Bahrain, the close American ally with one of the worst recent records of violence against pro-democracy protestors, received a formal a warning on Wednesday from the UN Human Rights chief.
A team from the High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Bahrain from 13 to 17 December and concluded that the repression was unacceptable. It insisted the government should immediately and unconditionally release protestors convicted by military tribunals or still awaiting trial. Failing action, the Human Rights body may try to drum up support for more diplomatic pressure.
The warning is significant because the king in Bahrain is propped up by Salafi Islamic hardliners in Saudi Arabia who fear its Shiite Muslim majority. The Pentagon supports the royal family with huge amounts of military hardware and a large US Navy base.
The situation in Bahrain symbolizes the ambivalence in Washington about the so-called Arab Spring, despite its rhetorical support of freedom and democracy. Heading into 2012, optimism is waning as tensions grow almost unmanageable in Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen among right wing militarists, Islamic forces and the mostly young pro-democracy liberals who have energized the people’s rebellions since January 2011.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says that the region is at an inflection point in history. All is changing. The old rules are breaking down and the emerging new order is unknown.
Social media-savvy young people seeking dignity and jobs in Tunisia and Egypt were the unexpected pioneers of rebellions. They did not gain much despite unprecedented democratic elections in their countries but they triggered a wider global phenomenon. Articulate middle class people have risen up in non-violent protest movements against unequal societies and corruption from rich countries like Switzerland and the US through Russia, Brazil and China to poorer ones like India and Kenya.
A vast social experiment organized and aided by social media like Facebook and Twitter is spreading through the world and the end is not yet in sight. Barack Obama seems behind the curve because the US government and State Department are still being cautious about disturbing the status quo built on cozy alliances like the ones with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
The other key American allies in the wars on terrorism, Egypt and Yemen continue to be in turmoil although the regimes Washington supported for decades have fallen.
Will systematic violations of the human rights of protestors ever stop? A year after it all began, the answer seems to be “no”. The prodemocracy liberals in each of the Arab Spring countries are fractious and disjointed. They know what they do not want but do not know how to build what they want.
The military rulers seem interested only in preserving the power they have enjoyed for decades and are unable to overcome their disdain of the rabble. They cannot believe that the street may have something intelligent to say about preserving and growing the nation.
The Islamic parties, whether conservative or moderate, see opportunities to wrest power and have their moments in the sun. They fear both the militarists and the liberals because neither accepts the divine right of religious leaders to rule an entire nation.
The only good news is that ordinary people are not yet pointing guns at one another. But the peace is fragile. Even after the departure of dictators as in Egypt and Yemen, military councils are killing peaceful protestors. In countries like Libya and Iraq, which are emerging from war, peaceful coexistence among rivals for power is far from certain.
Washington disapproves but does little more than making declarations when its friends are involved. Against Bahrain, it is waving a straw not a stick.