Human Rights Watch says Bahrain's expulsion of a senior State Department official last week shows the kingdom is not serious about political reforms. The human rights group also is criticizing the Obama administration's response.
As part of efforts to encourage reforms promised following 2011 protests in Manama, the State Department sent its top human rights official, Tom Malinowski, to Bahrain last week. He was expelled from the Gulf kingdom, though, after he refused to allow authorities to join his meeting with opposition leaders.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Secretary of State John Kerry called Bahrain's foreign minister to protest the expulsion.
"We were very clear that we found some of the requests issued by the government of Bahrain to be inappropriate and contravening international diplomatic norms and conventions," she said. "We also have an important relationship with the government of Bahrain. We've made our concerns known."
A big part of that important relationship is having Bahrain as the base for U.S. Navy operations in the Persian Gulf and parts of the Indian Ocean. That has contributed to what Sarah Margon of Human Rights Watch calls an "inadequate" response by the U.S.
"The U.S. needs to take much stronger measures and show that the ouster of Malinowski is not only problematic in the near-term but problematic in the long-term for our own national security interests," she said.
Margon said Bahrain's demand to monitor Malinowski's meeting with opposition leaders shows it is not serious about reform.
"It's completely arbitrary and it's very worrisome and shows that Bahrain isn't really ready to conduct a national dialogue. It's not interested," she said.
Political reform focus
A Bahraini government statement said Malinowksi was interfering in its internal affairs. That explanation is far different from the government refusing political reforms, according to former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain Adam Ereli.
"That doesn't mean that somehow the Bahraini government is walking away from the dialogue process," he said. "It may be that they are just concerned about the United States playing a helpful or not-helpful role. I think it says more about the Bahraini government's attitude towards and position towards the United States than it does towards the opposition."
Ereli believes it is more a question of the Obama administration's approach to the kingdom.
"They're happy to work with people who they think are trying to be helpful," he said. "But if they think they are not trying to be helpful they're not going to hesitate to do what any sovereign state would do which is to say: Thanks but no thanks. Bye-bye."
Margon said the expulsion is troubling at a time when she says Washington is not taken as seriously in the region as it needs to be.
"Bahrain is definitely stuck in a larger geopolitical situation, which makes it very difficult not only for the reformers I would say within the Bahraini government to have any real leverage, but also it puts the U.S. certainly in a tight spot," she said.
Meanwhile, Washington is calling on all sides in Bahrain to recommit to the reconciliation process.