Secret prisons and strategic diplomacy: How the UAE masks its human rights abuses in Yemen

UAE secret prisons

Disclaimer: This text was written prior to President Biden’s announcement to halt all offensive military assistance to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.


In 2020, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) continued to invest in a “soft power” strategy to portray itself as a progressive nation. In reality, it continued to commit blatant human rights abuses that have not gone unnoticed. Namely, with logistical support from nations including the US, the UAE continues to support the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen starting from March 2015. This coalition is present in the south of the country and is actively fighting the Iran-aligned Houthi movement which controls the capital of Sanna and much of the north. This alliance has led to the creation of a network of secret prisons run by Emirati forces, designed to facilitate and spread systematic torture. Additionally, despite the UAE’s announcement to withdraw its forces from Yemen in June 2019, it continues to maintain a presence in Aden and the southern governorates.

Airstrikes in Yemen have been disproportionate and indiscriminate. The number of casualties remains difficult to establish, although estimates range from numbers as high as hundreds of thousands, excluding the ones who have died as an indirect result of the subsequent famine. In 2020, the devastating effects of the war were further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which worsened the already precarious sanitary situation in Yemen.

Reports on the use of widespread torture in Emirati-led secret prisons in Yemen first began circulating in 2018. However, these have always been followed by a resolute denial on the part of Emirati forces. In June 2020, the Emirati activist Mohammed al-Qaidi unveiled new horrifying details of torture in Emirati prisons in Yemen when he described the abuse he endured at the hands of the jailors in a series of tweets. Specifically, these jailors follow a strict schedule: beatings on Saturday, torture on Sundays, rest on Mondays, and so forth.  He stated that Fridays are reserved for solitary confinement. Furthermore, sexual violence is utilized as the primary tool for imposing penalties on prisoners and for extracting confessions.

In another instance, the Association for Victims of Torture in the UAE and MENA Rights Group requested the intervention of several United Nations Special Procedures on behalf of a Yemeni national (whose name was not provided) who was subjected to torture and ill-treatment by Emirati forces inside secret detention centres across the Shabwah governorate in 2018. As a result, in July 2020, the Special Rapporteur on torture, together with the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, sent an allegation letter to the UAE. In the letter, the UN expressed its grave concern regarding the victim.

In a recent estimate, the Geneva-based NGO, SAM for Rights and Liberties, publicly stated that the Emiratis hold in these secret prisons “thousands of Yemenis, including political opponents, opinion-makers, and even civilians, without any charge or presentation to judicial authorities” and reaffirmed the “cruel forms of torture” they receive.

Although the UAE acceded to the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT) on July 19, 2012, it is clear how its implementation is not prioritised. Indeed, a State Party’s commitment does not simply cease outside of its delineated territory, but rather extends to the places where it exercises power. To this end, the UAE’s actions in Yemen have come to violate several articles of the Convention as the Emirati police continue to use torture within the Yemeni prison system.

The war in Yemen has been, since its start, heavily fueled by outside support. One of the main perpetrators, the United States, has been supplying the Saudi-led coalition with arms and intelligence under the pretext that the final usage is unknown even when there is an accessible database outlining detailed information on any airstrike carried out by the coalition forces which effectively confirms the resulting war crimes. Thus, any arms sold to the Saudi-led coalition are always at high risk of being used within the Yemen war context and have the likely effect of killing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure, both of which are in grave violation of international humanitarian law.

In a recent important development, the UAE announced in August 2020 that it had agreed to the full normalisation of relations with Israel, after decades of tension. The peace agreement, named the Abraham Accords, was brokered by the US and signed on September 15, 2020. The significance of this peace deal was that it deepened relations with the US. This was further ensured by a US sale of fighter jets to the UAE, estimated at $23 billion, and finalised on President Donald Trump’s last day in office. In addition to the 50 F-35 jets, the arms sales also included 18 armed drones and other defence equipment. Although the deal may be revisited by President Biden, it is still unclear at this early stage the type of foreign policy his administration will follow in the Middle East/Arab Gulf region. So far, the Biden Presidency has been under immense pressure to halt all arms sales to the Saudi-UAE coalition in order to take a firm stance on the war in Yemen.

Not only is this recent reconciliation concerning in respect to the level of damage it could pose to civilian lives, but it also poses serious questions regarding the willingness of the Emirati leaders to reach diplomatic agreements elsewhere. It is clear that commercial interests take priority over human lives and compliance with human rights protocols.

From 2015 onwards, the UAE interventions in Yemen, through the Saudi-led coalition, have caused an unprecedented humanitarian crisis recently aggravated by the spread of the COVID-19. Various instances have evidenced how the Emirati police run and control secret prisons where Yemeni nationals are constantly tortured. Being in great violation of UNCAT, the Emirati government is reminded of the compulsory requirements (articles 11, 12, and 13) that the CAT outlines regarding torture, and proceed to release prisoners. Moreover, foreign governments must cease all arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition, as they are implicated in the loss of civilian life and civilian property, a direct violation of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, and additional 1977 Protocols I and II. Finally, all warring parties are urged to meet at the negotiation table and recognize the humanitarian crisis at hand, and ultimately put an end to the war.