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UAE claims to be progressive while rights' climate worsens

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - 28 November 2012 - Ever since the European Parliament adopted its first resolution on the United Arab Emirates in late October, expressing profound concerns about its human rights record, the UAE has gone to great lengths to contest its accuracy.

It countered with a narrative that features the UAE as a model of enlightened progress in the region and a bulwark against militant Islamist groups, a narrative for which the Italian ambassador to the UAE offered public support on 6 November when he said that, “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.” The statement should be understood in the context of Mario Monti's trip to the UAE on 20 November, as Italy seeks to develop trade ties and secure the UAE's assistance in easing its debt burden, but a cursory glance at developments this year reveals the UAE is no model of progress, and as recent events have made clear, the human rights situation is deteriorating rapidly.

Since the beginning of the year, 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.

When you throw into the mix credible allegations of torture at UAE State Security facilities and poor living and working conditions for impoverished construction and service workers from south Asia, it is clear that there is a vast gap between Abu Dhabi's narrative and the facts on the ground.

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 EU diplomats refer to as “discreet” meetings.

The UAE was not without its defenders in the parliamentary debate. The UK Conservative MEP Charles Tannock dismissed the notion that the UAE was a serial human rights violator as “completely absurd,” asserting 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 Ministry for Foreign Affairs responded to a question about the resolution by stating that they are “well aware of the progress made by the UAE” in the field of human rights. The Italian ambassador, Giorgio Starace, offered his endorsement of the UAE's supposed 'progress' only a few days later adding that the resolution did “not reflect the completeness of the scenario and give the possibility to the counterparts to present and disclose in an exhaustive form their point of view.”

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 organizations 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 that al-Islah – which was set up in the UAE in 1974 and until relatively recently operated 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).

It is stunning how the French and Italian diplomats can talk about progress in the UAE and avoid any comment on the arbitrary detention of 63 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, which yet again reveals just how little the UAE rulers are committed to a progressive and tolerant society. Issued on November 13, the new law criminalizes a wide range of non-violent political activities carried out on or via the internet, from criticism of its rulers to organizing unlicensed demonstrations.

In June the EU adopted a “strategic framework,” which it said would “place human rights at the center 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. Now EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, her diplomats, and EU member states including Italy, should follow suit and fulfill the pledges they made in June.

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