It can’t be easy for Danish diplomats these days, knowing that their efforts to free Danish citizen Abdulhadi al-Khawaja continue to fall on deaf ears while the democracy activist’s life ebbs out after a hunger strike that has lasted more than two months.
But Bahrain’s failure to acquiesce underscores that when it comes to diplomacy, two things hold true: size matters, and actions speak louder than words.
Seen from the Western world, al-Khawaja’s case is cut and dry: a man calling for democracy was arrested, sentenced to life in prison and while in confinement has reportedly been mistreated. Seen in that light, Denmark has done what it should by launching an all-out diplomatic effort to free one of its citizens. We shouldn’t accept anything less.
What must be frustrating for Danish diplomats, though, is that despite this being such a clear case of unjust imprisonment in our eyes, and despite Denmark’s support of multi-nationalism, it has been unable to get the EU or the US to do more to free al-Khawaja.
Given the European cacophony it’s no surprise that the union won’t put more pressure on the government in Manama, but it must be a disappointment that the US, the power player in the Persian Gulf, isn’t using its clout to free a citizen of one its closest allies in recent years.
The question Danish foreign policymakers should be asking themselves, however, is whether they would even need a diplomatic big brother had the country shown more willingness in recent years to pay attention to the sensitivities of other countries, particularly in the Muslim world.
Thanks primarily to its decision to stick to its guns during the international uproar over the publication (and re-publication) of the Mohammed drawings, Denmark has found itself grouped with countries like the US and Israel by flag-burning radicals in the Muslim world.
That’s a position that isn’t improved by the country’s participation in the drawn-out military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, or by a domestic political tone that often demonises Muslims.
Policymakers should also think about how it sounds to other countries when Denmark demands they free people who have broken their laws, yet it refuses to hand over someone for trial in a country where he admits breaking laws, as is the case with confessed gunrunner Niels Holck.
In the end, Bahrain’s unwillingness to free one of its citizens has probably much more to do with its internal politics than anything else, but it would be a tragedy if he – or any other Dane – were made to atone for the sins of Denmark’s diplomatic past.