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Unrest in Bahrain

Bahrain protest
a protested throws something on fire at a police vehicle driving away

“Bahrain lies at the epicenter of Gulf security and any violent upheaval in Bahrain would have enormous geopolitical consequences.” 

–King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, April 19, 2011 

2.1 The Issue

In the small island country of Bahrain, located in the Persian Gulf (sometimes known as the Arabian Gulf), government and security forces have clashed with protesters seeking democratic reform. Bahrain’s leaders belong to the Sunni sect of Islam, a minority in the country; the majority of Bahrainis are Shiite. There is a history of Sunni-Shiite tension in Bahrain, but that tension is only one dimension of the current situation. Broader societal stresses—including repression, disenfranchisement, and limited economic opportunity for the country’s majority—also drive calls for reform. 

Bahraini activists, inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, gathered in the capital, Manama, in February 2011 to demand reforms from the government. These reforms included a new constitution that provides for an elected parliament and independent courts, the release of protesters arrested in police crackdowns, and freedom of expression. Some opposition groups made more forceful calls for Bahrain to become a true constitutional monarchy and for an end to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s rule. The ruling Al Khalifa family has responded to these protests with force and mass arrests. Several human rights groups have condemned Bahrain’s response, citing reports of torture, enforced disappearance, and executions of protesters.

Similar uprisings in the Middle East received robust international support. Most notably, the UN Security Council voted to authorize military intervention in Libya to protect civilians amid a popular uprising against the ruling Muammar al-Qaddafi regime. However, Bahraini opposition movements have not been able to rally the same international support, in part because two permanent UN Security Council members, the United States and the United Kingdom, have long-standing military and economic ties with Bahrain. Nevertheless, continuing unrest and repression in Bahrain raise the question of whether international action is needed to ensure the protection of human rights in Bahrain.

Decision Point

UN Security Council Meeting


Unrest in Bahrain has intensified. Last week, opposition protesters, believing that their grievances remain unaddressed and seeking to reenergize their cause, gathered by the thousands at several locations in and around Manama. Speakers at one rally called not only for an end to the monarchy but also for the king and other senior members of the royal family to be tried and imprisoned. Two bombs hit police convoys responding to the protests, killing several police officers and civilian bystanders. The Bahraini government accused opposition activists of carrying out the bombings, but the activists denied responsibility and condemned the acts. Regardless, the attacks only amplified an already severe crackdown by Bahrain’s security forces, especially in predominantly Shiite areas. The police killed ten protesters. Hundreds more were arrested and remain in custody.

The government’s crackdown has only increased the opposition’s intensity. Bahraini activists are speaking out more forcefully, asserting their political demands and calling for the immediate release of those arrested. These activists, along with international human rights organizations, have also begun calling for a coordinated international response. The UN secretary-general has called a meeting of the UN Security Council toassess whether the situation warrants a response and, if so, what kind.

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