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UAE: Expo 2020 Dubai held to distract attention from rights abuses, says HRW

Human Rights Watch says narrative of tolerance at the first world fair to be held in the Middle East is a 'sham'
Stars headlining the opening ceremony for the event included Italian tenor singer Andrea Bocelli and British singer Ellie Goulding (AFP)

Authorities in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are using Expo 2020 Dubai to promote a public image of openness that is at odds with the government’s efforts to prevent scrutiny of its rampant systemic human rights violations, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Friday.

The first time the world fair has been held in the Middle East, the event opened on Thursday with a lavish ceremony of fireworks, music, and messaging about the power of global collaboration for a more sustainable future.

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Stars headlining the opening ceremony, which was projected in public spaces around the UAE, included Italian tenor singer Andrea Bocelli, British singer Ellie Goulding, Chinese pianist Lang Lang and Saudi singer Mohammed Abdu.

HRW said the event, as with other major entertainment, cultural, sports, and educational events in the UAE before it, was designed to promote an image of the UAE as an open, progressive, and tolerant country while its authorities forcefully bar all peaceful criticism and dissent.

The US-based rights group said domestic critics are routinely arrested and, since at least 2015, UAE authorities had ignored or denied requests for access to the country by UN experts, human rights researchers, and critical academics and journalists.

'Falsely present itself'

“Dozens of UAE peaceful domestic critics have been arrested, railroaded in blatantly unfair trials, and condemned to many years in prison simply for trying to express their ideas on governance and human rights,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW. 

“Expo 2020 is yet another opportunity for the UAE to falsely present itself on the world stage as open, tolerant, and rights-respecting while shutting down the space for politics, public discourse, and activism.”

In July, Amnesty International, Forbidden Stories and a consortium of international media organisations alleged that Israel's Pegasus spyware was used by a number of countries, including the UAE, in hacks of smartphones belonging to journalists, officials, human rights activists and world leaders.

The rights group said UAE authorities had spied on international journalists, activists, and even world leaders using sophisticated Israeli and EU-produced spyware, or with the help of former US intelligence officials. 

Some of those whose communications and devices were targeted by government surveillance and who are residents of the UAE were subsequently arrested and abused in detention, it added.

Request to CNN

HRW said any parties connected with Expo 2020 Dubai should use the event to raise human rights abuses. 

“With widespread arrests, intimidation, surveillance, and retaliation that citizens and residents face for speaking out, Expo participants and other countries should raise concerns about rights abuses in the UAE,” Page said. 

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“Countries participating in the Expo should ensure that they are not helping the UAE whitewash its image and obscure its abuses.”

On Thursday, a coalition of eight rights-based organisations called on CNN, an official broadcaster of Expo 2020 Dubai, to reveal all financial and contractual terms of its relationship with the UAE monarchy, "Expo 2020 Dubai," and of their “Dubai Now” promotional content. 

In their letter, the coalition also called on CNN to commit to reporting on "the UAE’s terrible human rights violations and their use of events like Expo2020 Dubai for propaganda purposes". 

The groups, which included Freedom Forward, Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn) and Code Pink, said if CNN was unable to meet the requests, it should immediately withdraw as an official broadcaster for Expo2020 Dubai.