United Arab Emirates
International community's tacit complicity emboldens UAE to expand its negative sphere of influence
This July 2022 marks the ninth anniversary of the verdicts in the mass trial of prominent human rights defenders, judges, academics and students known as the UAE94, who are now due for release after serving 10-year sentences. They were arrested on charges including signing an online petition calling for democratic reform.
The Emirates Detainees Advocacy Centre (EDAC) reports that there are 67 prisoners of conscience in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) including 60 members of the UAE94 and seven other prisoners. Of those, 19 were due for release from as far back as over five years ago or at least by the end of April 2022, including scholar Mohammed Al-Siddiq, due for release on 9th April 2022. Another 30 are due for release between the beginning of July and the end of October 2022. Rights groups and individuals have called for their release, including in an online petition to the UAE authorities started ahead of the Dubai Expo.
Among those held past their sentences are Amina Al-Abdouli and Maryam Al-Balushi, who have been detained arbitrarily in the UAE since 2015 and were due for release on 19th November 2020. On 8th March 2022, seven NGOs called for the release of Amina Al-Abdouli and Maryam Al-Balushi on International Women’s Day.
On 18th May 2022, in an online side event ahead of the 50th Session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), Amnesty International, ALQST for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) addressed representatives from 19 UN Permanent Missions, NGOs and members of the public on human rights concerns in Saudi Arabia. The negative influence exerted by the UAE on human rights in Saudi Arabia and across the region was mentioned on several occasions. In particular, panellists highlighted the mutual support and emboldening between the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the perpetration of human rights violations.
Notably, following targeted digital surveillance at the behest of the UAE, in 2018, Saudi woman human rights defender (WHRD) Loujain Al-Hathloul was arbitrarily arrested by the UAE’s security services and forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia where she was detained and tortured. In December 2021, Al-Hathloul filed a lawsuit against three former US intelligence and military officers who have admitted in a US court to helping carry out hacking operations on behalf of the UAE. The support of the UAE in the arrest, detention and torture of a prominent WHRD is a striking example of the UAE’s willingness to facilitate the ongoing crackdown on WHRDs in Saudi Arabia.
The negative sphere of influence of the UAE on the region and the risk that the UAE and other countries with dismal human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia, will continue to bolster one another in the perpetration of grave human rights violations is of additional concern in light of several recent developments.
Firstly, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the ensuing global energy crisis, Human Rights Watch has raised concerns over governments’ willingness to compromise commitments on human rights and due diligence in a bid to court petro-autocrats from the UAE and Saudi Arabia to secure oil and gas supplies. For example, in March 2022, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited the UAE to discuss increasing oil production and the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has made similar overtures to the UAE’s leaders.
Second, in November 2021, UAE Major General Ahmed Nasser Al-Raisi was elected as President of the International Criminal Police Organisation (INTERPOL) despite the tireless efforts of human rights organisations to alert members of the General Assembly to Al-Raisi’s key role in the torture and degrading treatment of detained human rights defenders and other prisoners of conscience. Consequently, there is a real risk that the UAE and other authoritarian governments will seek to weaponise the INTERPOL Red Notice system to target peaceful human rights defenders and other dissenting voices.
On 18th January 2022, French lawyer William Bourdon filed a torture complaint in France against Maj Gen Al-Raisi, when he made his first visit to INTERPOL’s headquarters in Lyon. Bourdon filed a “complaint with civil party petition” on behalf of GCHR and its Board member Ahmed Mansoor (currently serving a 10-year sentence in violation of his right to freedom of expression) against Al-Raisi in a Paris court under the principle of universal jurisdiction. Major General Al-Raisi was in Lyon starting on 6th March and Bourdon’s office immediately sent information to the Prosecutor's Office, which opened an inquiry through its unit for crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes.
On 18th March 2022, GCHR’s Executive Director Khalid Ibrahim went to France to testify about Al-Raisi’s crimes, where he provided details of the UAE’s practices of torturing and persecuting human rights defenders. The prosecutors did not immediately order Al-Raisi’s arrest; however, the accusations were sufficient to lift Al-Raisi’s diplomatic immunity, which he enjoys thanks to an agreement between the French state and INTERPOL.
Operating a civil society organisation in the UAE is extremely difficult. The authorities tightly control the registration and activity of most organisations. Although state funding is available, vaguely defined laws and sweeping powers for officials mean that CSOs cannot undertake public advocacy on most issues.
Operating a civil society organisation in the UAE is extremely difficult. The authorities tightly control the registration and activity of most organisations. Although state funding is available, vaguely defined laws and sweeping powers for officials mean that CSOs cannot undertake public advocacy on most issues. Participation in CSOs is also limited to Emirati citizens, a rule which effectively discriminates against 90% of the population in the UAE. In practice, most NGOs pursue economic, social and cultural objectives and have close ties to the UAE’s ruling families. Designed to increase intimidation, the authorities in the UAE also target family members of prominent critics, including through arrests and travel bans and the revocation of citizenship. Individual activists regularly face harassment and in recent years the authorities have carried out sweeping raids on large numbers of human rights and pro-democracy activists, including the mass arrest of 94 people who were accused of a plot to overthrow the government. Since 2014, people who disagree with the government and express their dissent publicly also face the prospect of being prosecuted as terrorists under repressive new legislation.
The Emirati Constitution guarantees the freedom to assemble peacefully but in practice protests are banned in the UAE.
The Emirati Constitution guarantees the freedom to assemble peacefully but in practice protests are banned in the UAE. Regulations do not clearly stipulate how and for what reasons a gathering should be disbanded. People must obtain permission from the authorities before they gather in public, a clear violation of international standards on the freedom of peaceful assembly. As a result, gatherings are extremely rare although there have been notable cases of workers’ protests in recent months. Spontaneous gatherings are prohibited and authorities have arrested numerous participants of public gatherings. Amendments in 2012 to the UAE’s cyber crime law now mean that people who use the Internet to organise ‘unauthorised’ public demonstrations can be severely punished.
Although free speech is constitutionally protected, individuals who publicly criticise the authorities in the United Arab Emirates are routinely arrested, harassed, tortured and disappear.
Although free speech is constitutionally protected, individuals who publicly criticise the authorities in the United Arab Emirates are routinely arrested, harassed, tortured and disappear. Prominent academics including Dr. Issa al-Suweidi and Dr. Nasser bin Ghaith have both been convicted and imprisoned as a direct result of their peaceful human rights advocacy and online commentary in support of a freer society. Speaking openly on social media can also have disastrous consequences, as demonstrated by the ten-year prison sentence imposed on Ahmed Abdulla al-Wahdi, who ran a social media account accused of insulting the UAE’s leadership. The UAE also uses strict blasphemy laws to stifle free speech. In May 2015 they sentenced a man to a year in prison after his Facebook post was deemed to have insulted Islam. Restrictions on free speech imposed by the Printing and Publications Law of 1980 have recently been strengthened through amendments in 2012 to the UAE’s cyber crime law. Under the revised law, users can be jailed if they post content online which criticises the country or its leaders. The authorities heavily censor and monitor online content and have in the past blocked websites, including that of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights in early 2015.