The 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) … The UN Must Stop Giving the Green Light to Human Rights Violators

The hosting of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) by the United Arab Emirates for two weeks in late 2023 failed to reach strong and binding agreements, coupled with continued support for the expansion of the fossil fuel sector. This highlights the mistake committed by the UN in granting countries with poor human rights record the opportunity to exploit international events to whitewash their image. The COP28 conference is the latest evidence of how an environmental global event has been turned into a means of exploitation by a state that tops the list of human rights violators in suppressing freedoms and criminalizing civil society and political opposition.

Below Expectations Outcomes

On 13 December 2023, the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) concluded its proceedings in Dubai amid significant disagreements and criticisms from several participating countries over the described “weak” draft agreement. Additionally, the conference was on the brink of potential failure to reach an agreement among the 198 countries involved, especially after the removal of words from a previous draft indicating that fossil fuels ‘can be gradually phased out’.

The agreement came after disputes that led to the extension of the conference for an additional day.  The objections were about whether the final outcome would include a call for ‘gradual reduction’ or ‘gradual elimination’ of fossil fuels, responsible for three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming. The representative of the European Union, Emun Ryan, initially described the draft agreement as ‘unacceptable,’ even threatening to leave the conference. However, he later clarified that the collapse of the talks is ‘not the outcome the world is looking for’.

This contentious point remained a subject of dispute for two weeks between activists and countries threatened by global warming on one hand and major powers on the other. It served as one of the reasons for objections from civil society and environmental protection organizations. In addition to this, they condemned the final statement’s failure to address the phasing out of oil, gas, and coal, a demand made by more than a hundred countries. Notably, this demand faced rejection from Kuwait, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia – the largest oil-producing country in the world.

While participants in the general session applauded inside the hall, representatives of civil society and climate activists expressed their dissatisfaction with the outcomes of the climate talks. The final results were deemed disappointing, as they failed to compel wealthy nations to fulfill their financial responsibilities, leaving developing countries without sufficient guarantees to assist them in transitioning to renewable energy.

Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International, told UN News that “the outcome was marred with loopholes that offer the fossil fuel industry numerous escape routes relying on unproven, unsafe technologies”. Singh pointed to what he saw as “the hypocrisy of wealthy nations…that continue to expand fossil fuel operations massively while paying mere lip service to the green transition”.

Regarding the activation of the “Loss and Damage Fund,” Mahmoud Mohieldin, the UN Special Envoy for the United Nations on Financing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, described climate financing as insufficient and time-consuming. He stated that “it is unjust because the most vulnerable countries are asked to pay for a crisis that they don’t contribute to, and they get the smallest share of finance to achieve their climate goals”. Considering the estimated annual economic cost of losses and damages in developing countries, which was around $400 billion by 2023 and projected to be approximately $1.8 trillion by 2050, several countries, including the UAE, pledged to provide a total of only around $700 million. Greenpeace, the global environmental organization, also argued that this funding should not be exclusively allocated for loss and damage but should be expanded to include support for adaptation and mitigation measures.

Criticism of the Host Country and Conference President

The hosting of the UN Climate Conference by the UAE, a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the third-largest oil-producing country in the Arab world has been seen as a glaring example of the Gulf States exploiting international conferences for “greenwashing.” This is a common tactic among companies to exploit concerns about climate change. Some entities and companies claim to take responsibility for the environment to attract more business or comply with lower levels of scrutiny.

The UAE has had a long-standing involvement in activating pressure groups in the fossil fuel sector since the 1990s. This involvement has steadily increased, with the number of participants from lobbying groups reaching 500 at COP26 and rising to 630 at COP27, including 70 pressure groups associated with Emirati oil and gas companies. Consequently, the UAE’s hosting of COP28 provided a platform for the activities of these groups, which attempted to steer the discussions towards undermining any progress in climate action.

While the UAE has invested in renewable energy sectors, its economy and budget still heavily rely on the continued production of fossil fuels. In this context, a report by the United Nations Environment Programme revealed that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait, among around 20 major fossil fuel-producing countries, continue to provide significant political and financial support for fossil fuel production. Based on a review and analysis of government air pollution data and satellite imagery from 2018 to 2023, a report by Human Rights Watch stated that “the UAE’s fossil fuel industry contributes to toxic air pollution while the government works to position itself as a global leader on climate and health issues at the United Nations Climate Conference COP28”.

There is a clear contradiction between the image that the UAE is trying to portray about itself to secure a seat on the global stage and the Conference President, Sultan AlJaber, who has faced months of criticism from some environmental advocates for also serving as the CEO of the UAE’s national oil company, “ADNOC,” one of the world’s largest oil companies. BBC revealed a network of coordinated accounts promoting the climate summit and its president. These practices led over a hundred members of the European Parliament and the US Congress to sign a letter demanding his removal from his position as president of the summit, as they believed he “posed a serious risk to the Conference of Parties process.” One of the most concerning leaks from secret documents was about the UAE’s plans to use its role as host of the UN climate talks as an opportunity to strike oil and gas deals.

Black Human Rights Record

Since the moment the UAE was chosen as the host country for the global event, several criticisms have arisen regarding the Gulf state’s human rights record. Questions have been raised about the extent of freedoms available to citizens to express their opinions and aspirations for this international event hosted by their country, amidst the tight grip on freedom of expression in the country.

For months, various human rights organizations have been sounding early alarms to warn the UN of the danger of granting hosting rights to a country ranked among the lowest in the world on the Human Freedom Index for 2023, placing 127 out of 165 countries worldwide.

The UAE has resorted to global spyware programs, including tracking software from an Israeli intelligence company, to spy on activists and opponents, monitor online content, and impose excessive control over social media platforms. Investigations have revealed that the UAE has adopted digital surveillance as a means to crush dissent and stifle freedom of expression. This practice was warned against by Amnesty International, which cautioned against the use of spyware to target human rights defenders and members of civil society, including those attending the COP28 conference.

Indeed, these concerns were justified, as several human rights violations were recorded during the conference:

– The start of mass trials involving more than 80 Emirati citizens, including prominent human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience.

Restrictions on online content and deletion of numerous posts.

Prevention of the right to peaceful protest and restriction of this right to specific areas.

Prohibition of civil society organizations from participating in the conference, limiting participation to governmental organizations.

Creation of an atmosphere of intimidation through extensive surveillance using video cameras and filming participants in activities and events.

Political Purposes Justifies the Means

Not far from these criticisms, the UAE exploited the international conference for political purposes, including the recent normalization between the country and Israel. The UAE sent an official invitation to the Israeli President, Isaac Herzog, and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to participate in the conference. Herzog’s participation sparked objections from participating countries due to Israel’s ongoing attacks on the Gaza Strip and its committing of genocide against civilians, in clear violations of international law.

The practices of the UAE during the 2023 Climate Conference raise serious questions about the UN’s readiness to grant countries with a black record in human rights the opportunity to exploit international platforms to market their image. It also raises concerns about the seriousness of their commitments to implement the conference’s recommendations. A joint statement by forty-two human rights organizations stated that since 2013, the UAE has been mentioned in every annual report by the UN Secretary-General on intimidation and reprisal against individuals seeking to cooperate with or have cooperated with the UN, indicating the ongoing harassment faced by human rights defenders in the UAE.

The UAE’s hosting of the conference sheds light on Western support for these countries and the cover granted to them for their human rights violations, as well as the neglect of calls to urge the UAE to cease its violations. More than 19 human rights groups sent a letter to the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, urging the US to pressure the UAE to immediately release human rights defenders. Additionally, Human Rights Watch urged EU foreign ministers in a letter to call on the UAE to end its suppression of independent civil society and release the imprisoned human rights defenders.

Therefore, giving the UAE the opportunity to host the conference allowed it to tarnish the reputation of a global event with blatant human rights violations and control the conference’s outcomes through fossil fuel lobbying groups. Additionally, it cast doubts on scientific facts by appointing an individual not suited for the responsibility as the conference’s president. This president is using his position to market his oil company’s interests.

Based on the above, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights (ADHRB) calls on the United Nations to fulfill its role in limiting the actions of countries with a long record of human rights violations. These actions include criminalizing freedom of opinion and expression and using terrorism as a pretext to prosecute opposition and activists. ADHRB urges the UN to hold these countries accountable instead of promoting them. It also calls to stop these countries from using global events and exploiting international platforms to market their policies and whitewash their human rights violations.