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UAE: Tolerance Narrative A Sham, Says HRW

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United Arab Emirates authorities 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 said. Expo 2020 is a prominent global cultural event built on the free exchange of ideas.

Domestic critics are routinely arrested and, since at least 2015, UAE authorities have ignored or denied requests for access to the country by United Nations experts, human rights researchers, and critical academics and journalists. The government’s pervasive domestic surveillance has led to extensive self-censorship by UAE residents and UAE-based institutions; and stonewalling, censorship, and possible surveillance of the news media by the government.

“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 Human Rights Watch. “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.”

Expo 2020 will be held from October 1, 2021, to March 31, 2022, with the theme, “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.” The Bureau International des Expositions, the intergovernmental organization overseeing Dubai Expo 2020, said that the theme is “based on the belief that bringing the world together can catalyse an exchange of new perspectives.” The event was postponed to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

This event, as with other expensive entertainment, cultural, sports, and educational events before it, is designed to promote a public relations image of the UAE as an open, progressive, and tolerant country while its abusive authorities forcefully bar all peaceful criticism and dissent, Human Rights Watch said. Earlier last month, the European Parliament urged states not to take part in the Expo, citing human rights abuses, the jailing of activists and the government’s use of spyware to target critics.  

Since 2011 UAE authorities have carried out a sustained assault on freedom of expression and association, arresting and prosecuting hundreds of independent lawyers, judges, teachers, students, and activists, and shutting down key civil society associations and the offices of foreign organizations, effectively crushing any space for dissent. The UAE also introduced new laws and amended already repressive ones to further suppress freedom of expressionto more easily stamp out dissent. 

Local news sites, many of which are owned or controlled by the state, exercise self-censorship in accordance with government regulations and unofficial red lines. Foreign journalists and academics say their organizations may exercise self-censorship for fear of denial of entry or deportation.

The government has also prevented UN experts, human rights researchers, and others from scrutinizing its human rights record on the ground. Since 2014, when the UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges visited the UAE and published a damning report criticizing the country’s lack of judicial independence, the government has rebuffed most requests by UN human rights experts to visit.  

Major international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have also faced increased restrictions on their ability to visit and engage with government officials on human rights issues. Staff of both organizations were refused access to prisons and high-profile trials, and eventually admission to the country. UAE authorities have rarely responded to either organization’s requests for information or meetings.

And since at least 2011, UAE authorities have also haphazardly barred entry to academics, writers, artists, and journalists, some for their criticism of the UAE’s mistreatment of migrant workers, and others often without any stated justification.

The UAE has embarked on a decades-long effort to whitewash its reputation on the international stage. These efforts were made explicit in the government’s 2017 Soft Power Strategy, which includes cultivating “cultural and media diplomacy” as a central pillar and has a stated objective “to establish [the UAE’s] reputation as a modern and tolerant country that welcomes all people from across the world.”

Expo 2020 is the latest in a long list of investments in ambitious cultural and educational projects that seek to further that goal, Human Rights watch said. Others include the acquisition of the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and New York University outposts, establishing Dubai as a luxury tourism destination, and hosting global cultural events such as the 2019 Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi and the upcoming World Expo in Dubai.  

While leading international academic and cultural institutions first established a presence in the UAE with the promise to serve the public good by promoting “ideas, discourse, and critical thinking,” they have since remained silent in the face of increasing repression of basic rights. They operate in the UAE even at the expense of academic freedom and the right to free expression within their own spaces. 

In 2001, to boost the UAE’s media foothold, the Dubai government established Dubai Media City (DMC) free zone, which has since become a regional hub for media organizations including news agencies such as Associated Press, and Reuters. The UAE has also since established other media free zones in other emirates. Organizations working within these zones, which include domestic and international press organizations, are, as of 2010 when the National Media Council issued a decree confirming it, subject to the UAE’s restrictive media laws. Even prior to 2010, when it was generally understood that the UAE’s media laws did not apply to the free zones, organizations working there were not free from abusive governmental interference.

Especially over the past few years, the UAE government has dramatically scaled up its surveillance capabilities, both online and through mass monitoring of physical spaces, prompting experts to list Abu Dhabi and Dubai among the world’s most closely surveilled cities.

Websites, blogs, chat rooms, and social media platforms are also heavily monitored and curtailed. The authorities block and censor content online that they perceive to be critical of the UAE’s rulers, its government, its policies, and any topic, whether social or political, that authorities may deem sensitive. Virtual private networks (VPNS) are criminalized. Citizens and residents face heavy fines and imprisonment for social media posts.

UAE authorities have also 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 the government surveillance and who are residents of the UAE, were subsequently arrested and abused in detention.

Among them is the prominent Emirati human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor. A UAE court sentenced Mansoor to 10 years in prison in May 2018 following a grossly unfair trial, partly based on private email exchanges and WhatsApp conversations. A 2016 Citizen Lab report demonstrated five other cases where arrests or convictions of users followed malware attacks against their Twitter accounts from 2012 to 2015.

This repressive environment, coupled with the authorities’ use of advanced spyware to target anyone deemed a threat to the country, has led citizens, residents, and even journalists, academics, businessmen, and others who frequent the UAE to warily restrict their public criticism of the authorities. As one journalist said about their office based in Dubai, “The head of office is shit scared of the authorities … There is a practice of holding back stories if they can’t get official comment – which they often can’t. They don’t go hard on the UAE.”

Governments and businesses have a human rights responsibility to avoid contributing to UAE authorities’ efforts to whitewash its abuses. As countries prepare to showcase their pavilions at the Dubai EXPO, they should help prevent the UAE’s whitewashing attempts by either advocating for the UAE to unconditionally release all those unjustly detained for exercising their right to free expression and to regularly open up the country, including its jails and its courts, to scrutiny by independent researchers and monitors, or not participate in the EXPO, Human Rights Watch said.

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

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