WASHINGTON — US lawmakers are considering retaliatory measures against strategic ally Bahrain following the expulsion of the State Department's top human-rights envoy.
Senators of both parties on Tuesday expressed dismay at the news that Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski was declared persona non grata after meeting with opposition activists. Lawmakers told Al-Monitor that they're reviewing their options, while democracy advocates expressed hopes that the incident would give a boost to their long-standing push for targeted sanctions such as visa bans and asset freezes.
"I'm just going to talk to Mr. Malinowski about the situation and what he would like to see done," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Al-Monitor. "But obviously he was doing his job, I think, carrying out his responsibilities. He's in charge of human rights, and I don't think it was wrong of him to meet with the opposition."
Malinowski himself has given some indication of what he might recommend. In a 2012 appearance before Congress' Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, the then director of Human Rights Watch's Washington office urged lawmakers to target Bahraini human-rights violators.
"The United States should begin to deny visas and access to the US banking system to those officials and members of the security forces in Bahrain who have been credibly linked — including by the [Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry] investigation – to serious crimes such as the torture of opposition activists in detention," Malinowski said at the time. "So long as the government does not act, so long as the individuals responsible for these abuses remain untouched in Bahrain, it is perfectly reasonable for the US government to say that it will not allow them to travel to the United States or put their money in US banks."
At the time, Malinowski said such measures could preserve the strategic relationship with the government of Bahrain itself. The tiny Persian Gulf country has hosted the US Navy's Fifth Fleet since Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, long before independence from Britain in 1971.
Human-rights activists were already in contact with McCain's office before the latest incident, a democracy activist told Al-Monitor.
"A lot of people on the Hill have talked about visa bans," the source said.
Others are also weighing their response.
"I'll have to review the options at this point, given what happened," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who authored a resolution seeking to block the sale of $53 million worth of Humvees and missiles following the crackdown on Shiite protesters in 2011. The resolution did not get to a vote but the Obama administration has frozen the large majority of arms sales to Bahrain since then, infuriating Manama.
And Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., called Malinowski's treatment "extremely regrettable."
"I don't know if I would suggest that there should be a quid pro quo - (but) I think it goes into the equation," the longtime human-rights champion told Al-Monitor. "To me it's a serious issue when they do not let our human-rights guy a chance to meet and go over their issues."
The blow-up occurred after Bahrain demanded to have a Foreign Ministry representative present at all of Malinowski's private meetings while he was on a three-day visit to Bahrain, including those held at the embassy. When Malinowski refused and went ahead with his meetings anyway, the ministry declared that he was "unwelcome and should immediately leave the country, due to his interference in [Bahrain's] internal affairs".
Bahrain News Agency | Bahrain declares US Assistant Secretary of State Tomasz P. Malinowski persona non grata http://t.co/DTna9735KB— Bahrain News Agency (@bna_en) July 7, 2014
A tweet by the state-run Bahrain News Agency.
The State Department has made clear its displeasure.
"Certainly our strong relationship with Bahrain is something that we would like to maintain," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday. "But obviously we're considering a range of options with that in mind."
And Malinowski said the incident indicated some members of the minority Sunni-dominated government aren't serious about reconciliation with the Shiite majority and other critics.
"Seems Bahrain government decision not about me but about undermining dialogue," he tweeted. "Those committed to reconciliation should not be deterred."
The tensions have also reignited talk of moving the Fifth Fleet out of Bahrain. The US government has expressed concerns that instability in the country could put the base at risk, but so far calls for withdrawal have not gained traction.
"We think our presence there serves not just our interests, but serves theirs," Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., the chairman of the Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs panel, told Al-Monitor. "That is always a significant factor as we make our own basing and presence decisions.
"I will say I have not been in any meeting where that's come up where I was discouraged enough with what we're seeing that we should reevaluate the size of our Fifth Fleet presence," he added. "But at the end of the day, that is a factor."
Other countries have backed Bahrain.
"Bahrain has the full sovereign right to take any measures it deems suitable to prevent promotion, through these contacts, of internal group that justify, instigate and commit violence and use their foreign connections to present false and distorting information about Bahrain," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the United Arab Emirates said in a statement Tuesday.
And the secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, a Bahraini himself, criticized Malinowski's actions as "astonishing" and counterproductive to national reconciliation and US-Bahraini ties, according to the Bahrain News Agency.
Cardin said the United States needs to send a strong message to countries in the Middle East and elsewhere that respect for human rights is non-negotiable for good relations with the US.
"We want to build stronger strategic relations," Cardin said. "But in order to do that ... we expect the countries we're dealing with to respect human rights, respect good governance. So when Bahrain does not want to even listen to our human-rights person from the State Department, that's disappointing."