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.