Unrest in Bahrain (UNSC)

Educator Overview

Case Overview

Set in August, 2014. In the small island country of Bahrain, government and security forces have clashed with protestors seeking democratic reform. The ruling al-Khalifa family has responded to these protests with force and mass arrests. The most recent clashes between government forces and protestors are not the first but certainly the bloodiest. In February 2011, Bahraini activists, inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, gathered in the capital to seek political reform. The fact that Bahrain’s leaders are part of the Sunni minority and the demonstrators represent the Shiite majority gives the uprising a sectarian complexion, in addition to the broader social issues of disenfranchisement and limited economic opportunity. The UN Secretary-General has called a meeting of the UN Security Council to assess whether the situation warrants a response and, if so, what kind.

Decision Point

Three years after Bahrain’s 2011 uprising, progress toward reform has stalled. In January 2014, the government suspended its “national dialogue” with opposition groups. The government blamed opposition groups for the breakdown. Soon after, renewed unrest gripped the country. On February 14—the anniversary of the initial uprising—thousands of protestors calling for King Hamad’s ouster gathered in Bahrain’s capital, Manama. The protestors met stiff resistance from security forces. This resulted in several injuries and dozens of arrests. Outside the capital, a bomb struck a police bus in a Shiite village, killing one police officer. Three more officers were killed by another bomb weeks later. Although mainstream opposition groups denied any connection to the bombings and condemned the acts, the attacks only amplified an already severe crackdown by Bahrain’s security forces. This crackdown was especially focused on predominantly Shiite areas. Activists, along with international human rights organizations, are calling for an international response. In this context, the UN Secretary-General has called a meeting of the UN Security Council. The Council will assess whether the situation warrants a response and, if so, what kind.

Learning Goals

CFR Education simulations use a variety of pedagogical tools to create an effective, meaningful, and memorable learning experience for students that builds their global literacy. Students will develop crucial skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Students will complete authentic assessments that feel relevant: instead of five-paragraph essays and book reports, students will write policy memos and participate in a role-play of a meeting of a foreign policy–making body. There are no right or wrong answers in actual policy deliberations, and there are none here, either; students will walk away from this experience with an appreciation for the complexity of policy questions.

In this simulation, students will learn about the UN Security Council, as well as meeting these learning outcomes specific to this simulation:

  • Students will understand potential consequences of instability in Bahrain related to international peace and security.
  • Students will consider how the UN Security Council should balance a desire to support democratic reforms with a need to win the support of Security Council members who have strategic interests in Bahrain.
  • Students will evaluate the options available to the UN Security Council to put meaningful pressure on Bahrain for democratic reforms.

Concepts and Issues


  • Interests versus values 
  • Sectarianism 
  • Human rights 
  • Political reform 
  • Dispute resolution 
  • Alliances 


  • Free flow of energy resources in the Middle East 
  • Bahrani political and religious dynamics 
  • International military and economic presence in the Persian Gulf region 
  • Promotion of Human rights and democratic governance 

Policy Options: Educator's Guide

This section presents context, potential benefits and drawbacks, and other information about the policy options outlined in the case that you may find helpful as you guide the role-play and assess students.

Members of the Security Council need to assess the situation and determine whether it warrants a response. Some countries are likely to see the Bahraini government’s behavior as a crackdown that violates the human rights of its Shiite citizens. Others could see this behavior as a sovereign country’s reasonable effort to keep order. Moreover, many of the UN Security Council’s veto-wielding permanent member states have close economic ties and military interests in Bahrain. These relationships have the potential to hinder any UN Security Council action toward Bahrain. The United States, China, France, and the United Kingdom frequently trade with Bahrain and have various economic interests in the region due to its rich supply of oil. The United States and the United Kingdom both maintain naval bases in Bahrain and regard the country as an important foothold for their interests in the Middle East. Supporting aggressive measures against Bahrain to encourage democratic reforms could therefore go against council members’ economic, political, and military interests. Considering these conflicting interests, UN Security Council members will need to carefully consider whether and how they should take action to put meaningful pressure on Bahrain.

The principal policy options available in this case are discussed below. These responses are available individually, in combination, or all together. 

Call for All-Inclusive National Dialogue Between the Bahraini Government and Political Opposition Groups 

The UN Security Council could direct Bahraini government officials and leaders from political opposition groups, human rights organizations, and Shiite communities to conduct a peaceful dialogue to discuss implementing democratic reforms in the country and curbing the use of state force to subdue opposition. This dialogue could take place under the auspices of the UN secretary-general or be mediated by an outside organization. 

This option is the least ambitious but the least likely to be controversial among permanent council members, as it likely would not damage relationships or agreements between Bahrain and member states. If successful, a national dialogue could promote peaceful conflict resolution, and allowing political opposition members a forum for discussion could potentially ease political unrest. However, there is no guarantee that either side will respond to requests for a dialogue or accept outside mediation. Even if negotiations can be arranged, this option has no way to assure or enforce any political changes in Bahrain. If either party refuses or negotiations fail, further conflict could result, and the UN Security Council could face criticism for not acting strongly enough.

Call for an Investigation of the Bahraini Government’s Suppression of the Political Opposition and Activists

The UN Security Council could pass a resolution calling on Bahrain to admit inspectors to monitor the political situation and Bahrain’s human rights practices. This option could provide legitimate, independent insight into the extent of Bahrain’s human rights abuses and undemocratic actions as well as Iran’s alleged involvement in Bahrain’s political unrest. An independent investigation could conclude with recommendations to improve Bahrain’s human rights practices, outline a timeline for reevaluation, and establish consequences, such as sanctions, should Bahrain fail to adopt reforms. International human rights organizations have previously criticized the BICI report and investigation of the events that took place in Bahrain in 2011. Freedom of the press is limited in Bahrain, underscoring the need for an international organization to investigate claims of human rights abuses and undemocratic practices. If Bahrain allows independent inspectors into the country under the auspices of the United Nations, they could have greater access to information than previous investigations. 

However, requesting access from the Bahraini government could prove challenging. Security Council members would need to secure Bahrain’s consent to allow UN inspectors into the country. Bahrain’s government has routinely refused to allow independent investigators into the country, including UN special rapporteurs (experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council). However, a Security Council resolution calling for an investigation could bear more weight than requests from other organs of the United Nations. Council members could also consider backing up their request for an inspection with threats of sanctions should Bahrain refuse, although this could be met with resistance from Security Council members with close ties to Bahrain.

Enact Sanctions on Bahrain

The UN Security Council could enact sanctions on Bahrain in an attempt to coerce Bahrain’s government to cease its crackdown against protests and negotiate with opposition groups to implement certain reforms. These sanctions could be targeted against individuals in the Bahraini government or take the form of broader restrictions, potentially on the trade of luxury goods and manufacturing materials. Security Council members could also call for a halt on international arms sales to the country. Since 2011, Bahrain has ignored or deflected calls from the United Nations to enact democratic reforms and end the use of force to suppress the political opposition. Sanctions would ensure that Bahrain faces consequences for ignoring the international outcry against it and could put significant pressure on Bahrain to change its behavior. Sanctions could also set a forceful example to other countries that violating international human rights treaties will bear consequences. 

However, garnering the support needed to pass sanctions would be difficult. Given the strategic military relationships that both the United States and the United Kingdom have with Bahrain, their support would be unlikely. Other permanent council members, such as China and Russia, could see Bahrain’s actions as a legitimate exercise of state sovereignty and be reticent to support forceful action. Due to the veto power of each of these permanent council members, the chances of gaining the required consensus to approve sanctions are low.

Do Nothing

The Security Council could decide it is unable to take meaningful action on the dispute in light of conflicting interests among council members. In this case, the UN Security Council could adopt a statement expressing concern about violent crackdowns on protests, the lack of freedom of expression and free press, and the use of torture, mass arrests, state harassment, intimidation, revocation of citizenship, disenfranchisement, executions, and the lack of due process for political opposition and activists. Such a statement could show support for Bahraini opposition groups and draw international attention to the issue. Increasing international attention could help pressure the Bahraini government into adopting reform. If the situation worsens, council members could also revisit the matter. However, inaction on this issue could draw criticism from human rights groups. Especially given the council’s willingness to approve a military intervention in Libya in 2011, remaining silent on Bahrain could be seen as upholding a double standard when council members’ interests are involved and erode confidence in future Security Council action.