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UAE/COP28: climate change meeting 'endangered' by host's human rights record - new briefing

UAE’s record of suppressing free speech and conducting digital espionage pose serious threat to conference

Sultan Al Jaber, COP28’s president-designate, wants to expand fossil fuel production

‘COP28 must be a forum where civil society can participate freely and without fear’ - Heba Morayef

Countries participating in next week’s climate meeting in Bonn (5-15 June) which will help set the agenda for the COP28 meeting in Dubai later this year, should urge the United Arab Emirates to improve its dismal human rights record to ensure a successful conference, said Amnesty International.

In a new 13-page briefing, The Human Rights Situation in the United Arab Emirates Ahead of COP28, Amnesty has identified key risks based on the UAE’s human rights record that threaten the success of COP28, including the suppression of the right to freedom of expression, digital espionage and monitoring, and the UAE’s own opposition to the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels.

An open civil society, and the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly - which are all essential to a successful conference - are conspicuously absent in the UAE. Emirati law forbids criticism of “the state or the rulers” and imposes punishments - including life imprisonment or the death penalty - for association with any group opposing “the system of government” or for vague “crimes” such as “damaging national unity” or “the interests of the state”.

In 2011, after a public petition calling for democratic reforms was signed by hundreds of citizens, the Emirati authorities launched a fierce crackdown, imprisoning scores of legal professionals, academics and civil servants, dissolving the board of the Emirati Jurists Association and jailing two of its two former presidents.

The Emirati government has also long sought to spy on human rights defenders and other critics. Among those who have been targeted is Ahmed Mansoor, a distinguished human rights defender who was arrested in 2017 for his peaceful activism, which included posting on social media. He was later sentenced to ten years in prison on charges of “insulting the prestige of the UAE”.

Investigations by journalists and civil society organisations, and a UK court ruling, have found that the UAE is very likely to have been responsible for the digital surveillance of multiple public figures - including the late Emirati human rights defender Alaa al-Siddiq, and a member of the UK House of Lords. The UAE is also suspected of targeting writers and editors at international publications, including the Financial Times, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. Given the UAE’s record, there is reason to believe that delegates and members of civil society attending COP28 could be subjected to unlawful digital spying.

In addition to concerns about freedom of speech, digital surveillance and its own climate policy, the UAE has a poor human rights record with respect to the protection of migrant workers, failures to ensure women’s legal equality with men, and over its criminalisation of consensual sexual conduct between adults. In armed conflicts in Libya and Yemen its direct and indirect intervention has also seen it implicated in serious violations of international law.

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director, said: 

“A successful COP28 is vital, for human rights and for the planet. 

“Yet the path to a conference that delivers these outcomes is endangered by the effective closure of civic space in the UAE, its known use of digital surveillance to spy on critics and its resistance to the phasing-out of fossil fuel production and use.

“COP28 must be a forum where civil society can participate freely and without fear, where Indigenous peoples, communities and groups affected by climate change are able to share their experiences and shape policy without intimidation, and where the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful protest are upheld. 

“The United Arab Emirates often talks about environmentally-friendly approaches to producing energy, yet all too often these are about finding ways to gloss over the fact that it is planning to increase its production of hydrocarbons. 

“Accelerating the phasing-out of fossil fuels must be a priority for this COP28 because without it we are on course to exceed previously agreed limits on the rise in global temperature, with increasingly disastrous implications for humanity.”

UAE’s lack of green credentials

The UAE’s own climate policies are an acute concern ahead of COP28. Its president-designate for the conference, Sultan Al Jaber, heads the state oil company ADNOC, one of the world’s largest producers of hydrocarbons, and is aggressively pursuing plans to expand its fossil fuel production. While Al Jaber and the UAE have said they are committed to a transition to clean energy, the approach being taken does not aim to reduce fossil fuel production. Instead, it focuses on promoting technologies such as carbon capture, utilisation and storage to limit emissions, approaches which are unproven at scale, Al Jaber is promoting a similar approach to this year’s climate change negotiations, advocating the phasing out of emissions from fossil fuels rather than ending their production and use.

About COP28

COP28, set to take place in Dubai from 30 November to 12 December, is the 28th annual convening of the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is central to global diplomatic efforts to prevent catastrophic climate change by limiting the average increase in global temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The Bonn Climate Change Conference, from 5-15 June, acts as a prelude to the COP gathering. Last year, COP27 was held in Egypt amid a brutal, sustained crackdown on dissent by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government. There were human rights violations both before and during the conference, even within a UN-run area that was supposed to be safe from government intimidation and surveillance.

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