On 27th February the European Parliament will vote at its plenary session in Strasbourg on a proposal to add the United Arab Emirates to the list of countries outside Europe benefiting from the “Schengen” arrangements: exemption from visa requirements when their citizens travel to or within Europe. The UAE has been lobbying intensively in Brussels and Strasbourg for this privilege, and has attracted a surprising amount of support from MEPs who seem prepared to ignore the Parliament’s own criteria for visa waiver, which include “in particular, respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms”. In November 2013 the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee of the Parliament voted to recommend UAE visa waiver, but surprisingly, with no reference to human rights.
In fact the record of the UAE on human rights and the rule of law is appalling and has been getting worse. Before they cast their vote this week MEPs should recall that in October 2012 they passed a resolution condemning a series of gross abuses of human rights in the UAE, among them long periods of incommunicado detention, uninvestigated allegations of torture, denial of access to lawyers and denial of a right of appeal. Many of the victims have been EU citizens. In July 2012 three British citizens were imprisoned without charge and forced by torture to sign false confessions. After protests from David Cameron they were released, but not until January 2013.
The October 2012 resolution and other protests have produced promises from the UAE to protect human rights and its nominal adherence to UN human rights conventions. The UAE has even become a member of the UN Human Rights Council. The facts on the ground, however, show these gestures to be no more than lip-service and window-dressing. Since the European Parliament’s resolution there has been a renewed crackdown on political dissent. Numerous further abuses have been condemned in detailed and well-authenticated reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reprieve, and other NGOs. In December 2012 the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute called for an end to intimidation, deportation and detention of human rights lawyers in the UAE, listing a series of violations of United Nations principles on the role of lawyers.
Among many shocking examples of mistreatment of European citizens is the case of a Norwegian woman jailed for having extramarital sex when she reported to police that she had been raped. This produced an outcry in Norway but no change in the pattern of abuse.
In July 2013, 69 people (including two prominent human rights lawyers) were convicted of plotting to overthrow the government and sentenced to terms of imprisonment. The International Commission of Jurists carried out a full investigation (led by a senior New Zealand judge) and declared the trial to be “manifestly unfair”. Most of the defendants had been detained at secret locations for up to a year before the trial began. Until shortly before the trial the accused were denied legal assistance. In court many of them alleged torture but their claims were not investigated. In January 2014 the Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, Sarah Leah Whitson, said: “The UAE’s repressive laws and dysfunctional justice system belie the government’s efforts to present the country as moderate and progressive”.
On 21 January 2014, a further 30 people were convicted and sentenced to terms of imprisonment for expressing political opposition to the government. Among them were a number of Egyptian citizens. Again allegations of torture and denial of access to lawyers were made. As in the earlier case, those convicted were denied any right of appeal.
On 5 February 2014 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on independence of judges and lawyers issued a preliminary report on her recent official visit to the UAE. She confirmed many of the claims of abuse and criticised the absence of judicial independence, which is demanded by the UAE Constitution of 1971 – another example of a respectable surface obscuring the ugly reality, which gives government control over the judiciary and state prosecutors the power to detain indefinitely without charge.
The issue of visa waiver is much more important than it may seem. The UAE government has a track record of controlling its citizens by seizing their passports and by exploiting those, such as migrant workers, who do not have citizenship. The European Parliament has so far granted visa a waiver sparingly outside the Union – mainly to dependencies of member states. To favour the UAE is to approve its policies and discourage reform. It is to give up a valuable spur to reforming its repressive legal system.
Unfortunately, the attitude of the United Kingdom has been ambivalent, notwithstanding the intervention of David Cameron in one notorious case. Outside the Schengen process, the United Kingdom has already conceded visa waiver. The latest annual report of Human Rights Watch makes a telling point: “Influential allies such as the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, all of which are seeking multi-billion dollar fighter jet contracts with the UAE, have refrained from criticising the UAE’s crackdown on political dissent”.
The European Parliament has no such excuse. The decision on 27th February should be postponed until the UAE has put its house in order and provided proper mechanisms for challenging and remedying abuses. While the desire of Europe to strengthen its ties with the UAE is entirely understandable, this must not be at the expense of its fundamental commitment to human rights and the rule of law.
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