When it comes to human rights violations, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is objectively one of the world’s worst offenders and there are growing signs the international community has had enough. The United Nations is now joining human rights organizations in calling out the Emirati state for its crackdown on human rights activists and government critics.
Last week, Mary Lawlor, a UN Special Rapporteur, urged the UAE to release three human rights defenders who are serving decade-long prison sentences for publicly criticizing the government, among other related charges. She identified three men in particular, including award winning poet Ahmed Mansoor, saying they were being mistreated in conditions that may amount to torture.
“Not only have Mohamed Al-Roken, Ahmed Mansoor and Nasser Bin Ghaith been criminalized and imprisoned for their non-violent and legitimate calls for respect for human rights in the UAE, they have been subjected to ill-treatment in prison,” Lawlor said. “Reports I have received indicate that the conditions and treatment that these human rights defenders are subjected to, such as prolonged solitary confinement, are in violation of human rights standards and may constitute torture.”
This comes less than a month after Human Rights Watch published a damning report into the jailing of 51-year-old Mansoor, who was arrested in 2017 for “insulting the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols including its leaders” and of “seeking to damage the relationship of the UAE with its neighbors by publishing false reports and information on social media,” according to the government.
In reality, however, the poet and human rights advocate was seized from his home at midnight, bundled into an SUV by 12 Emirati men in black balaclavas, taken to an undisclosed location, where he was tortured and denied access to his family and personal lawyer in violation of international law. A full year after his arrest, he was brought before a court and sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined US$275,000 after being convicted under counterterrorism laws.
His actual crime? Posting a tweet critical of the UAE government for cracking down on free speech and expression. He was ultimately convicted and jailed, like so many others, under recently implemented draconian cybercrime laws meant to squash a popular uprising that might threaten the monarchy, like those that brought down and threatened other monarchies and dictatorships in the region during the Arab Spring.
“The UAE’s cybercrimes decree reflects an attempt to ban even the most tempered criticism.”
“The UAE’s cybercrimes decree reflects an attempt to ban even the most tempered criticism,” said Joe Stork, Deputy Middle East Director at Human Rights Watch. “The determination to police and punish on-line dissent, no matter how mild, is incompatible with the image UAE rulers are trying to promote of a progressive, tolerant nation.”
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Mansoor is being held in al-Sadr prison, where he’s confined to a cell measuring just four-square meters and with no mattress or access to a shower, potable water, or sunlight, according to the UN Special Rapporteur—a far cry from the image the UAE likes to project to the world.
The UAE spends billions of dollars each year promoting itself as a modern and Western friendly gateway to the Middle East, so much so that when foreign tourists think of Dubai, they think of luxury hotels, outsized swimming pools, high-end department stores, indoor ski slopes, extravagant mansions and villas, and world class golf courses, but ultimately no amount of money or glitzy tourism campaigns can wash away its cruel mistreatment of human rights activists, like Mansoor, and millions of foreign migrants.
As the spotlight grows ever more intense on the UAE, the international community will think of its crackdown on human rights activists and not the 7-star Burj al-Arab Hotel; its sexual enslavement of foreign women and not the Burj Khalifa; and its foreign policy induced human catastrophes in Yemen and Libya and not the Mall of the Emirates.
To the mounting frustration of Emirate rulers, human rights organizations are describing the UAE as the home of “modern day slavery,” with migrant workers comprising 90 percent of the country’s 10 million residents, a majority of whom are lured from impoverished countries by predatory recruitment agencies. Women domestic workers are especially vulnerable, with tens of thousands forced into sexual slavery each year, according to a report by Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain.
Pressure on the UAE is also escalating in response to human rights and international law violations it perpetrates beyond its borders, including Yemen, where UN investigators have accused it of deliberately targeting civilians, financing mercenaries, and torturing detainees.
In December, a group of UK attorneys filed a case with the UN, accusing UAE and Saudi rulers of having “direct involvement in war crimes in Yemen,” and calling on authorities in Britain, United States, and Turkey to arrest senior UAE government officials.
In December, a group of UK attorneys filed a case with the UN, accusing UAE and Saudi rulers of having “direct involvement in war crimes in Yemen.”
The UN has also opened an investigation against the UAE in response to allegations it hired foreign mercenaries and deployed them to Libya with the mission to overthrow the UN recognized government and in clear violation of international law and a UN-mandated arms embargo.
Last year, a pair of human rights organizations presented evidence at the 45th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva that the UAE had hired thousands of mercenaries to carry out high-profile assassinations to further its geopolitical ambitions in the Middle East. The claim was corroborated by Human Rights Watch, which found the UAE government set up a private company in 2019 to recruit more than 390 Sudanese men, all of whom were duped into believing they would be working as security guards at hotels and malls in Dubai. Instead, they were forcibly dropped in the middle of the Libyan civil war to protect oil fields seized by warlord General Haftar.
Despite these documented crimes, however, the UAE has escaped the kind of condemnation and scrutiny that has bedeviled other Western allies in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and Israel. There have been no widespread calls to boycott UAE hosted international sporting or cultural events. It has become a leg of the respective European Tour (golf) and ATP (tennis) tours, along with Sevens Rugby and cricket tournaments without let or hindrance.
These good times enjoyed by Emirati rulers and officials might be drawing to a close, however, as the international community becomes increasingly aware of the way in which they have profited from human misery and bloodshed, while crushing those who dare speak out against them.