Human Rights in the Middle East: Why US Voices Matter

January 25, 2012

Five months ago, I joined the team at Amnesty International USA to advocate for human rights across the Middle East and North Africa.  Together with my colleagues in our Washington DC office, I work daily to push governments to stand up for core freedoms — or at least, to stop violating them.

From my perch in DC, I’m especially concerned about US foreign policy and how it impacts the lives of those across the Middle East and North Africa.  In a number of countries where protestors have been in the streets, the governments that have attacked them received guns, ammunition, and equipment from US sources.

Egypt’s military leadership is one example.  Bahrain’s monarchy is another.  What this means is that US-based human rights advocates and activists have a very important role to play.  What happens in Washington DC and in congressional districts across the country has a significant impact on human rights around the world.

That’s because the people responsible for putting US weapons in the hands of human rights violators pay close attention to what US voters have to say. Where there is silence, the status quo remains.  But when concerned US citizens and residents speak up, elected officials notice.

One good example was the US State Department’s decision late last year to delay a proposed $53 million weapons sale to the Bahraini government.  Since February of 2011, the Bahraini security forces have shown a willingness to use violence and torture to control and penalize Bahraini protestors.

Bahrain is a tiny island nation that has been ruled by the al Khalifa monarchy for some 200 years.  As with so many governments across the Middle East and North Africa, Bahrain’s leaders are now facing increasing scrutiny and protest from the society they have ruled over.  And as in so many other countries, the Bahraini government has responded to such protests with violence.

That’s why there was significant protest inside the United States when the Obama Administration proposed selling $53 million in US arms to the Bahrain government in September of 2011.  Amnesty International, human rights activists, and even Members of Congress criticized the proposed sale.  The Bahraini government had already used tanks to surround a hospital where wounded protestors had been treated.  Why was the US government now proposing the sale of additional armored Humvees and tow missiles?

Following public criticism and threats of legislative action, the weapons sale has now been put on hold.  That’s why Bahrain’s monarchy invests time in Twitter and pays for US lobbyists like Joe Trippi – the one-time strategist behind Howard Dean’s presidential campaign.  They want to do their best to prevent such an outcome from happening again in the future.  As human rights violations in Bahrain continue, the Bahraini government wants to limit the resulting political damage in the US.

All of this, however, shows how important domestic US opinion is for securing global human rights.  As protestors take to the streets in country after country in the Middle East and North Africa, let’s make sure we in the US are doing our part to stand up for their core human rights.  That doesn’t necessarily mean endorsing their every specific demand or political platforms.  But it does mean preventing the shipment of US weapons that could be used to kill them.

In the global struggle for human rights, our own policymakers need to hear from us.

How you can help:

This posting is part of the MENA anniversaries blogging series.

Follow Sanjeev Bery on Twitter @SanjeevBery