With New Trade Agreement, U.S. Throws Bahraini People Under the Bus

Cathy Feingold

The massive Arab Spring protests of February 2011 have not led to democratic reforms in Bahrain; instead, the government is escalating crackdowns.

What is the best way for the United States to stand against violent repression, the quashing of dissent, show trials, torture and other egregious violations of human and civil rights?

In the case of Bahrain, apparently, it is to include the country in a new U.S. trade and investment plan. Beyond that, the United States has offered mostly silence as the regime crushes its opposition, invests heavily in a public-relations campaign and closes off the country to human-rights and social-justice organizations.

Two weeks ago, the AFL-CIO awarded a human rights award to the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU) and its Tunisian counterpart, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), for the courageous role they played during the Arab uprisings of early 2011. The two countries offer a stark contrast in outcomes: While Tunisia’s future looks promising, the people of Bahrain are seeing their chances for a more democratic society dimming by the day.

The GFBTU—a nonsectarian organization whose membership includes 60 unions and workers from industrial, textile, construction, petroleum, insurance and other sectors — has consistently advocated for social and economic justice. Its commitment to this agenda – and to a broader dialogue that would allow for the democratic participation of all Bahrainis – has proved threatening to the royal family that runs the country.

Once the only union federation in Bahrain, the GFBTU is being undermined by a new, government-allied federation, ironically named the Bahrain Labor Union Free Federation, or BLUFF. After accepting the award in Washington, D.C., GFBTU leaders — and other human rights activists from Bahrain — flew to Geneva and spoke critically at a United Nations Human Rights Commission meeting regarding their government’s attacks on workers and its torture and imprisonment of opposition leaders. They also highlighted their government’s failure to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which was established to study the unrest during the Arab Spring, and issued a critical report in November 2011 listing a variety of actions for the government to take to address its violation of international human and labor rights.

In response, the government has accused activists of tarnishing its reputation. Activists’ names and photos — circled in red — were published in the pro-government Al Watan newspaper, a clear threat with chilling consequences for any Bahraini citizen who values freedom of speech. Even less subtle, the very GFBTU leaders who accepted a humanitarian award now receive regular and threatening calls and messages.

And the situation continues to deteriorate with the killing of a 17-year-old protestor last weekend and ongoing repression of human and labor rights organizations. As activists risked their lives to protest government repression, the GFBTU prepared for its congress – a meeting to elect leaders, debate agendas and determine the organization’s course. The federation invited the AFL-CIO, partner unions and international organizations from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa to participate. Almost all of the international delegation was denied entry into the country: another glaring signal of the government’s contempt for worker and human rights and determination to have no international witnesses to its crackdown.

The U.S. government sends mixed messages regarding the stark situation in Bahrain. The State Department’s Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) Bureau continues to raise the issue of Bahrain’s human rights abuses. In June 2011, the Department of Labor accepted and then investigated an AFL-CIO complaint that the government of Bahrain retaliated against protesting working people and trade unions by dismissing over 2,000 workers in violation of Bahrain’s labor laws and the terms agreed to in the free-trade agreement with the United States. The release of DOL’s report is expected later this month and activists hope it will further document and highlight the ongoing labor rights violations in Bahrain and formally call for formal consultations on these labor rights violations with the Bahraini government.

But the rest of the government appears indifferent to the growing repression. Just last week the U.S. Trade Representative announced a new trade and investment initiative for the region, which includes Bahrain.

By launching new initiatives without addressing the growing threats and ongoing human rights violations, the U.S. government is missing an opportunity to use its engagement with Bahrain to support the emergence of a more just and democratic society — and to reject the Bahraini government’s attempt to quash dissent by trampling rights and by arresting and torturing its people on political grounds.

It is not too late for the United States to support the freedoms and rights so valued by Americans and so desired by others. Our partnerships in the region need not be solely based on trade, investment and security interests — but should also reflect the needs of courageous people who live in hope of a more just society.

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Cathy Feingold is the Director of the AFL-CIO’s International Department.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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