28 February 2017 – Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), in response to the statement made today by Dr. Anwar Mohammed Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), during the High Level Segment of the Human Rights Council (HRC), expresses deep concern over ongoing human rights violations in the UAE. During his statement, Dr. Gargash extolled the UAE’s record in several fields. However, he made no mention about a number of grievous and systemic human rights violations. ADHRB is particularly concerned with the UAE’s lack of progress in the areas of the right to freedom of expression and opinion, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance of human rights defenders, torture, labor and human trafficking, and the involvement in the war in Yemen, which is responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians and which has pushed the country to the brink of famine.
Right to Freedom of Expression and Opinion
The UAE has strict laws and regulations restricting Emiratis’ right to free expression and opinion. In August 2014, the UAE enacted its counter-terror law, which provides a broad definition of terror crimes. This has enabled Emirati authorities to target and prosecute peaceful dissidents, activists, and human rights defenders under the aegis of national security. The law’s definition of terrorism is broad in scope, classifying a number of expression-related crimes as terrorism, for example, in provisions criminalizing those who “undermine national unity.” This law operates in conjunction with the 2012 cybercrime law to criminalize nearly every form of critical opinion. The cybercrime law relates to electronic and online information, allowing authorities to prosecute activists for content posted on the internet or on electronic devices.
Under these laws, the UAE government has targeted and prosecuted a number of activists for their expression. On 18 August 2015, security officers in civilian clothes arrested academic Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith, for charges related to comments on Twitter. He has been in detention since his arrest, having been held incommunicado for nearly eight months. In March 2016, Emirati officials stripped human rights defender Mohammed Abdul Razzaq al-Siddiq of his citizenship, after he had signed a petition calling for fair elections and used Twitter to criticize a speech by a Sharjah official. On 16 January 2017, officers of the State Security Apparatus arrested academic and activist Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent political science professor and human rights defender. It is believed he was arrested because he made comments on Twitter promoting freedom of expression.
Arbitrary Detention, Enforced Disappearance, and Torture
The UAE continues to arbitrarily detain and forcibly disappear activists and critics of the government, many for crimes related to expression. During their detention, authorities often torture activists. For example, when officials arrested Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith over comments he made criticizing Egyptian security forces’ killing of demonstrators in Cairo’s Rab’a Square in 2013, they held him incommunicado for nearly eight months before taking him to court.
In September 2014, officials of the State Security Apparatus arrested Salim al-Aradi, a Libyan-Canadian citizen, Kamal Ahmed al-Darrat and his son Mohamed Kamal al-Darrat, Libyan-American citizens, and Adel Rajab Beleid Nasef and Moad Mohamed al-Hashmi, who are Libyan citizens. The Emirati government detained them for a year and a half in secret detention facilities and in solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture received credible information alleging security officials tortured the men to sign confessions. The men had only very limited access to their lawyers and their lawyers had limited access to their clients’ files. In addition to comments made by several Special Rapporteurs, including the Rapporteur on torture, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined the men to have been arbitrarily detained.
Domestic Labor and Human Trafficking Abuses
In his speech, Dr. Gargash addressed labor abuses, saying that, “The UAE enacted far-reaching reforms to its Labour Law last year.” As part of the reform effort, in late 2016, the UAE announced it would transfer oversight for recruitment of domestic workers from the interior ministry to the labor ministry. While this is a positive change, the Labor Law still does not address the situation of domestic workers. Legal protections for domestic workers remain far weaker than do protections for other laborers. As a result, under the kafala system, domestic workers are exposed to abuse from their employers while being unable to leave their jobs. If a domestic worker attempts to leave their position without the approval of their employer, they can be arrested and prosecuted for “absconding” and punished with fines, imprisonment, and deportation. The UAE has created some programs and institutions to assist domestic workers who are victims of abuse. However, these measures fall far short of being truly protective in scope and intent.
Dr. Gargash also stated that the “UAE has made significant progress against human trafficking” and noted the creation of a fund for victims of human trafficking. However, the measures created by the government fall far short of what is necessary to successfully combat human trafficking. The ongoing use of the kafala system, however, has continued to contribute to abuses by employers. By tying workers to their employers, the kafala system severely restricts workers’ freedom of movement and renders them vulnerable to physical and psychological abuse. Workers cannot leave their employers because their passports are often confiscated and arrest can lead to deportation. While new regulations allow for some freedom of movement, the persistence of the system ensures the continued exploitation of migrant workers and victims of human trafficking.
The War in Yemen
Dr. Gargash closed the UAE’s High Level Statement with comments about Yemen, focusing on the abuses of the Houthis and former President Saleh’s forces. However, as an important member of the Saudi-led coalition, the UAE is complicit in the coalition’s actions, including airstrikes on civilian targets and the aerial and naval blockade that have left Yemen close to famine and with a shortage of medicine. The coalition has conducted hundreds of airstrikes on civilian areas that have destroyed hospitals, schools, refugee camps, markets, infrastructure, and a funeral hall. In addition, a naval and aerial blockade have restricted the import of critical supplies of food and medicine. While Saudi Arabia leads the coalition, the UAE is an important partner in the conflict. Its continued participation in the fighting has left it complicit in the conflict’s humanitarian crisis.
During his speech, Dr. Gargash failed to mention a number of areas of human rights where the UAE has failed to make progress. ADHRB is alarmed by the selective nature of the Minister’s speech and his efforts to gloss over areas of significant concern.
“Today’s High Level Statement by the UAE government represents another attempt to shift international focus away from structural and systematic human rights abuses and towards the UAE’s false self portrait of tolerance and understanding,” states Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB. “We strongly urge the international community needs to look past its propaganda and see the truth: arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, torture, systematic labor abuses, and complicity in a war threatening to starve millions.”
ADHRB calls on the Government of the United Arab Emirates to immediately take steps to end the kafala system, ban torture, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances, and withdraw its support for the war in Yemen.