In late August, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president of the United Arab Emirates, passed a law, celebrated in state media, to establish a supposedly independent National Human Rights Institution in Abu Dhabi—to the overwhelming skepticism of human rights observers. The Emirati government seemed to deliberately expedite the announcement, in order to alleviate international pressure over its human rights record just before the start of Expo 2020 Dubai, which opened on Oct. 1. The details of the law, however, still have not been made public nearly two months after it was issued.
The UAE's move failed to convince the European Union's legislators, most of all, that it is serious about taking tangible steps to improve the human rights situation in the country, despite Emirati state media's claims that the new institute "aims to promote and protect human rights and freedoms." On Sept. 15, the European Parliament passed a resolution deeply critical of the UAE's human rights record.
The resolution condemned the detention of human rights defenders and repeated calls for the immediate and unconditional release of prisoners of conscience, political detainees and "peaceful dissidents" in the Emirates. Perhaps most unsettling for Emirati authorities, the resolution also called on the EU and its members states to boycott Expo 2020 Dubai, which was postponed last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, and adopt "targeted measures against those responsible for grave human rights violations in the UAE" under the EU's global human rights sanctions regime.
Abu Dhabi quickly blasted the resolution, declaring it political with a human rights veneer. Emirati media accused some of the human rights organizations that backed the resolution of being aligned with the Houthis in Yemen—considered terrorists by the UAE. The feverish official and unofficial reaction made it clear that the European Parliament had irritated and even rattled Emirati authorities. A statement from its foreign ministry rejected what it called "the allegations" made in the resolution, which it claimed are "factually incorrect" and "completely ignores all of the UAE's significant achievements in the human rights field."
Nothing in the resolution is factually incorrect, of course, and the UAE has a long history of detaining political dissidents. But there are some facts about the timing of the European Parliament's resolution, and about the UAE's supposed "achievements" in human rights, that are worth highlighting, especially given the revealing backlash from the Emirati government.
The UAE sees Expo 2020, and the positive press it hopes it generates, as a way to whitewash its human rights violations and present itself to the world as a tolerant state.
- Hamad al-Shamsi
Fact No.1: The European Parliament's resolution wasn't issued out of the blue; it had been in deliberation for months as the UAE failed to respond to repeated calls from European officials, as well as U.N. human rights experts and advocacy organizations, to release prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders. In its preamble, the resolution refers to nearly 20 points that it took into consideration, including previous resolutions by the European Parliament and statements by EU and U.N. officials about the UAE's violations of human rights. This resolution is not the first to call on UAE authorities to specifically release Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent Emirati human rights activist who was arrested in 2017, and other human rights defenders. The resolution in particular refers to past statements by U.N. human rights experts calling for Mansoor's immediate release and condemning the harsh conditions of his detention.
Fact No. 2: The European Parliament's resolution was preceded by 10 rounds of dialogue on human rights between the EU and the UAE. The UAE-EU Working Group on Human Rights has held biannual sessions since it was formed in 2013, the most recent of which was held virtually this past June. Yet those meetings, which are meant to discuss potential remedies to human rights violations, have yielded no significant reforms or actions from the UAE, apart from the establishment of the new National Human Rights Institution, whose members and actual functions still remain in the dark since it was unveiled.
Fact No. 3: Many media outlets in the UAE cited a "study" published by TRENDS Research and Advisory, a think tank in Abu Dhabi affiliated with the Emirati government, defending the UAE's human rights record and echoing the government's rhetoric about the "unfounded allegations" in the European Parliament resolution. It claimed that the resolution "reduced human rights in the UAE to a single case," namely of Ahmed Mansoor. Most of the so-called study by TRENDS reads like an Emirati government press statement, with lines like this about the resolution: "Its provisions and clauses were based on a set of false information published by some suspicious human rights organizations which get information from untrustworthy sources for their reports instead of information issued by official bodies."
If any allegation is unfounded, it is this one, as the resolution went into significant detail about the dire human rights situation in the UAE, including the systematic repression of human rights defenders and political activists. That includes the use of spyware by NSO Group to track them down outside the UAE, to "the vague and overly broad definition of terrorism in Emirati law" that is used against peaceful and legitimate political activists, as well as violations of women's rights and "the UAE's inhumane practices against foreign workers" through its abusive kafala or work sponsorship system.
The European Parliament resolution specifically referred to statements from U.N. human rights experts like Mary Lawlor, the U.N. Special Rapporteur, who has said that the conditions that Mansour and two other prominent activists, Mohamed al-Roken and Nasser bin Ghaith, face in detention, including prolonged solitary confinement, "are in violation of human rights standards and may constitute torture."
Furthermore, the resolution does not ignore statements by the Emirati government; it even cites a 2017 statement from the UAE's foreign ministry on the causes of Mansoor's detention, "on a charge of spreading false and misleading information over the internet, through agendas aimed at disseminating antipathy and sectarianism." As the resolution points out, that statement just confirmed that Mansoor was, in fact, arrested solely because of the views he shared online.
With its calls for EU member states to boycott Expo 2020 and for corporate sponsors to withdraw their support, the European Parliament's resolution came at an especially uncomfortable time for the UAE, raising potentially serious economic and reputational costs.
- Hamad al-Shamsi
Fact No. 4: The UAE has consistently ignored or denied applications for visits from EU and U.N. officials concerned with human rights violations, as well as from advocacy organizations, which would allow them to verify information about political detainees and monitor their treatment in prison. The Emirati government cannot claim that the European Parliament's resolution is "factually incorrect" while at the same time denying human rights observers access to the UAE and refusing to answer the inquiries of U.N. experts.
It was perhaps the timing of the European Parliament's resolution that was most critical, just days before Expo 2020 opened. The UAE has invested a lot in the massive and delayed trade fair, which it is counting on to reinvigorate its economy after it went into a deep recession last year due to the pandemic. In addition, Expo 2020 is all the more symbolic as it coincides with the 50-year anniversary of the establishment of the United Arab Emirates, with "golden jubilee" celebrations set for December. The UAE sees Expo 2020, and the positive press it hopes it generates, as a way to whitewash its human rights violations and present itself to the world as a tolerant state.
So the European Parliament resolution, with its calls for EU member states to boycott the Expo in Dubai and for corporate sponsors to withdraw their support, came at an especially uncomfortable time for the UAE, raising potentially serious economic and reputational costs. No wonder Emirati authorities were so upset.