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Questions About Bahrain

Military actions taken by the U.S. and NATO in Libya and France and the UN in Cote D’Ivoire have seemingly ushered in a new era of international engagement and intervention to protect civilians from bloody conflict. One result of this sweeping shift in policy is the many questions that will indubitably ensue: When do we use military force and when do we refrain from intervention? In cases where we don’t intervene, how strongly do we support those fighting for freedom? In some cases should we stand with those in power?

These are questions currently being asked right now of the situation in Bahrain, where a desperate king is attempting to hold onto power in a volatile region. Bahrain is a Muslim country with a Shiite majority. Although Shiites make up 70% of the overall population, they have very little power in a country controlled by a Sunni Monarchy and business elite.  According to New York Times reporter Nicholas D. Kristof, Bahrain “is something like an apartheid state.” Kristoff has spent time in Bahrain over the past few months and has seen that Sunni neighborhoods are consistently nicer than Shiite neighborhoods. In addition, Shiites are prohibited from joining the police force.

In February 2011, inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahraini Shiites began protesting against the Sunni Monarchy in Pearl Square in the capital city, Manama. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa responded harshly, sending State security forces to attack protesters in the square with shooting and tear gas. Five protestors died and hundreds were injured. President Obama responded to the violence by imploring King Khalifa to allow peaceful demonstrations and refrain from attacking protestors. Following the crackdown, the President said he was “deeply concerned,” and urged “the governments of Bahrain, Libya and Yemen to show restraint in responding to peaceful protests, and to respect the rights of their people.”

Since then, little violence has occurred in Bahrain, and state security forces have left Pearl Square, allowing demonstrations to continue. The U.S. administration has hailed the recent lull in violence as significant progress in the island country and reason enough not to intervene or even vocally attack the entrenched Monarchy.

However, King Khalifa has declared a state of emergency, bringing in 2000 troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to maintain order; there have been hundreds of arrests and reports of torture; and privacy laws have been suspended allowing state security forces to search any building without a warrant. Since February, 26 people have been killed, 300 imprisoned, and 35 missing.

The fact that the White House has unfalteringly backed the Monarchy and the United Nations has been relatively silent on the issue is disconcerting. Nicholas Kristof reports, “I’ve seen corpses of protesters who were shot at close range, seen a teenage girl writhing in pain after being clubbed, seen ambulance workers beaten for trying to rescue protesters.” Although the death toll in Bahrain remains relatively low, accounts like this and the number of missing and imprisoned persons begs the question: What are the limits of the responsibility to protect? Do we have a right to intervene and protect civilians in cases of oppression but without mass atrocities?

The report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty states:

“Where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect.”

(To read the full article on Bahrain by Nicholas D. Kristof in the New York Times click here)

The definition of how a state can lose its sovereignty is broad and open to interpretation. This writer feels that in the case of Bahrain, the U.S. and UN have been wise to verbally pressure King Khalifa without reverting to military force. Intervention has so far been unnecessary. The situation needs to be monitored and future developments may require intervention.

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