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.