ODVV interview: UAE has attacked freedom of...
United Arab Emirates is a federal sovereign absolute monarchy in Western Asia, neighboring Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran in the Persian Gulf. The country of 9.2 million has about 7.8 million expatriates of whom a majority are employed workers. UAE is one of the Arab countries with a poor human rights record. National media are heavily surveilled by the government, freedom of assembly and protest is not really recognized, women and minorities face different sorts of restrictions and immigrant workers have unfortunate and disturbing conditions. At the same time, UAE is partnering with Saudi Arabia in the war against Yemen and many of what it does in the impoverished Yemen amount to war crimes.
Human Rights Watch notes in its 2017 report that the government of UAE has continued to ban the representatives of international human rights organizations from visiting and collecting on-the-ground reports from the country.
An Amman-based human rights expert tells the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence that UAE has relentlessly attacked freedom of expression without considering even its own laws and regulations, and hasn't been compellingly criticized by the international community. Fadi Al-Qadi says "UAE's stance on freedom of expression is tragic and catastrophic" and it is perhaps "one of the areas where very little has been done or can be done currently." Mr Al-Qadi is a Middle East and North Africa human rights, civil society expert and media commentator. He was previously the Advocacy and Communications Director and Spokesman of the Middle East and North Africa section of the Human Rights Watch.
In an exclusive interview with ODVV, Fadi Al-Qadi discussed the situation of human rights in the United Arab Emirates and the international community's response to the violations of press freedom, migrant workers' rights and other human rights abuses by UAE.
Q: Reports by the international organisations paint a grim picture of the situation of human rights in UAE. In your view, are the UAE officials sufficiently determined to improve the status quo and mend their human rights record?
A: UAE rulers have demonstrated, and are still demonstrating, persistent disregard of human rights. They appear to be determined to completely erase any sign or mark of dissent in the country and thusly transform UAE into a huge open prison. There are no signs that this is going to change any soon or in the near future; on the contrary, it appears that the country is heading towards more repression.
Q: UAE is under fire by the human rights groups over the violation of the rights of migrant workers who mostly come from Asian and African countries. What are the examples of these violations and do you think the UAE government has taken the necessary steps to address the allegations?
A: Abuses against migrant workers in the UAE, as much as in other countries of the Gulf states, are systemic. In that sense, the most prominent feature of the systemic abuses against migrant workers rest within the Kafala – Sponsorship – regime which simply restricts migrant worker’s legal status to a sponsoring employer, requiring workers to get an exit visa from that sponsor to leave the country or employer’s permit to move to another employer. The Kafala regime is widespread in the Gulf countries and it perfectly embodies ingredients of modern slavery by stripping the worker from his or her right to choose; by confining the worker to the wish of the employer and by restricting the worker from seeking other opportunities or the option to exit.
Various types of abuses against migrant workers take place in almost absolute impunity. One of HRW reports summarized abuses against Tanzanian domestic workers in Oman and the United Arab Emirates to include “excessive working hours, unpaid salaries, and physical and sexual abuse, [..] and abusive visa-sponsorship rules in those countries”.
UAE government may argue it has enacted, amended or introduced new laws to provide for more protection of migrant workers but the truth is, there is still a great lack of enforcement. And even if law reforms were arguably good, the system itself – Kafala regime, has not changed, and most importantly, no aspects of independent monitoring exist.
Q: The Human Rights Watch says the United Arab Emirates has launched systematic attacks on the freedom of press and freedom of expression since 2011. The anti-terrorism laws of the government stipulates death penalty for those people whose activities undermine "national unity and social peace" without defining these concepts clearly. What's your viewpoint about these arbitrary measures and the suppression of freedoms?
A: The UAE has relentlessly carried attacks on freedom of expression without even considering its own laws. Examples to that forced disappearance of critical bloggers, activists and those who dared to post a personal or independent opinion about anything, whether related or not to the UAE. Ahmed Mansoor was one of the rare and few independent human rights advocates in the UAE, and while he is also a member of the Human Rights Watch MENA advisory board, he was jailed, disappeared for more than ten months, before appearing secretively before a court of law in Abu Dhabi, which in return convicted him for 10 years for ‘contacting international rights groups’ and using electronic means to harm the country’s reputation and image. Besides Ahmed, there are scores of activists jailed because of their opinions, including Dr. Nasir Bin Gaith, a respected economy scholar and professor at the Abu Dhabi branch of the Paris-based Sorbonne University. His crime is posting on his Twitter account what rulers considered to be undermining their regional ties and support for certain Arab countries, including the regime of Sisi in Egypt.
UAE's stance on freedom of expression is tragic and catastrophic. It is perhaps one of the areas where very little has been done or can be done currently.
Q: United Arab Emirates is one of the major allies of the United States and the European Union in the Persian Gulf region. Do you agree that close political alliance and plentiful commercial relations between the UAE and these countries is a reason why various instances of human rights violations in this country are not criticized by the American and European officials and even sometimes covered up?
A: Maybe, but the truth is that the UAE has never recently, since 2011 for instance, been under serious international pressure. Economic ties, trade and relevant factors are indeed well positioned to justify absence of international community response to deep and systemic violations of human rights in the UAE—but we have to add to those that the UAE, at least because of its Abu Dhabi rulers policies, has emerged somewhat as a ‘regional’ power that is vocally launching wars, engaged deeply in supporting notorious and oppressive regimes in the region and is playing central key role in partnership with Saudi Arabia in shaping the current state of affairs in the region. Europe is a bit far away from the Gulf scene, with limited trade interests. But that cannot relieve Europe from its political and moral responsibilities.
Q: The Human Rights Watch notes in its annual report about UAE that this country is collaborating with Saudi Arabia in the war against Yemen and is playing a role in the airstrikes and incarceration of Yemeni citizens and some of its actions can amount to war crimes. Moreover, it's mentioned in this report that Yemeni prisoners have been harassed and abused by the Emirati forces. What is the reason behind UAE's participation in the Saudi war against Yemen and how is it possible to stop its actions if they violate human rights?
A: As I said earlier, the UAE emerged as a key regional power, in partnership with Saudi. The Saudi-UAE led coalition is committing war crimes, as much as every other party to the armed conflict in Yemen. We are aware of few independent organizations working on documenting these violations on the ground, but not quite sure how UAE and others will be held accountable for these crimes. There are no current international mechanisms that would allow prosecution of war crimes in Yemen. The International Criminal Court can't do that because none of the parties to the conflict are members in the Court, and that for the Court to have a mandate there, it must be referred to by a UN Security Council Resolution, which is not likely to happen.
Q: Is the modification or changing of laws a way to improve the human rights situation in UAE? The anti-discrimination law of 2015 hasn't included discrimination on the basis of gender in the definition of discrimination and men always have the upper hand in the family and social relations and can have better positions in the family, education, society and occupational opportunities. The UAE law even allows domestic violence. What's your take on that?
A: Laws are key instruments to change. But they are not enough and can’t be the main vehicle to protection of human rights. In a country like the UAE, you will probably need to consider the serious lack of framework rather instruments—and with that I mean essential prerequisites such as rule of law, independence of judiciary, strong civil society, which doesn’t exist, key role for independent monitors [such as] NGOs and international mechanisms, etc. What’s the use of law – good one – if you don’t have civil society that advocates the rights of members of the society as well as those that live in the society, engages with the government, put pressure, campaigns, organize public action, etc.?
Q: The Reporters Without Borders ranks UAE 128 out of 180 countries in its latest press freedom index. To what extent does this ranking reflect the reality of press and media in this country? How do you analyze the freedom of press and media in UAE?
A: There is no freedom of the press in the UAE. RSF ranking system measures the conditions and circumstances of which press would ideally enjoy freedom. These conditions can’t be found in the UAE. On one hand the media industry is entirely owned and controlled by the government, and on the other hand, foreign media entities operating for instance out of Dubai, are not necessarily engaged in covering national affairs, and even if they do, they do not present themselves, and are not qualified to carry nation-wide debate about issues and affairs. Again, the overall political and social environment in UAE is dominated by fear and repression, mostly by practices rather than laws. For free press to emerge in the country, serious and fundamental changes in that environment need to happen.
By: Kourosh Ziabari