The Bahrain government is hosting a human rights conference tomorrow. Yes, really. It's a bit like Lance Armstrong holding a summit on ethics in sports, but Bahrain's PR strategy is so poorly advised that the kingdom is busily promoting and publicizing the conference, apparently oblivious to the reputational damage to its international image every time someone hears "Bahrain" and "human rights" in the same sentence. The conference is organized under the auspices of the Arab Federation for Human Rights, an organization best known as a cheerleader for repressive, torturing Gulf regimes. Local and regional human rights organizations with a real international reputation, including the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights or the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, won't be there because they're critical of the human rights abusers in the GCC countries. This is for government-friendly organizations to tell autocratic Gulf regimes how well they're doing on human rights. It's so mortifyingly transparent it makes you wonder what the organizers are thinking, or how powerful the self-delusion must be in the royal places in Bahrain that they think people will be conned by an obvious PR stunt into thinking that Bahrain's human rights record isn't so bad after all -- that its jails aren't bulging with political prisoners, that torture isn't common in custody, that its peaceful political leaders, human rights activists, journalists and medics have all been released since that unfortunate business in 2011. No one the least bit familiar with the human rights situation in Bahrain will be fooled by this conference. Bahrain's state news agency reports the conference's theme will be "Human Rights Systems of the National, Regional and International Challenges." [sic]. This is the second such conference. Last year's spectacle included a speech from Mansoor Issa Lootah, president of little-known "International Gulf Association for Human Rights" (cited as co-organizers for this year's bash), suggesting that the "GCC countries are addressing the human rights file with transparency and have no problem when it comes to discussing it at all levels and adopting self-criticism," but failed to mention that criticism by others -- for example insulting members of Bahrain's ruling family on Twitter -- carries a heavy jail sentence. Despite Bahrain's millions spent on PR, the real challenges to human rights in the kingdom are fairly well known -- that violations continue without senior government officials ever being held accountable, that there has been no real reform since the mass popular uprisings and subsequent violent government crackdown of 2011, and that the country's leading human rights defenders are in exile, in jail or banned from travel. This week, dozens of leading internationally-respected NGOs urged that Nabeel Rajab, president of the BCHR, be allowed to leave the country. This conference is a PR blunder similar to the 2013 announcement that Bahrain would be hosting the Arab Court of Human Rights, providing people like me the opportunity to write pieces like this reminding people how absurd that would be when Bahrain's judicial system continues to abet the repression of rights. We should welcome it for providing a reminder about what Bahrain's ruling family wants to keep hidden, and for the chance it gives us to talk about the country's real human rights problems.
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