Ben Keith & Rhys Davies write in NewsWeek.
This article was published on 13 April 2023, in Newsweek. The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) likes to portray itself as a modern, progressive country—a nation on the rise. The home to the glittering skyscrapers and nightclubs of Dubai and Abu Dhabi was last month listed among the top 10 countries of the Global Soft Power Index for the first time—ahead of Australia and Sweden and just behind Italy.
Ahead of Chad and just behind Transdniestria is the ranking we more associate with the UAE. It's where the diminutive Gulf state sits on Freedom House's recent Freedom in the World Index. As two international human rights lawyers who have represented a number of the UAE's victims of arbitrary detention, disappearance, and torture, we know that for every "successful Expo 2020 and in anticipation of COP 28" that has the Soft Power Index judges panting there's an Amnesty International report on serious human rights breaches and brutal suppression.
The news from the UAE that climate campaigner attendees at an environmental conference trailing the country's hosting of COP28 were issued with written guidance that they "do not criticise the UAE government, corporations or individuals" and "do not protest" is depressingly familiar.
The UAE's growing presence on the world stage sits uneasily with the way it behaves at home when it thinks no one is watching. Sure, the world seemed aghast at the news that the Emirates had appointed its state oil company CEO as chair of COP28, which the UAE will host later this year. Yet it's shocking no one appeared to notice the COP28 chair did not mention the words "rights and justice" once in his inaugural speech.
We must ask ourselves whether the Emirates consider the upcoming U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP) as just another new soft power opportunity—the latest money-making expo—where climate campaigners should prepare themselves to be relegated to obedient, nodding extras on pain of arrest for voicing their concerns.
We know our answer based on our experience of two cases of Emirati manipulation. The UAE has long been notorious for abusing the Interpol system to request extradition on spurious grounds, manipulating its extradition mechanisms through money and influence to bring those they seek to incarcerate before their local, politicized courts.
Still, it was jaw dropping when in 2021 an Emirati policeman, Major General Ahmed Naser Al-Raisi, was put forward to be president of Interpol. The fact that Al-Raisi was accused of involvement in torture and arbitrary detention turned out to be no impediment to being put forward as a candidate. Perhaps it was those deeds the Emiratis were referring to when they described him as a "distinguished professional." We helped launch a victim-led campaign to oppose his election. Following immense lobbying by the Emiratis—and an unprecedented donation of €50 million to the organization—he was eventually selected.
Two years earlier, the Emirates' leading human rights defender, Ahmed Mansoor, was arrested for allegedly publishing "flawed information" and "false news" to "incite sectarian strife and hatred" and "harm the reputation of the state." A simple social media post criticizing the government was all it took for Mansoor to be effectively disappeared. After intensive diplomatic efforts by Britain, the U.S., and the EU, his whereabouts and even his place of detention remains unknown.
No one needs to be qualified lawyer to decide whether this is acceptable. We all know the answer. Neither does anyone have to be a climate scientist to conclude that climate justice is not going to be delivered by a country that does not permit debate. We must decide whether we are prepared for COP28 to go ahead in the UAE, under a government which tortures citizens and represses freedom and which we now know is already attempting to silence visiting climate campaigners.
COP is in danger of becoming just one item on a growing list of events and organizations, both cultural and political, that the UAE has co-opted for its own political purposes. It shouldn't be treated as a trade fair. We shouldn't stand aside as the UAE is allowed to sidestep the negative effects of climate change on the human condition—something they are morally incapable of addressing—and abuse the summit to PR themselves a little further up the Global Soft Power rankings for next year.
We all need to decide whether we are content to be part of their strategy or whether it's more important to save the planet. If it's the latter, we should be discussing moving the real business and negotiations of COP to another location.
Ben Keith is a leading barrister specialising in cross-border and international cases. He deals with all aspects of Extradition, Human Rights, Mutual Legal Assistance, Interpol, Financial crime and International Law including sanctions. He represents governments, political and military leaders, High Net Worth individuals, human rights defenders and business leaders in the most sensitive cases.
He has extensive experience of appellate proceedings before the Administrative and Divisional Courts, Civil and Criminal Divisions of the Court of Appeal as well as applications and appeals to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and United Nations. Ben is recognised in Chambers and Partners and The Legal 500.