US-ally Bahrain blocks medical ethics conference

Bahrain successfully crushed pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011, and now it has told Doctors Without Borders that their long-planned conference on medical ethics is unwelcome.

Bahrain, where the monarchy has more or less successfully crushed democracy protests that broke out in the wake of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, is apparently not taking any chances by loosening the reigns on open discussion and debate.

Yesterday, Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontiéres, MSF) said Bahrain's regime forced it to cancel a conference, two years in the planning, on medical ethics and conflict.

MSF Director of Operations Bart Janssens says the group had hoped to hold the regional conference in Bahrain because of the country's own recent experience with the politicization of medicine.

"We’ve seen throughout the region, how to call it, a complete loss of neutrality around medicine or medical care," says Dr. Janssens. "It's a fact that in many countries, as in Bahrain, hospitals have become forefront places for political struggles, and people who are injured can not find in any way a sort of neutral space where only clinical medicine is practiced and not find political discussions – or worse. For example in Syria, hospitals are basically traps for people to get arrested."

Janssens says the cancellation was entirely due to the decision of the Kingdom of Bahrain, and that his group's interests are nonpolitical.

"What we really wanted was to have a debate around how can we improve the difficulties of medical practitioners in the wider Middle East region, while countries are going through political and social difficulties," he says.

The notion of neutrally available medical care is a long-cherished ideal that routinely runs into trouble during conflict. In Bahrain, the Sunni monarchy rules over a Shiite majority population that has begun to chafe at the lack of political and basic human rights there, and hospitals have not been immune to national polarization. 

In October last year, nine doctors, nurses, and paramedics were jailed for supporting democracy protests ("participating in illegal gatherings," "calling for the overthrow of the government," etc.)  and tending to the wounds of injured demonstrators. Human Rights Watch said the evidence used to convict them was at least partially obtained through torture. (In 2012, The Christian Science Monitor reported on an underground network of medics that helped Bahrainis who felt unsafe seeking treatment in government-run hospitals.)

In 2011, the government replaced the entire board of the Bahrain Medical Society, saying the members had become politicized. The new board has been aggressive in calling for investigation and prosecution of doctors that have supported the opposition.

In Bahrain's periodic protests, injured demonstrators have learned to avoid official hospitals. Informal networks have been set up for the treatment of the wounded in private clinics.

Bahrain, a close US ally and home to the US Fifth Fleet, has successfully rejected calls for change for going on two years now, but is still wary of outside influence and scrutiny.

The country's current position, and relationship with the US, is a reminder that the so-called Arab Spring has had a variety of outcomes. While the US and Saudi Arabia may be pushing for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the replacement of his Iran-friendly government with one run by Syria's majority Sunni Arab population, it would be horrified at the overthrow of Bahrain's Sunni Arab king by his mostly Shiite subjects.  

Janssens says that MSF is still hoping to hold a medical ethics conference in the region – but they won't be trying to hold it in Bahrain anymore.

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