As UAE Waffles on Human Rights, U.S. Congress Must Act

By Brian Dooley

This week, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — a U.S. military ally and a brutal dictatorship — responded to recommendations made to it at the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

Every member of the UN undergoes the UPR process every five years or so.  All the other states view that member state’s human rights record and make recommendations on how it should improve.  NGOs have input in the discussion; UPR is one of the more useful human rights mechanisms at the UN.

Thirteen countries urged it to better protect its human rights defenders (HRDs)s, while the U.S. recommended it “Implement existing laws to inform all detainees of charges against them, ensure access to legal counsel and fair trials, and release all individuals detained for exercising their freedom of expression.”

States do not have to accept the recommendations, but usually announce which ones they accept and reject. The UAE announced it would accept 198 of the 323 recommendations.

The UAE said it was working on a “national plan for human rights” to address the suggested reforms. 

The national plan is a time-wasting scam. It’s already been going on for three years: consulting, having workshops, listening to advice, assessing options, doing various bits of research. It will continue for many more years before it even considers doing anything on human rights.

The UAE doesn’t need to write itself a list of new human rights policies. As the United States noted, the UAE already has useful laws and a constitution that provides decent guidelines for how it should behave.  Article 28 – and Article 2 of its Criminal Code — say no one should be tortured. Articles 28, 30, and 33 deliniate rights to fair trials, free expression, and assembly.

The problem isn’t what’s on paper, but what really happens. The UAE is a terrifying place for Human Rights Defenders (HRDs).

I reported from there in 2015, noting a climate of fear among activists, and we have documented its attacks on activists and others over many years. Torture is still rife in the Emirates, and political prisoners are routinely kept in jail even after  serving their sentences.

I spent much of my time in UAE with leading Human Rights Defender Ahmed Mansoor, a University of Colorado graduate and 2015 winner of the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for HRDs, who has since been arrested and is serving a ten-year prison sentence for his human rights work. Nasser bin Ghaith, a graduate of Case Western Reserve University School of Law, also remains in prison along with dozens of other high-profile lawyers and activists.

This week I spoke at an event in Geneva organized by the MENA Rights group with Emirati activists forced out of the country by the government, and with Matthew Hedges, the British academic jailed and tortured in the UAE in 2018.

They recounted how, despite now being outside the country, they are still worried about being targeted by the UAE authorities through phone-hacking Pegasus spyware and other intimidations.

In early December, the UAE will host the environmental conference COP 28. It’s a chance for the Emirates to showcase their opulence. Its cities are known as playgrounds for the rich (including Russian oligarchs) and for their luxury nightclubs, but this isn’t quite Vegas.

It will be interesting to see how it handles any attempts from international activists to protest.

Unfortunately, what happens in UAE’s Dubai doesn’t stay in Dubai.  The UAE’s attacks on human rights aren’t confined to home, and the country’s expansionism has cause misery in many other countries, including  Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan. The Biden administration, meanwhile, has approved massive arms sales to the UAE dictatorship.

There is a glimmer of potential for pressure from the U.S. Congress. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), who has just become Chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced this week that he will stop millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Egypt until there is real progress on human rights issues. It’s a long overdue and very welcome move.

He said he believes “it is imperative that we continue to hold the government of Egypt, and all governments, accountable for their human rights violations.”

This should also apply to the UAE.



  • Brian Dooley

Published on October 6, 2023


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