Financing Poison at the Top of the Well: How a Culture of Impunity has Allowed the UAE to Continue to Flaunt Grave Human Rights Abuses

Impunity in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is endemic, thanks to a pervasive culture of dispensation in the upper echelons of government. The UAE can be described as an autocratic police state, with widespread censorship laws and high surveillance. The ambiguity of its laws allows the leadership to easily justify the quashing of dissent or the silencing of government critics. For instance the case of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, and the Prime Minister and Vice-President of the UAE. Sheikh Mohammed has been embroiled in a whole host of different scandals involving his ex-wife and his multiple children. One example is the recent court case in the United Kingdom which has led to Princess Haya and her children receiving protected status. “The court heard how veiled threats from Sheikh Mohammed had left her terrified for her own safety, as well as fears that her children could be abducted and forcibly returned to Dubai”, while in May 2019 his ex-wife Princess Haya said that Sheikh Mohammed told her: “You and the children will never be safe in England”. He published a poem entitled: “You lived, you died”.

Meanwhile, censorship of the story and lack of reporting from the press has meant that the details of the case have been mostly brushed under the carpet. Sheikh Mohammed continues to sit on his throne as ruler of Dubai and is seen countless times next to Mohammed bin Zayed the ruler of the UAE and Abu Dhabi without being reprimanded for his actions. This striking example demonstrates that the culture of impunity is well visible at the top of society; as this report will further illustrate.

In the UAE torture is consistently employed in detention centers in order to extract confessions of guilt or testimonies against other detainees, bereft of any punishment of the perpetrators. These practices target human rights defenders, peaceful opponents of the regime as well as national and foreign citizens. ADHRB recently looked at the UAE and its track record of torture as the “government has an extensive history of using torture against those they perceive as a threat; this ‘threat’ most commonly includes human rights defenders, political opposition, religious figures, and journalists”. Furthermore, the “UAE authorities, in their determination to crush dissent, have allowed their state security apparatus to use its near-unchecked power to continually punish the families of activists, both detained and living abroad.” In addition, “the UAE’s police state not only punishes those who peacefully dissent, but harasses and abuses even those related to them, with their intolerance for criticism reaching comical proportions,”.

The case of Matthew Hedges saw a British researcher, who was accused of espionage, thrown into jail for six months is one of the more prominent examples of recent history. Hedges says he “was lured to Dubai in 2014 and thrown into prison without charge. I eagerly awaited the first visit of officials from the British embassy. Yet all I got were two non-Brits hired by a diplomatic staffing agency, and all they said they could do was ensure I was being treated reasonably and getting adequate food”. They failed to get him the specific food that he needed after his recent stomach surgery. He said, “there was no attempt to protest about the disregard of all basic judicial principles”. Hedges was kept in inhumane conditions, he was beaten and raped, with one guard saying “Be careful, British prisoners die here”.

In spite of reliable accounts of torture being ciculated amoungst the internaitonal community, the UAE continues to act with impunity; it does not fear repercussions to its actions. In this case, one would expect that the UK would end its preferential treatment of the UAE in all aspects, yet this has not happened however. Economically the two countries work together closely: “The UK still encourages firms to invest in Emirati companies with the implicit assumption that they face fair business conditions. Again, the judicial situation makes it a highly risky country to do business with”. Militarily, the UK and UAE have a close relationship. Despite the horrific treatment of Matthew Hedges, this relationship remains strong. By not calling for a change in the status quo, the UAE will continue to flaunt its flagrant human rights violations and carry on ‘as normal’.

Unfortunately, the UK is not the only country that overlooks UAE’s systemic culture of contravening human rights norms by not ceasing its economic ties with the country. In May 2019, the Trump administration approved a new shipment of arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE valued at $8 billion, as part of an ‘emergency’ sale meant to bolster regional allies and counter regional aggression. This has been done despite the fact that the UAE has utilized torture against detainees, supplied US weapons to known Al-Qaeda affiliates, and used US weapons to buy the support of militias known to be committing gross human rights violations. In 2019, the UAE was the United States’ single largest export market in the Middle East and North Africa region, with more than 1,000 U.S. firms operating in the country. Many more U.S. companies, drawn by strong logistics and transport industries, use the UAE as a regional headquarters from which to conduct business throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Asia.

Belgium is another example: In 2019, a type of Belgian machine gun known to be wielded by a Yemeni militia in the Hodeidah offensive is among the weaponry set to be showcased this weekend at one of the Middle East’s largest arms fairs in Abu Dhabi. As reported by Amnesty International, this is not as surprising as one would think: despite the fact that the UAE and the militias it backs are implicated in war crimes and other serious violations, the following states have recently supplied the Emiratis with arms: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Czechia, France, Finland, Germany, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the UK and the USA, among others. According to Amnesty International, since the outbreak of the Yemeni conflict in March 2015, Western states and others have supplied the UAE with at least US$3.5 billion worth of arms. Among them are heavy conventional weapons – including aircraft and ships – small arms, light weapons and associated parts and ammunition. As noted by Amnesty International, it seems that “the USA and other arms-supplying countries such as the UK and France remain unmoved by the pain and chaos their arms are wreaking on the civilian population”.

One major factor for the international response which allows the UAE to act in total violation of international human rights treaty obligations is perhaps the UAE’s sovereign wealth funds. This has transformed the Emiratis into an important investor in key states in Europe, Asia and North America, with a value estimated at between $589bn and $773bn. Their importance as a trading partner strengthens their hand vis-à-vis the P5 – the UK, France, Russia, China and the USA – who play a decisive role in international politics as the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

These economic ties have been built and/or upheld despite the existence of numerous reports on and condemnations of the crimes committed by the UAE, voiced by institutions such as the UN or the European Parliament. For example, in March 2020, UN human rights experts urged the Emirati authorities “to investigate and reform detention conditions that amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” as these conditions have been repeatedly reported by the UN Committee against Torture and the UN Human Rights Committee. In 2018, the European Parliament adopted a resolution which called on the UAE to cease all forms of harassment and to lift the travel ban against human rights defenders and urged the authorities to “guarantee in all circumstances that human rights defenders in the UAE are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities, both inside and outside the country, without fear of reprisals”.

Today, enforced disappearance and torture extend beyond the UAE’s neighbor to Yemen, where the United Arab Emirates and Saudi’s intervention in the conflict has already caused thousands of civilian casualties. Our recent report has denounced war crimes and crimes against humanity committed with full impunity by these states in the context of what has been described by the UN as the worst humanitarian crisis worldwide. As the UAE’s systemic issue of impunity not only leads to horrific violations of its own civilians, but also civilians in a completely different country, the UAE is therefore guilty of trans-national murder.

The issue of impunity in the UAE is one that is systemic. It spreads all the way from the very top into all facets of society. By allowing nefarious behaviour at the top of society, it normalizes it and therefore becomes the status quo. Even when critical voices decry such behaviour, dissent is quickly silenced with jail sentences and surveillance programs that are incredibly invasive and spark fear. This causes a chilling effect, making it more difficult critics in the future from voicing their frustrations. However, the most distressing issue is the lack of accountability from the international community; the UAE is still seen as the progressive poster child in the Middle East. International trade is encouraged to the UAE, while its large sovereign wealth funds are able to push their influence in the West. If there is any hope of change, the country and its leaders must be held accountable for the atrocities they have caused.