By John Horne and Ahmed Ali
An unlikely, unexpected, and dangerous trade has formed between South Korea and Bahrain. South Korea has been exporting loads of teargas to Bahrain, turning a blind eye to the deadly harm that it is causing in the government's efforts to crack down on protesters.
The Bahrain government has engaged in a relentless crackdown since February 2011 against a population calling for democracy, human rights, and socio-economic justice. Western governments, with strategic and commercial interests in the Kingdom, have continually turned a blind eye to ongoing torture, extrajudicial killing, suppression of free expression, and arbitrary persecutions. However, while policing equipment manufactured by U.S. and UK companies was documented in Bahrain in 2011, the scale of the violations has made further exports of purported "crowd-control" weapons unpalatable by those countries.
Accordingly, Bahrain has been turning further afield for assistance. One such country is South Korea, a G20 member and staunch Western ally, whose companies have found a ready market in Bahrain for teargas and other repressive equipment. The two states have formed closer commercial and security ties since the start of the 2011 uprising, despite Bahrain’s appalling human rights record since then.
On New Year's Eve 2011, a 15-year-old boy was shot and killed. Sayed Hashem was struck in the face with a teargas canister fired by Bahraini security forces during a peaceful anti-government protest. The graphic pictures of his body, like those of another child, Ali Jawad, show clear and visible marks of the canister wound. As Hashem lay in his own blood, a group of bystanders attempted to resuscitate him. They were subsequently shot at with teargas. The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights reports that when the women at the scene accused the security forces of killing the young boy, they were told, "Shut up and don't you dare speak of this."
The canister that killed Hashem is visually identical to those manufactured by South Korean firm DaeKwang Industry Company Ltd and sold by Korean company C.N.O. Tech Ltd. DaeKwang has historically denied exporting to Bahrain, although it lists the country in its "global network" map. Another South Korean company, C.N.O. Tech, exports DaeKwang products and has a local reseller in Bahrain.
Over 100 people have been killed as a consequence of the government’s crackdown on protesters. Over 30% of the deaths caused by security forces have been as a result of teargas which is usually fired at protesters in massive quantities over residential areas as a form of collective punishment. At least four of those killed were shot directly with teargas canisters. Most recently, 20-year-old Mahmood Al Jaziri was filmed being shot in the head intentionally by security forces. He died a few days later on Feb. 22. An 8-year-old boy also lost his life in January after exposure to large amounts of teargas fired into his village. His funeral procession, like those of others killed by Bahrain’s police, was also targeted with teargas. This is one of the many, reckless, ways that security forces enact petty repression in the form of systematic reprisals against those deemed in opposition to the government and ruling family.
Indeed, security forces in Bahrain routinely use teargas to target the civilian population, ignoring the UN Human Rights Commissioner concerns about its "excessive use." Mass protests have been largely prohibited by the government and protests in the capitol, Manama, were formally banned in August. This has led to sporadic, daily, inner-village protests. These villages are now flooded with the chemical almost nightly, as a form of collective punishment, with police even firing shots into enclosed spaces such as homes and vehicles. According to Physicians For Human Rights, numerous women who had suffered miscarriages reported that their doctors "had noticed a significant rise in miscarriages in neighborhoods where teargas was used frequently" as individuals have reported long-lasting irregular illnesses as a consequence.
US companies had been supplying Bahrain with teargas, as revealed by the markings on the canisters. However, in late 2011, activists began documenting metal canisters carrying no markings whatsoever. These, as well as teargas grenades used in Bahrain, are visually identical to those manufactured by South Korean firm DaeKwang.
But how did Bahrain come to turn to South Korea to assist its repression to begin with?
South Korea and Bahrain have been fostering closer ties since 2011, despite Bahrain’s internationally condemned human rights abuses. Four days after the start of the February uprising, a South Korean delegation visited Bahrain announcing plans to reopen their Embassy that had been closed since 1999. In May 2012, Bahrain’s crown prince led a delegation to South Korea. Several agreements were signed and the trip was reciprocated this August, when the South Korean prime minister travelled to Bahrain. More agreements were signed across multiple sectors, including the establishment of an "economic cooperation body" leading the South Korean Chargé d'Affaires to boast of $1 billion in trade between the two countries.
South Korea has also shown a willingness to support Bahrain’s security forces. Bahrain’s interior minister visited South Korea this May. He met with the Prime Minister and Korean security officials to discuss future cooperation. In August, South Korea’s chargé d'affaires revealed that Korean firm Samsung will be helping the Ministry of Interior to develop an "Urban Security Command and Control Centre," bolstering Bahrain’s existing surveillance infrastructure.
With $1 billion and rising in trade between the two countries, is South Korea becoming blind to Bahrain’s human rights abuses? Sadly it would appear so. South Korea has so far failed to raise any concerns over its companies exporting to security forces that have killed, maimed, tortured and imprisoned people seeking freedom and democracy. Last month, it failed to join 47 other countries, including the U.S. and UK, in expressing "serious concern" about the "human rights situation in Bahrain". The Bahrain government has largely managed to sustain its impunity against serious international sanction by seeking legitimacy from other ally states. It also relies on trying to control global opinion by denying journalists access and spending millions on PR.
As a result, the repression has continued. The longer states like South Korea continue to back repression in Bahrain, the longer the people there will suffer as they struggle for their rights.