Human Rights in the UAE: Insights from the Fourth Universal Periodic Review

  1. Fourth Cycle UPR Overview

During the fourth Universal Periodic Review (UPR) cycle of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), numerous recommendations were made by states urging human rights reforms across various thematic areas, especially freedom of expression, death penalty, torture, independence of the judiciary and fair trial. In total, 323 recommendations were presented to the State under Review (SuR) by 117 delegations. However, it is noted that the UAE accepted 198 of these recommendations. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) emphasizes the importance of urging the UAE Government to reconsider its stance on these recommendations. While awaiting further updates and developments on the outcomes of the UPR process, continued pressure and advocacy are necessary to ensure that the UAE fulfills its commitments to human rights reform and addresses the concerns raised by the international community.

  1. Freedom of Expression

In the fourth UPR of the UAE, freedom of expression emerged as a critical concern, with numerous states urging the UAE to enhance protections in this area. Despite receiving recommendations to amend restrictive laws and safeguard free speech from over 20 countries to ratify or consider ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the UAE accepted none of these suggestions. Additionally, it did not agree to review its domestic legislation to bring it in line with international standards on freedom of expression. Although Article 33 of the Emirati constitution protects freedom of expression, this right is severely restricted by other laws, such as the Counter-Terrorism Law, the Cybercrime Law and the Penal Code. These laws allow authorities to broadly interpret and arbitrarily enforce provisions that criminalize acts of public criticism, defamation and vaguely defined offenses like “insulting the ruler”, “damaging national unity” or “endangering State security”. These extensive and vague provisions enable the prosecution of individuals for exercising free speech, contributing to a restrictive environment for freedom of expression.

  1. Judicial Harassment of Human Rights Defenders

The issue of judicial harassment of human rights defenders was a major focus. Numerous states expressed serious concerns over the UAE’s continued use of judicial measures to silence activists, journalists and other human rights defenders. Recommendations were made urging the UAE to cease arbitrary arrests, detentions, and prosecutions of individuals who peacefully advocate for human rights. Despite calls from the international community, the UAE has merely noted these concerns. The continued use of ambiguous legal instruments for the harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders underscores the UAE’s apparent reluctance to align its practices with universally recognized international human rights standards.

  1. Torture and Ill-treatment

Despite international recommendations urging the UAE to ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT), the country has yet to do so. In May 2023, 11 countries issued recommendations for the UAE to ratify this convention, all of which were rejected by the Emirati delegation. While the UAE accepted recommendations related to the establishment of a domestic definition of torture aligned with the UNCAT’s definition, it merely noted recommendations to stop practices of torture, ill-treatment and incommunicado detention during its last UPR. Although the Emirati constitution prohibits torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, legislation does not define torture in accordance with the UNCAT. This underscores the urgent need for the UAE to undertake comprehensive reforms to address torture and other human rights abuses.

  1. Independence of the judiciary, fair trial and due process

The right to a fair trial in the UAE faces significant obstacles. While legal counsel is guaranteed during trials, access to lawyers from the time of arrest is not provided and free legal assistance is limited. Obtaining permission for lawyer meetings is mandatory and meetings occur under supervision, limiting confidentiality. Lawyers, especially those handling cases related to state security, face difficulties accessing information and may encounter harassment. Detainees held incommunicado by the State Security Agency (SSA) are often subjected to torture to extract confessions. The lack of judicial independence has facilitated abuses by the State Security Apparatus, including arbitrary and secret detentions and torture.

  1. Death Penalty

The UAE maintains its commitment to the death penalty, rejecting calls for a moratorium on executions and abolition during the recent UPR cycle. The Committee against Torture expressed concerns regarding the lengthy periods spent on death row by those convicted of capital offenses, mostly in relation to the broad and imprecise provisions of the UAE’s penal code, which allow for the application of the death penalty in various circumstances. Articles such as 188 and 190 lack specificity and fail to adhere to international standards, as they do not exclusively pertain to the most serious crimes and feature excessively broad language.

  1. Migrant Workers Rights

The UAE faces ongoing challenges in safeguarding the rights of workers, particularly migrant workers under the kafala (sponsorship) system, which ties workers to their employers, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Additionally, workers endure harsh working conditions, such as extreme heat exposure, without adequate protection. Labor abuses persist, with workers facing wage theft, high recruitment fees and various forms of exploitation. In response to such concerns, other countries have made recommendations to the UAE to address labor rights issues with comprehensive reforms to protect the rights and well-being of all workers in the UAE.

  1. Women’s Rights

In the UAE, gender inequality persists and women often encounter barriers in various aspects of life, including education, employment and legal rights. The UAE’s legal system is rooted in Sharia law, which can result in discriminatory practices against women in matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance. Although amendments to the Federal Personal Status Law have granted women more autonomy in matters of marriage, divorce and child custody, their rights are still heavily influenced by Sharia law. In the workforce, the UAE has implemented laws and policies to promote gender equality, including equal pay legislation and initiatives to support women’s entrepreneurship. However, gender disparities remain, particularly in leadership positions, where women are underrepresented. In response to these concerns, several countries have made recommendations to promote gender equality and protect women’s rights in the UAE.

  1. Concluding Recommendations

With the fourth cycle of UPR, it is evident that while the UAE accepted a significant number of recommendations, challenges persist in implementing these recommendations effectively. Key areas of concern remain, including the treatment of migrant workers, the use of torture, harassment of human rights defenders, the right to free expression and the lack of independence of the judiciary. Considering this, the ADHRB calls upon the UAE to:

  1. Engage fully with the UPR process, including actively participating in constructive dialogue and implementing recommendations in good faith.
  2. Transparently accept and implement all recommendations received during the UPR, prioritizing measures to safeguard the rights and well-being of all individuals within the UAE’s jurisdiction.
  3. Take decisive actions to review the kafala system and enact robust legislative measures to protect the rights and well-being of migrant workers.
  4. Ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture and establish independent monitoring mechanisms to prevent and investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment.
  5. Take immediate steps to ensure the judiciary operates independently from the executive branch and is free from political interference.
  6. Enact comprehensive legislation to protect women’s rights, ensure equal access to education and employment opportunities, and address gender-based violence and harmful practices.
  7. Revise existing legislation to align with international human rights standards and guarantee the right to freedom of expression for all individuals.
  8. Place an immediate moratorium on executions and work towards the complete abolition of the death penalty.


Amnesty International, Human rights in United Arab Emirates, 2024.

Expatica United Arab Emirates, Women’s rights in the United Arab Emirates, April 2024.

Human Rights Watch, World Report 2024: Rights trends in United Arab Emirates, January 2024.

International Service for Human Rights, Joint NGO Submission to the Committee against Torture on the United Arab Emirates, June 2020.

MENA Rights Group, Human Rights NGOs call on UAE to immediately repeal or amend its new law combatting rumours and cybercrimes, 2022.

MENA Rights Group, New UAE Penal Code: Increased restrictions on fundamental freedoms, 2022.

MENA Rights Group, UAE Reject 40 Recommendations Made During its Universal Periodic Review, 2022.

United Nations Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, 2015.

United Nations Human Rights Council, United Arab Emirates and the UPR, 2024.

United Nations Human Rights Council, Universal Periodic Review: United Arab Emirates, April 2023.

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UAE: UN experts condemn trial of foreign nationals based on forced confessions and allegations of torture, February 2016.

UPR Info, 43rd UPR Working Group: Key Highlights, May 2023.

World Coalition against the Death Penalty, United Arab Emirates, August 2021.