In the United Arab Emirates, Human Rights Under Attack
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) abuses many international human rights conventions and laws through a high intolerance of criticism leading to arbitrary arrests, its involvement in the war in Yemen and labour abuses towards migrant workers.
The website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, ‘[The UAE] is committed to the promotion and protection of human rights at home and around the world. The foreign policy of the UAE is based on the principles of justice, equality and human rights. The UAE is determined to make a positive difference at the global level by working constructively to support the implementation of the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Domestically, the UAE places a high priority on respect for human rights in accordance with international human rights standards, and is committed to the continual improvement of its own laws and practices, based upon the country’s cultural heritage and religious values, which enshrine justice, equality and tolerance.’
On paper, this sounds perfect. The reality is rather different. The UAE is part of the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights but has not signed most international human rights and labor rights treaties. These include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, and the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
In fact, the Human Freedom Index 2017 ranked the UAE 116th out of 159 countries, behind Qatar and Lebanon. The UN also raised concerns about the human rights situation in the UAE in January 2018. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a report highlighting the suppression of freedom of expression and the undue influence of executive authorities and security services on the judiciary.
The same month, the UK-based Emirate Centre for Human Rights, wrote on its Twitter page, ‘UAE authorities regularly subject those that violate their restrictions to torture, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and unfair trial procedures.’
An example of this is the detention in solitary confinement of the human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor from March 2017. He was sentenced on 29 May 2018 to ten years in prison for social media posts criticizing human rights violations by the UAE government and fined around $272,000.
“There is no room for dissent,” Ahmed Benchemsi, the advocacy and communications director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Fanack Chronicle. “There has been a huge crackdown on civil society since 2011, a true assault on freedom of expression that disseminated civil society such as associations of teachers, lawyers, academics and bloggers. Now, civil society is basically dead in the UAE. There is also a bad counter-terrorism law adopted in 2014 that allows people to be jailed for up to 15 years or sentenced to death for very vague reasons. It’s a very severe situation.”
The 2014 law, which replaces a more lenient 2004 law, stipulates that anyone over the age of 16 found guilty of attacking or threatening the president, the vice-president or any of the rulers of the UAE and their family members, and those conspiring against the state and government will face capital punishment. Individuals involved in carrying out, planning or assisting terrorist activities will also be subject to the same punishment. The law also covers terror financing, holding hostages, human trafficking and money laundering.
The UAE is also implicated in abuses against detainees in UAE-controlled prisons in Yemen, according to Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor. The human rights organization says that hundreds of detainees in Yemen have been subjected to physical and sexual torture as well as mass assault in prisons run by armed groups from the UAE, which is part of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebellion.
“Despite the ample evidence and warnings by international groups condemning these practices in UAE-run prisons in Yemen, there is not a single perpetrator held to account for these crimes,” said Sarah Pritchett, Euro-Med’s spokeswoman. “These practices may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes, and it is a shame that such practices are being done by states that claim to be supporting Yemen and protecting Yemeni civilians. Both the Emirati government and the [United Nations] Security Council must, together, open an investigation into these crimes and refer the situation to the International Criminal Court to bring to account those involved in such crimes.”
Benchemsi added: “The fact that the Gulf is still operating in Yemen is worrisome. They are also guilty of war crimes though air strikes.”
Regarding the treatment of migrant workers, he said, “Because of the kafala [visa-sponsorship] system, they can’t leave freely and end up in abusive situations. There have been reforms to better the situation, but it is difficult to verify the information on ground.”
In 2011, the UAE reformed the kafala system, allowing migrant workers with expiring contracts to change employers without the initial sponsor’s permission. Article 1 of Ministerial Decree 764, issued in 2015, stated, ‘Tentative approval to admit a foreign worker for the purpose of employment in the UAE cannot be granted until an employment offer that conforms with the standard employment contract is presented to and duly signed by the worker.’
Human rights groups hope that these contracts will help limit situations where employees are unaware of the exact nature of their work, the number of contracted hours and salary.
It is still unclear whether these changes are having the desired effect for migrant workers. In the meantime, human rights in the UAE, especially freedom of expression, have generally worsened in recent years. With critical voices effectively silenced, there are few options to push for change.