The Difficulties of Working for a Human Rights Organisation in the UAE
The United Arab of Emirates (UAE) often uses its public face as one of the biggest donors to humanitarian projects abroad, to camouflage its various human rights violations. In one of his visits as a matter of fact, Prince Charles of Wales expressed his admiration towards UAE’s generosity and international humanitarian action. However, there are many cases which contradict this friendly image that the UAE likes to project of itself around the world. Some of these cases include the government’s actions of arbitrarily detaining individuals who criticise the authorities, and the many allegations against its security forces of forced disappearing and torturing detainees. Articles 30, 32, and 33 of the Constitution of the UAE guarantee, respectively, freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of communication, and freedom of assembly and association. These guarantees however are not always upheld in practice. The above mentioned rights are undeniably being restricted by the authorities, while unfair trials remain common. Women’s rights are constantly discriminated against in law and practice, and situations where migrant workers face labour exploitation and injustice go unchallenged. Many citizens are facing difficulties working for human rights organisations because, although they are not ‘officially’ prohibited, raising certain issues may be seen as ‘criticizing’ the government and could lead to detention.
UAE politics takes place in a framework of a complete monarchy; its lack of freedom of expression and association does not allow for political organisations or parties to even be formed and exist for example. The political and economic establishment of the country systematically undermines any sort of democratic political processes. In March 2011, a petition calling for the formulation of an elected national assembly with real powers was filed by various people with political backgrounds and other civil rights activists, commonly known as the ‘UAE 94’. Unsurprisingly, the government’s response was repressive in the face of calls for democracy. Of the 94 signatories, 69 were found guilty of plotting to overthrow the government and received prison sentences ranging from 7–15 years. Any form of political activism in the UAE is often systematically quashed in the most draconian of manners by the government. Al-Islah, which was initially registered as an official NGO in the UAE in 1971, is now considered by the UAE government a national threat. Al-Islah aims to provide political reform, including an elected national legislature for UAE citizens. However, the activities of the movement are considered rebellious by the authorities.
Back in 2012, the UAE ordered a number of foreign institutions to shut down for either violating the terms of their licenses or having obtained no license at all. The organisations in question promoted the interchange of ideas and political debate as the foundation of democracy. In particular, the German think tank Konrad Adenauer Foundation, associated to Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, was ordered to shut down because according to the authorities, it never obtained a formal license to operate in the UAE. An organisation affiliated with the American Democratic Party, the Dubai-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), was also told that its licensed had been cancelled for violating its terms. Although, as an anonymous analyst correctly pointed out, these organisations cannot be considered NGOs due to the fact they are funded by western governments and major parties in the US and Europe.
People who speak with or work for human rights groups remain at serious risk of arbitrary detention and imprisonment, and as a result, many advocacy groups are not able to operate in practice. The 2014 counter-terrorism law in the UAE provides for the death penalty for people whose activities and opinions under Article 1 consist of a “terrorist outcome” or “antagonising the state”. This is the case even if their acts are non-violent, or don’t intend to cause any violence whatsoever. Swearing on social media is considered a criminal offence, while using abusive language in messages is also against the law. Under the UAE’s cyber crime laws, anyone convicted faces a fine of up to Dhs 500,000, a prison sentence of up to 15 years, and deportation. Many governments around the world including that of UAE have been spying on NGOs, journalists and human rights workers for the past few years, whilst hacking activists is nowadays also a common practice. Campaigning openly for human rights, Ahmed Mansoor, a member of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East advisory committee, has been arbitrarily detained by the UAE authorities because of his open calls for the release of prisoners of conscience including Osama Al-Najjar. Ahmed’s arrest is in contravention to international law against enforced disappearances and sadly one of the many cases of violating the right of freedom of expression.
So far, it seems that there are many and various types of difficulties that prevent both individuals to work effectively for human rights organisations in the UAE and international organisations as well. But what about people who wish to draw attention to issues within the country through philanthropic fundraising? The UAE has a federal regulator for philanthropicorganisations, and Abu Dhabi and Dubai each have a separate regulator and body of laws and regulations affecting philanthropic organisations. These organisations are generally subject to strict government control. More specifically, all philanthropic organisations seeking to fundraise or engage in fundraising related communications in Dubai must obtain approval from the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department (IACAD). Under these laws only charities registered in the United Arab Emirates can make charity appeals. However this law is often used as a pretext to detain people who tried to raise awareness on issues within the country such as the cases of Scott Richards and Luisa Williams.
A British citizen living in the UAE, Mr. Scott Richards, was charged in Dubai for sharing a charity post about helping out Afghan refugees on his social media page. In particular, he was held for 22 days before being charged with fundraising without permission for using social media to recommend a crowd funding campaign run by a US charity which works in Afghanistan. He was refused bail three times. Penalties for violating this particular law include prison terms between two months and one year and a fine of up to £20,000 — $27,000. Sadly this does not stop here. Just a few months ago, Luisa Williams of British citizenship living in Dubai, was refused to fly to the UK for health reasons after her passport had been confiscated by the authorities. Mrs. Williams, who does volunteer work with imprisoned children in the UAE and runs a not-for-profit group in Dubai called ‘Volunteers in UAE’, has been involved in a legal dispute with Dubai authorities for quite some time now. As already mentioned above, and unlike in the UK where appealing for money on funding websites is a common practice, it is against the law to use any social media platforms and the internet to raise money for philanthropic and charity reasons in Dubai.
The United Arab Emirates’ intolerance of criticism often leads to catastrophic outcomes for many individuals and human rights organisation within its borders. Expensive surveillance software is being used to spot and target human rights activists and their essential work. International human rights organisations are not easily permitted to act freely and democratically on UAE soil. More often than not, if they do manage to obtain a legal license, they are unfairly shut down without any explanation. Furthermore, victims of arbitrary detention along with their families are regularly subject to the cruel and oppressive counter-terrorism laws, whilst being stripped of their right to speak out publicly against abuses. With everything mentioned in mind, it is difficult to anticipate any positive change in the near future. However, International and local organisations must stay strong and continue working towards their goals of promoting and supporting democracy, human rights and social justice.