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04/05/2013

Mr. Baird goes to Bahrain

Baird and bahrain pix
Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, left, at a press conference with Bahraini Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, right, in Manama, Bahrain, on April 3. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

In the blur of the fast-moving Arab Spring, tiny Bahrain (pop. 500,000) was easily left in the dust.

Not, however, by Foreign Minister John Baird, who arrived in the oil rich island state on Wednesday and praised King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa  -- ranked among America's eight “unsavory allies" by Human Rights Watch -- and other royals for their “robust engagement” on issues domestic and regional.

“I was pleased to learn of progress on the National Dialogue which is meant to ease sectarian tensions and advance the rights of all Bahrainis,” he said in a statement. “Frank and constructive dialogue between the government and the nation’s young people is especially crucial for Bahrain as it works toward stability, prosperity and pluralism.”

That progress must come as news to Bahrainis who rose up in what HRW calls “some sort of world record for mass protests,” when hundreds of thousands turned out for five weeks of demonstrations in 2011.

The demos were to press the Shiite majority’s demands for an end to discrimination and a greater political voice in a country dominated by a Sunni monarchy. In their wake, the government declared a state of emergency – enforced with the help of allied Saudi troops – and dozens of people were killed, more than 1,000 injured and thousands more arrested. It led to further unrest and calls for regime change.

Diplomats seldom broadcast what goes on behind the scenes at meetings. So could we hope that along with his mild praise, Baird also delivered a shot of strong advice?

For instance, that a national dialogue can never be “robust” unless the opposition leaders and human rights advocates who are currently jailed are freed and brought to the table. Nor can reconciliation begin unless those responsible are properly investigated and held to account.

Baird could also have followed Amnesty International’s urging and asked for a probe of the 2011 arrest, detention and brutal torture of Canadian citizen Naser al-Raas, held in Bahrain for a month on suspicion of involvement in the demonstrations.

“There has been no justice for what he endured,” says Amnesty. “There has been no effort to identify the individuals responsible for his torture.”

Baird made no comment on that, but said he hopes Canada can “share a growing commercial relationship that will benefit both countries by jointly focusing on creating jobs, growth and long-term prosperity.”

It’s Diplomacy 101 that stability, prosperity and pluralism won’t arrive in Bahrain while peaceful protest is violently crushed, people arbitrarily arrested, and the torture chambers meting out the beatings, electric shocks and mock executions to which al-Raas said he was subjected.

Until those "democracy" boxes are ticked, Canada could  -- how to put this diplomatically? -- say bah to Bahrain.


Olivia Ward has covered conflict, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the Middle East, Europe and South Asia, winning both national and international awards. She has collaborated on two Emmy-winning films based on her work.

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