Is the Obama administration finally preparing to apply real pressure on the Bahraini regime in response to its crackdown on pro-democracy protesters? The biggest labor federation in the U.S. sees a glimmer of hope in a new Department of Labor investigation into reported human rights abuses by the regime.
I wrote last week about reports that hundreds of union workers had been fired from government-owned companies as punishment for participation in protests. The AFL-CIO submitted a complaint to the Department of Labor outlining the reported abuses and arguing that Bahrain had violated standards set out in the U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement. The union federation asked the Obama administration to give Bahrain notice that the U.S. would be pulling out of the agreement.
In response, the Department of Labor has now officially accepted the AFL-CIO complaint and announced an investigation of the facts, with a public report to be issued within six months. (Read the department's statement here.)
Jeff Vogt, deputy director at the AFL-CIO's international department and the author of the Bahrain complaint, believes the investigation itself is a significant step.
"The mere fact that the complaint has been accepted and an investigation is going to ensue will open up an opportunity for the U.S. government to send a very strong signal to the Bahraini government," he says. "In the best case, the investigation itself will provoke a response from the Bahraini government to take corrective measures."
As a measure of how seriously Bahrain is taking the matter, the regime recently hired a high-priced D.C. law firm that specializes in trade disputes. That firm, Sorini, Samet & Associates, has not responded to calls and emails seeking Bahrain's response to the reports of abuses against union members.
Andrew Samet, the former Clinton administration official on the Bahrain account, last month visited the Gulf kingdom, according to a report by Bahrain's state news agency. Samet met the commerce minister and "expressed his sincere thanks and appreciation to the kingdom’s wise leadership and government for the tremendous endeavours they exert for sake of bolstering bilateral relations." Vogt, the AFL-CIO official, says he recently saw Samet in Geneva, where he was apparently doing work on the Bahrain account.
The Obama administration's response to Bahrain's suppression of protests has been notably muted; as has been widely noted, Bahrain is the home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet and is considered an important U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf. While the violent phase of the regime's crackdown seems to be mostly over, it is going forward with trials of political opponents.
In a separate development, the Obama administration last week included Bahrain in a list of countries "requiring attention" from the U.N. Human Rights Council.