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UAE criticised for record on arbitrary detentions in UN rights review

Issues including torture, death penalty and arrests of human rights campaigners raised during Universal Periodic Review session in Geneva
Portrait of UAE founder Zayd Bin Sultan Nahyan on display at the UAE's culture exhibition in Geneva (MEE/Amandla Thomas-Johnson)

GENEVA, Switzerland - The United Arab Emirates has defended its record on human rights at the United Nations in Geneva, with Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash strongly denying allegations that the country practises arbitrary detention.

Gargash, who led a high-level delegation to the session at the UN’s Palace of Nations on Monday evening, was responding to criticism of the UAE’s rights record by several countries as part of a peer-review process called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which each UN member state undergoes every five years.

“I would like to affirm that the UAE does not arrest or detain any person arbitrarily," he said. "A person is immediately informed of the accusations against them. Everything that takes place is in line with our laws and done with concrete safeguards against arbitrary detention and arrest.

“Any person arrested is arrested according to legal procedures applicable in the UAE and in line with arrest warrants given by judicial authorities.”

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David Haigh, a British man who is bringing a legal case against UAE authorities for his arbitrary arrest and torture, criticised Gargash’s comments as untruthful.

“I was arbitrarily detained for 15 months before I was charged. In the judgments against me one of the UAE courts confirmed that I had complained of arbitrary detention,” Haigh told MEE after the session.

“Of course there is arbitrary detention.”

Haigh, who has now established a foundation and law firm to assist others who suffer injustice in the UAE, said arbitrary detention happens “time and time again”.

“If Anwar Gargash doesn’t know that, then I would like to call on him to invite me to the UAE so that he can educate himself about the situation in his own country.”

The remarks from the senior Emirati diplomat starkly contrasted with the opinion of four UN Special Rapporteurs - independent experts mandated to look into human rights violations - who in 2016 called on the UAE to respect the rights of several foreign nationals who were arbitrarily detained.

Gargash’s comments came amid a quick-fire session held at the human rights conference room, with over 100 country delegates given just over a minute each to speak.

UPR sessions often reflect broader diplomatic relations and international rivalries with the level of criticism for a state under review often influenced by its relations with the countries raising concerns.

Austria and the Czech Republic were among countries to raise concerns about the UAE's rights record, with Czechs calling for the elimination of practices of arbitrary detention, incommunicado detention and torture, and the Austrians requesting the release of human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor.

Qatar, which has been blockaded since April by a quartet of Arab countries including the UAE, said it was “concerned by what the UAE had done” and demanded compensation be paid to “victims” of the blockade.

While the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera network continues to be banned in the UAE, Qatar also requested that laws governing freedom of expression be brought into line with international standards.

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The United States, considered a close ally of the Emiratis, did not spare it from criticism, requesting that the UAE respect freedom of expression and asking it to revise a cybercrime law.

A request by the Americans for the implementation of a law permitting suspects to know the charges made against them, appeared to go against Gargash’s remark that suspects are immediately informed of the charges made.

Regional ally Saudi Arabia “hailed” a commitment by the UAE to establish an independent national human rights institution, a watchdog that will look into alleged rights abuses.

'Eurovision Song Contest of international justice'

Rights organisations that took part in the review process by submitting documents detailing alleged human rights abuses, had mixed responses to the session.

Safwa Aissa, executive director of the Geneva-based International Centre for Justice and Human Rights, said of the session: “It’s not bad, but we wanted something better, especially from European countries. We had met with many countries beforehand and made them aware of the situation in the countries.”

Similarly, Julia Legner from Geneva-based Alkarama Foundation said: “It was slightly disappointing. I was expecting harsher criticism, given that it’s a peer review by states. It’s clear that some states will always congratulate the UAE.

“There could have been stronger comments on the total silencing of civil society, the crackdown on freedom of expression, which has reached a limit where there is no human rights defenders operating from within the UAE.”

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Responding to Gargash’s claim that arbitrary detention is not practised, she said: “We beg to differ and we have evidence.”

Toby Cadman, an international human rights barrister, said that while the UPR is “an important process,” it often has “the appearance of the Eurovision Song Contest of international justice whereby friendly states, regional, diplomatic and trade partners pat each other on the back rather than offer constructive criticism and call for change”.

“The UAE UPR was indicative of that approach today. There is a real need for fundamental reform in the UAE criminal justice and penal system."

Cultural diplomacy

Earlier in the day, Gargash had been the focus of attention as he hosted the director-general of the UN in Geneva, Michael Moller, around a new cultural exhibition the UAE had officially opened minutes before the human rights session began a floor above.

Spread over two floors and including mock Bedouin tents and a photo exhibit, women took centre stage at the UAE’s latest efforts at cultural diplomacy, with a troop of women clad in sequined abayas performing a fashion show for onlookers.

Women also took the spotlight during the UN session, as the UAE delegation, led by Gargash, towed a line that focused heavily on women, and to a lesser extent on migrant rights and children, as the UAE sought to project a positive image.

Anwar Gargash, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, shows Michael Moller, director-general of the UN Office at Geneva, around UAE culture exhibition (MEE/Amandla Thomas-Johnson)

“The position of women is under threat in many countries in our region, but not in the UAE,” he said in his opening address.

“The UAE believes that fostering human rights is central to achieving stable, open, tolerant and future-oriented societies. This is what our region needs more of and what the UAE will work tirelessly every day to continue to be.”

The UAE delegation also talked up its National Strategy for the Empowerment and Advancement of Emirati Women - which it said was designed to promote women’s empowerment - and a cabinet decision mandating the inclusion of women on the governing boards of all government bodies, institutions and companies.

However, some sensitive areas were touched on only briefly, or omitted altogether.

For instance, Gargash did not respond to concerns raised about the death penalty, with dozens of countries including Mexico and Liechtenstein requesting a moratorium on executions and the commuting of existing death sentences to life imprisonment.

They tried to fool us, but not all are fooled by this

- Safwa Aissa, International Centre for Justice and Human Rights

Gargash also fell short of denying that his country practised torture. Instead he pointed to a forthcoming report on the UAE’s ratification of the UN Convention Against Torture.

The UAE did receive praise from Malaysia and Oman on the progress it has made since its last review in 2013, especially regarding the rights of women and migrants, but Denmark and several others pointed to laws that continue to discriminate against women and girls.

“It’s the same discourse from the UAE about women and child rights and migrants rights,” said Safwa Aissa from the International Centre for Justice and Human Rights. “They tried to fool us, but not all are fooled by this.”

UAE’s efforts at cultural diplomacy came under fire by Julia Legner, at Alkarama.

“It’s part of the propaganda machine of the UAE, trying to portray an image of culture and tolerance and inclusion and progress. They’re using it as a chance to cover up the dark side.”

With all the recommendations in, the UAE will now decide which ones to accept, before a report is prepared giving a summary of its decisions.

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