Based on the recent reports of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the US State Department, the European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) intends to summarise the main human rights violations that have been occurring in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the past two years.
Freedom of expression and assembly
The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) constitution provides freedom of expression and association. Since the 2011 uprising, the government has undertaken several measures to restrict civil liberties, especially freedom of speech, peaceful association and political association.
Backed by a legal framework, the government has sanctioned and arrested individuals for their freedom of speech. Firstly, the law forbids criticism to rulers and speeches which encourage social unrest. Secondly, the government has used extensively the 2014 antiterror law to monitor internet activities both online and offline. Furthermore, the 2012 cybercrime decree and the 2015 Anti-discrimination law have introduced even more strict restrictions and provide more severe penalties to individuals who misuse media. In 2017, the government has established the Federal Public Prosecution for Information Technology Crimes to investigate on crimes related to information technology and a use of the internet aimed to infringe public morals. The government legitimises such restrictions by claiming the need to protect “national security.”
Apart from the control on freedom of expression guaranteed by the law, authorities have a direct control on every media distributed in the country. According to the 2017 Department of State Human Rights Report on UEA, the government owns most newspapers, television stations and radio stations in the country. Private media are influenced by the government through the National Media Council (NMC) which directly oversaw all media content. The NMC is also in charge of the censorshipof every publication. Censorship can be applied by law to both domestic and public publication to safeguard “social stability”, avoid criticism to the ruling family and the government and ban any material which is considered incoherent with the country’s value.
Internet freedom is restricted. The government controls internet service providers, blocks materialand websites which are not aligned with the government’s views and may sanction and bring to trial individuals for their activity online. A Human Rights Watch report as well as an Amnesty International report have mentioned the cases of the Jordanian journalist and prisoner of conscience Tayseer al-Najjar and the case of Ghanim Abdallah Matar who were both detained for content shared on social media.
Furthermore, the government has imposed restrictions to freedom of association. Both political organisations, political parties and trade unions are illegal. Registration to the Ministry of Community Development is necessary for all associations and NGOs. Once registered, associations must follow the government’s censorship guidelines and ask for approval before publishing any material. While citizens who attempt to form a political party are sanctioned, as it has happened to Hasan al-Dikki. He tried to establish a political party, called al-Islah and was sentenced in absentia to 10 years’ imprisonment and 10 million AED fine. Political participation is further restricted by the lack of free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage.
Integrity of the person
Reports have stressed the violation of other human rights, especially the ones concerning the integrity of the person, such as the arbitrary arrest for extended periods and without charge or preliminary judicial hearings. The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest but the law permits indefinite detention and incommunicado detention without appeal. Moreover, pretrial arrest is frequent, especially in the cases involving national security. It has also been reported that authorities sometimes denied access to an attorney and family member visits.
In addition, discrimination towards non-nationals have been reported. Authorities repeatedly did not notify the arrest of foreign nationals to the appropriate diplomatic mission and the right of having an interpreter for non-Arabic speaking people has been often denied.
Reports of torture and ill-treatment are common. Abuses often take place during interrogation to induce forced confessions. In al-Razeen Prison, in Abu Dhabi, detainees have conducted a hunger strike protest against strip searches, sexual harassment and other ill-treatment inflicted during detention. Other reports state that prisons are often overcrowded although the government has not released statistics on demographics and capacity. They lack decent health condition. Drug overdoses and suicide attempts are common alongside with violence that led to injury or death.
The UAE’s legal workers’ rights framework
The United Arab Emirates has a Labour Law which ensures a certain number of rights to workers, such as the prohibition of forced and compulsory work, the employment of children under the age of 15 and special provisions regarding children from 15 to 18. The Law also prescribes 48-hours workweek, paid annual holidays, as well as a daily working shift which must not exceed 8 hours. In 2016, the government implemented three decrees that aim to ensure that work is performed on a voluntary basis throughout the employment relationship.
However, the law is not entirely enforced according to the US State Department 2017 Report on Human Rights in UAE, and workers cannot voice their grievance as the UAE Labour Law prohibits them to join and form unions. Strikes are forbidden for public sector employees, security guards and migrant workers. Though strikes are allowed in the private sector, employers can lawfully fire strikers, which discourages any will of voicing grievance. In addition, the Law does not apply to the domestic and the agricultural sector, in which laborers and children are highly vulnerable to a wide range of abuses, from unpaid wages, confinement to the house, workdays that last up to 21 hours without breaks, to physical or sexual assaults by employer. The government attempted to remedy the situation by issuing a Domestic Work Law in September 2017 – Federal Law No. 10 of 2017 – which aims to regulate protection of domestic workers. It ensures a weekly rest day, 30 days of paid annual leave, sick leave and 12 hours of rest a day. The Domestic Law also allows in some cases inspections of recruitment agency offices, workplaces and residences, and sets out penalties for violations.
Despite these efforts, the general working conditions in UAE are still highly concerning, especially for migrant workers.
The concerning situation of Migrants workers in UAE
The 2018 Human Rights Watch report on United Arab Emirates points out that foreign nationals represent 88.5% of the UAE’s population, according to previous government statistics. It means that the vast majority of the UAE’s working population suffers from terrible working conditions.
Low-paid migrant workers are indeed more vulnerable to forced labour despite the attempts of reforms mentioned above. As the Kafala system – employer-sponsored visa system – is still in practice, migrant workers are tied to their employers, leaving them powerless in case of abuse, which are numerous. Despite the new Domestic Law, which seems to enable employees to end their contract in case of violations from the employers, employers often accuse domestic workers of vague crimes such as “failing to protect their employer’s secrets” which can lead to severe punishment, such as a fine up to Dh 100,000 (USD27,225), detention or deportation. The threat of deportation particularly discourages noncitizens from voicing work-related grievances as remarked by the Amnesty International report.
The Domestic Law of 2017 does not prohibit employers from charging reimbursement for recruitment expenses and requires that workers who terminate employment without a breach of contract compensate their employers with one month’s salary and pay for their own tickets home, leaving it impossible for migrant workers, who are extremely low-paid, to get out of a contract, even in case of abuses by the employer.
Gender and citizenship discrimination
In the United Arab Emirates, women remained subject to discrimination in law and in practice, notably in matters of marriage and divorce, inheritance and child custody.
Discrimination on the basis of gender is not included in the UAE’s anti-discrimination law (2015), as mentioned in the 2018 Human Rights Watch report on United Arab Emirates. Federal Law N° 28 of 2005 regulates personal statutes matters which are discriminative against women. A male guardian can conclude a woman’s marriage contract which allows a man to divorce his wife unilaterally whereas a woman must apply for a court order to obtain a divorce. In addition, a woman can lose her right to maintenance if, for example, she refuses to have sexual relations with her husband without a lawful excuse. In a general way, women are required to obey their husbands. A woman may be considered disobedient if she decided to work without her husband’s consent for example.
General economic discrimination against women is widespread. This discrimination concerns wages and promotion in the private sector and hiring practices if the job is considered morally harmful. Women are excluded from certain social benefits, such as land grants for building houses and women are entitled to inherit less than men.
Women are inadequately protected against sexual violence. Indeed, according to the US State Department 2017 Report on Human Rights in UAE, there are a lot of violations, such as rape and domestic violence. Law criminalizes rape but does not address spousal rape. Female victims of rape or other sexual crimes faced the possibility of prosecution for consensual sex outside marriage instead of receiving assistance from the authorities. There are numerous cases of spousal abuses and abuses from employers to domestic foreign workers. Very few of those cases went to trial, and when they did, it led to no sentences. The government made few efforts to raise awareness of domestic violence by conducting seminars, educational programs and usually women have offices in public hospitals and police stations.
Furthermore, there are a lot of acts of violence, discrimination, and other abuses based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The article 356 of the penal code criminalizes “indecency” without defining it with minimum one year in prison. This article is used to convict individual for zina offences (same-sex relations or consensual heterosexual relations outside marriage) as explained in the 2018 Human Rights Watch report on United Arab Emirates. The law permits doctors to conduct sexual reassignment surgery so long as there are “psychological” and “physiological” signs of gender and sex disparity. By law, wearing clothing deemed inappropriate for one’s sex is a punishable offense. The government deported foreign residents and referred the cases of individuals who wore clothing deemed inappropriate to the public prosecutor.
Besides, the US State Department 2017 Report on Human Rights in UAE, points out the situation of children. As Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslim men, children of Emirati women married to foreign men do not receive citizenship automatically. In the education sector, some children, particularly noncitizen children, do not attend school. As far as women are concerned, the government has a Gender Balance Council to promote a greater role for women, but not for non-citizens. Societal discrimination against non-citizens is prevalent and occurs in most areas of daily life: employment, housing, social interaction, health care.
The European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) condemns the repression of human right violations in the United Arab Emirates. ECDHR calls upon the release of political prisoners and human rights defenders as well as the immediate interruption of discriminations and civil liberties violations.