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UAE: a human-rights lens

The United Arab Emirates' human-rights record is under new scrutiny. The European Union should follow the lead of its parliament and put the issue at the centre of its engagement with the Gulf state, says Joe Stork.

Joe Stork
29 November 2012

The United Arab Emirates has gone to great lengths to promote a narrative that features the country as a model of enlightened progress in the region and a bulwark against militant Islamist groups. These efforts received a setback on 26 October 2012 when the European parliament passed a resolution expressing profound concerns about the UAE's human-rights record. 

The UAE’s adoption of a repressive new law on cyber-crime on 13 November suggests that the European parliament's concerns are well-founded. For a series of actions and developments reveals just how little the UAE's rulers are committed to a progressive and tolerant society. Since the beginning of 2012, UAE state-security has detained without charge scores of people with ties to a non-violent Islamist group, al-Islah. Those rounded up and held in places unknown include prominent human-rights lawyers, judges, and student leaders. The authorities have also harassed and in some cases deported UAE-based human rights defenders, denied legal assistance to political detainees, and even deported lawyers seeking to provide the detainees with legal assistance. In addition, there are credible allegations of torture at state-security facilities.

When the poor living and working conditions of impoverished construction and service workers from south Asia are put into the mix, it is clear that there is a vast gap between Abu Dhabi’s narrative and the facts on the ground.

The defenders

The UAE did everything in its power to stop the European parliament’s resolution. It sent a delegation to Strasbourg to lobby the elected representatives, and its ambassador in Brussels threatened that the resolution could "needlessly damage EU-UAE relations." Those relations have thus far been sustained in part by avoiding EU-UAE discussions on human rights, or at best confining them to what European Union diplomats refer to as "discreet" meetings.

The UAE had its defenders in the parliamentary debate. Charles Tannock, an MEP from Cameron's own Conservative Party, dismissed the notion that the UAE was a serial human-rights violator as "completely absurd". He asserted that most of the detainees were "Islamist hardliners" who wanted to "close down the churches and persecute Christians."

On the day the resolution passed, the spokesman of the French foreign-affairs ministry responded to a question about it by stating that France is "well aware of the progress made by the UAE" in the field of human rights.

On 6 November, the Italian ambassador to the UAE, Giorgio Starace, said: "Italy considers this country as a model of tolerance in the Arab world and appreciates the progress so far achieved by the UAE government in the field of respect for human rights and dialogue with all religions."

The UAE, not surprisingly, dismissed the resolution as "biased and prejudiced", and on 1 November the deputy secretary-general of the Arab League chimed in that the resolution was "biased and exaggerated."

The UAE’s attempts to discredit research and documentation provided by local human-rights defenders and international organisations come as no surprise. Of greater concern are the indulgent comments by third parties. The evidence belies the claim that the UAE is a progressive state where human rights is concerned.

Neither have the UAE’s defenders produced evidence to support their allegations that al-Islah - which was set up in the UAE in 1974 and used to operate with the full consent of the authorities - is intent on getting rid of churches, and rolling back the gains officials claim to have made on women’s rights in the UAE (by which they certainly don’t mean tens of thousands of migrant domestic workers, many of whom endure appalling abuse and exploitation).

The next step

It is stunning that the French and Italian diplomats can talk about progress in the UAE and avoid any comment on the arbitrary detention of sixty-three dissidents and denial of legal assistance, and the harassment and intimidation of peaceful critics of the government, Islamist and non-Islamist alike. The rights to liberty, due process and fair trial are not predicated on individuals keeping their opinions to themselves, and the unfortunately credible allegations of torture by UAE state-security alone should give them great pause.

Those who have promoted the UAE’s hackneyed "progress" narrative should take their lead from the European parliament’s elected representatives, who concerned themselves with the facts and referenced international law. The UAE’s supporters would also be advised to take a look at the terms of its new federal decree on cybercrime. The law criminalises a wide range of non-violent political activities carried out on or via the internet, from criticism of its rulers to organising unlicensed demonstrations.

In June 2012 the EU adopted a "strategic framework", which it said would "place human rights at the centre of its relations with all third countries, including strategic partners." The MEPs deserve credit for applying those principles to a country that has grown accustomed to cosy Realpolitik and oh-so-"discreet" references to human rights. It is an opportunity for the EU's high representative Catherine Ashton, her diplomats, and EU member-states to follow suit and fulfil the pledge made six months ago.

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