with Iran. Let me say this at the outset: Whatever Iran’s involvement in one or another discussions with the political opposition, it’s absolutely clear that if the society breaks apart, Iran will be the big winner and beneficiary. And one of our main objectives here is to encourage a negotiation, a dialogue, that brings the country together in a way that prevents that from happening.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Great. Next question?
OPERATOR: There are no other questions at this time.
MODERATOR: Okay, great. Going --
OPERATOR: We do have a question.
MODERATOR: I thought so. Go ahead.
OPERATOR: Tom Shanker with The New York Times. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks for your time and for the interesting discussion. I wanted to follow on that question. I understand that both Defense Department and State are saying – and giving all these messages to the Government of Bahrain, but the Fifth Fleet headquarters is sort of the American presence there. So I’m wondering if there’s any assessment of the dangers specifically to the headquarters and its personnel and families and if anything is being done to try to mitigate potential anger at this symbol of American power that is the largest presence in the country.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I mean, to begin with, in addition to the Fifth Fleet, we have, obviously, a very active embassy. And as any country in the world, we are extremely mindful of the security obligations to protect our own people and installations. So we’re mindful of that in Bahrain, as we are anywhere in the world.
I think what’s important is that the people of Bahrain, across the spectrum, understand that we’re engaged in a way that is intended to reinforce the desire of people on all sides of the political divide to live in a healthy, stable, prosperous, rights-respecting society. And our engagement is active on these issues, but we understand that the people of Bahrain have to make these decisions themselves. But we’re certainly trying in every way we can to reinforce the spirit of the BICI report, which calls for a set of reforms on human rights in a way that will create a better atmosphere, a less tense atmosphere, and allows negotiations to go forward.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Roy Gutman, McClatchy Newspapers. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: You just used a phrase, “if society breaks apart,” and actually from all of your remarks I’m getting the impression that you think things have actually in some ways gotten worse in the past year. And I’m wondering just can you give some assessment, since we’re on background here, of who is responsible for that? To what extent has the government failed to give the political recognition, for example, to the opposition and the fact that the Shia are a majority, and to cut the Gordian political knot, for one thing, leaving aside all of the abuses, leaving aside the failure to prosecute? There seems to be – it sounds like from what you’re saying that there’s not – that the Shia do not have a feeling that there’s a future in the society as it is now constructed.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Let me step back from that and just reflect back to where we were a year ago. Obviously the events of February and March of 2011 were traumatic for Bahraini society, and the creation of the BICI commission was a really important step, and the government deserves credit for being willing to allow this kind of external evaluation of what happened.
I think that gave people a sense of hope and a sense that there was going to be a reform process that would create an environment where there could be a political negotiation over the future. And in the months – the early months of the BICI implementation – the government set up a commission – it followed a number of the recommendations: allowing the Red Cross access, issuing arrest protocols, dealing with some police training issues, setting up an ombudsman in the Ministry of Interior, et cetera.
And what unfortunately hasn’t happened is that on a range of issues, including the one you just raised – accountability – some of the things [Senior Administration Official Two] talked about, on the hardest issues the government has not followed through and we’ve not seen – there are still people who are being held in prison or being prosecuted for demonstrating a year and a half ago, for expressing their political views. There’s still not meaningful police reform. So there are a range of ways in which the society is waiting for those actions which would begin to bring the country together.
On top of that, you’ve had these rising tensions on the street, and again, demonstrators throwing Molotov cocktails, hurling projectiles at the police, and the police responding with use of tear gas and excessive force in some instances. And so all of that creates a more tense environment. And at the – and on a parallel track, it’s made it harder for the two sides, the opposition and the government, to come together to talk about a political resolution in the larger sense.
So, yeah, we are concerned about the current state. We’re urging both the government and the political opposition to take appropriate steps, to find a way to negotiate and talk about their differences. And we are worried that this society is moving apart rather than coming together in a way that would ensure both human rights and stability.
QUESTION: And what about the fact – are international groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and so on, allowed into the country now? I heard recently that they were actually still blocked.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: There are – there have been a number of visits by human rights groups. It’s on a kind of case-by-case basis. There are some restrictions on how many days they can stay. I don’t know all of the details, but a range of groups, including Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights, Human Rights First, and others, have visited multiple times and the government has said that they’ll continue to be allowed to visit.
QUESTION: And are the media allowed in now freely, or are they still blocking some people?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Again, I think this is on a sort of case-by-case basis. Many international media as well as local media are there, have been in and out, but there’s – there have been some restrictions on this as well.
MODERATOR: Okay, I think we have time for one more question.
OPERATOR: If there are other questions, press *1 on your touchtone phone.
There are no further questions.
MODERATOR: Great. Well, thanks again to all of you, as I said, for taking time out this afternoon, and as well to our two speakers. Greatly appreciate it, and have a great holiday.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, everybody.