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1st June 2023, 06:36:38 UTC

States participating in a climate meeting starting on 5 June in Bonn, which will help set the agenda for the COP28 in Dubai later this year, should urge the United Arab Emirates to improve its dismal human rights record to ensure a successful conference, Amnesty International said today.

An Amnesty International briefing, titled The Human Rights Situation in the UAE ahead of COP28, identifies key human rights risks in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that threaten the success of COP28, including the suppression of the right to freedom of expression and a closure of civic space, the danger of digital espionage and monitoring, and the host country’s opposition to the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels.

“A successful COP28 is vital, for human rights and for the planet. This year we must see a commitment by all states to rapidly phase out all fossil fuels and to keep us on track to avoid spiralling climate change” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“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 Bonn conference paves the way for COP28, and the participants should use this opportunity to make clear to the UAE that it needs to change.”

Shuttered civil society

Civil society, and the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association and peaceful assembly, which are 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”.

The government responded to a public petition calling for democratic reforms, which was signed by hundreds of citizens in 2011, with a fierce crackdown. It imprisoned scores of Emirati legal professionals, academics and civil servants. It dissolved the board of the Emirati Jurists Association, two former presidents of which had signed the pro-democracy petition. They are now in prison.

Spyware on phones

The Emirati government has long sought to spy digitally on human rights defenders and other critical voices. Among those targeted was Ahmed Mansoor, a recipient of the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, who was arrested in 2017 in reprisal for his peaceful activism, which included postings on social media. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of “insulting the prestige of the UAE”.

Investigations by journalists and civil society organizations, and a UK court ruling, have found that the UAE is likely behind the digital surveillance of multiple public figures. These include the late Emirati human rights defender Alaa al-Siddiq, and a member of the UK House of Lords. The country is suspected of similarly targeting writers and editors at international publications, including the Financial Times, The Economist, and The Wall Street Journal.

Given its record, there is reason to believe that delegates and members of civil society attending COP28 could be subjected to unlawful digital spying.

Expanding fossil fuel production

The UAE’s own climate policies are an acute concern at 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 Sultan Al Jaber and the UAE have announced a commitment to transition to clean energy, the actual approach being taken does not aim to reduce fossil fuel production. Instead, it often involves promoting technologies, such as carbon capture, utilization and storage, which are unproven at scale, to limit emissions. The COP28 president-designate is promoting a similar approach to this year’s climate change negotiations, as he is advocating the phasing out of emissions from fossil fuels rather than their production and use.

Heba Morayef said: “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. We can’t allow them to use the COP28 presidency to promote the same approach globally. 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.”


COP28 is the 28th annual convening of the “Conference of Parties” to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which sits at the core of global efforts to prevent catastrophic climate change by limiting the average increase in global temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. It will take place in Dubai from 30 November to 12 December. The Bonn Climate Change Conference, from 5-15 June, acts as a prelude to COP.

Last year, COP27 was held in Egypt amid a brutal, sustained crackdown on dissent by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government. The Egyptian authorities disdain for human rights led to violations both before and during the conference, even within the UN-run area that is supposed to be safe from government intimidation and surveillance.

In addition to concerns about civic space, digital surveillance and climate policy, the UAE has a poor human rights record with respect to the protection of migrant workers from arbitrary detention and deportation, and exploitation of their labour; women’s equality with men before the law; and the criminalization of consensual sexual conduct between adults. In armed conflicts in Libya and Yemen, its direct and indirect intervention has implicated it in serious violations of international law.