Delegation of the European Union to the State of Kuwait and the State of Qatar

United Arab Emirates: EU Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy

22/06/2021 - 17:35

United Arab Emirates

1. Overview of the human rights and democracy situation:  The UAE portrays the country as a modern, progressive, tolerant and rights-based nation, which embraces globalisation and is ‘a meeting place of the world’, notably with EXPO 2020 and beyond. The UAE has therefore worked  purposefully  during  the  past  ten  years  to  improve  its  human  rights  record  and  to  change the external perception of the country’s human rights situation. The country has made some strides towards an inclusive and responsive society.

In that vein in 2020, the UAE adopted several new laws seeking to further promote the UAE as a tolerant, open and modern society that continues to be a destination for foreign direct investment and people from around the world. The UAE also embarked on a year-long human rights  review  to  strengthen  the  country's  human  rights  framework.  A  consultation  process  with  government  bodies  and  public  institutions  has  been  launched  to  draw  up  a  national  human rights action plan. The plan will look at a broad range of issues relating to human rights including  women's  empowerment,  humanitarian  aid,  interfaith  tolerance,  labour  rights  and  workers’ welfare.

A  new  family  protection  law  was  adopted  and  covers  the  persons  with  disabilities,  older  persons, women and children, whose concrete provisions yet remain to be seen. Regarding women’s  empowerment,  the  UAE  is  promoting  gender  equality  and  ensuring  women  participation  in  peacekeeping  and  conflict  resolution.  The  Emirati  Federal  National  Council  (FNC)  is  currently  composed  of  50%  by  women,  while  one  third  of  the  Cabinet  consists  of women  covering  education  and  international  cooperation  among  other  areas.  A  2020  law  guarantees   equality   of   salary   for   all,   including   in   the   private   sector.   Despite   these   improvements,  discrimination  of  women  continues  to  exist  in  the  UAE,  including  through some provisions of Federal Law No 28 of 2005 regulating personal status matters.

The new laws, announced in November, also contain provisions allowing non-Emiratis to have their personal affairs dealt with according to the law of their home country. The changes also mean that the laws of a person's country of origin can be used for divorces and inheritance. The   changes   also   cover   wills   and   inheritance.   Suicide   and   attempted   suicide   will   be   decriminalised, with those attempting suicide subject to receive mental-health support. A new law mandates that translators are provided for defendants and witnesses in court, if they do not speak Arabic. The court must ensure legal translators  are  available.  New privacy laws  mean that evidence related to cases of indecent acts will have to be protected and cannot be publicly disclosed.

With  the  signing  of  the  Abraham  Accord  between  the  UAE  and  Israel  in  2020,  Abu  Dhabi  is  portraying  itself  as  a  promoter  of  inter-faith  dialogue.  These  endeavors  are  to  be  further  reinforced through the planned establishment of an inter-faith center, the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, hosting Islam, Christianity and Judaism under the same roof.

Nevertheless, in 2020, there was no change to the UAE’s approach to civil and political rights and  political  pluralism:  political  participation  of  citizens  through  democratic  institutions  remains very limited. There is no fully elected representative body.

Citizens   may   express   their   concerns   directly   to   their   leaders   through   the   traditional   consultative  mechanisms  known  as  open  majlis  (forum),  yet  fundamental  freedoms  such  as  the  freedom  of  opinion  and  expression,  speech  and  association  remain  limited.  Under  the  1980  Law  on  Printed  Matter  and  Publications,  the  authorities  can  censor  local  or  foreign  publications  based  on  very  broad  criteria  including  criticism  of  domestic  policies,  the  economy, the ruling families, religion or the UAE’s relations with its allies. The UAE continues to employ vaguely worded and loosely interpreted provisions in the Penal Code and other laws to imprison peaceful critics, political dissidents and human rights activists.

Concerns also continue to exist with regard to prison conditions, the right of fair trial and due process, especially in state security-related cases. These include allegation of torture and ill-treatment at state security facilities.

Moreover, the death penalty can be applied in the UAE as punishment for crimes endangering the society’s safety, including for crimes such as murder, rape, terrorism, drug trafficking. It is however  rarely  carried  out  (there  is  a  de  facto  moratorium)  and  there  were  no  reported executions  since  2017.  In  2020,  the  UAE  abstained  from  the  vote  on  the  resolution  for  a  universal moratorium on the use of the death penalty at the United Nations, a departure from previous  years  where  Abu  Dhabi  had  voted  in  favour  of  the  death  penalty  and  against  the  abolishment.  During  the  COVID-19  pandemic,  the  UAE  came  under  scrutiny  regarding  the  treatment  of  foreign labour workers. Human rights organisations raised concerns over workers’ exposure to  lockdowns  and  harsh  containment  measures,  limited  access  to  healthcare  and  basic  services, poor working conditions, unpaid wages and insecure income. 

2. EU action – key  focus  areas:  Working  closely  with  EU  Member  States,  the  EU  delegation has monitored the human rights situation in the country throughout 2020, including individual cases, labour issues and trafficking in human beings. The judicial developments regarding the situations of human rights defenders were addressed consistently with the UAE authorities at various levels.

3.  EU  bilateral  political  engagement:  The  EU  addressed  human  rights  issues  in  its  regular  dialogue with the national authorities.

The  UAE  is  the  first  country  in  the  Gulf  region  with  which  the  EU  set  up  a  comprehensive  dialogue  on  human  rights.  On  20  February,  the  ninth  round  of  the  EU-UAE human  rights  dialogue was held in Brussels. Discussions covered a number of issues, including labour rights, freedom of religion or belief, protection of persons with disabilities, gender equality, etc. The EU also raised the issue of the death penalty, freedom of expression, right to a fair trial and cyber and anti-terrorism laws. During the dialogue, there was shared interest to continue dialogue on the issues of the UN Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda and the National Human Rights Action Plans. Two workshops were organised on these issues. During these virtual workshops, the EU shared its experience  in  drawing  up  its  third  EU  Action  Plan  on  Human  Rights  and  Democracy  2020 -2024, while UAE counterparts updated on the drafting process of their national action plan. On WPS, the UAE presented its initiative to offer training for third countries, in cooperation with UN Women. Synergies in the training programs were highlighted.  In  May,  the  EUSR  for  Human  Rights  reached  out  to  the  UAE  in  the  context  of  his  global  outreach  in  support  of  vulnerable  detainees  threatened  by  the  spread  of  COVID-19.  In  his  letter to Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Gargash, he called for the release of vulnerable detainees, including individual cases of jailed activists.

4.  EU  financial  engagement:  There  is  no  EU  financial  support  provided  for  human-rights related activities in the UAE.

5. Multilateral engagement: In 2020, the EU contributed to setting up a SDG working group chaired by the UN Resident Coordinator. The Terms of Reference were finalised in December 2020 and activities will start in 2021. One of the group’s objectives is to ‘engage in substantial dialogue on various SDG related matters’ which may include dialogue on human rights-related issues. In 2020, the EU carried out demarches and outreaches with the UAE on the death penalty, on the Uighurs’ situation in China, and on a number of resolutions in the UNGA Third Committee.The  UAE  has  not  ratified  several  core  UN  human  rights  treaties,  notably  the  International  Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming to the abolition of the death penalty, the Optional Protocol of the Convention against Torture and the Convention on Enforced Disappearances.

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