The country’s history of human rights abuses should be casting a shadow over the climate conference, says barrister Ben Keith

Ben Keith features in Prospect Magazine, published 10 July 2023. Click here to view the article on The Daily Mail Website. 

“Detention in horrific conditions, torture, deportation [and a] criminal conviction.”

These are the risks climate activists could face if they protest at COP28, the international climate conference to be hosted by the United Arab Emirates in December, says human rights lawyer Ben Keith

Keith, who qualified as a UK barrister in 2004, focuses on a “mixture of extradition, immigration and international law”. He specialises in Red Notices—the system used by Interpol to alert police worldwide that a member country is seeking to locate, arrest and possibly extradite a particular person—and the UAE’s use of this system.(The current Interpol president is Ahmed Naser Al-Raisi, a UAE official who, Keith says, has “a number of cases against him, including the torture of a number of British individuals”.)

Keith’s clients include UK businessman Ryan Cornelius, who is currently serving a lengthy prison sentence in the UAE. Last June, a UN working group ruled that Cornelius had been held arbitrarily since being arrested at Dubai airport in 2008. The group also condemned fundamental rights violations by the UAE authorities against Cornelius.

The problem, Keith argues, is not so much that COP28 is being held in the UAE in the first place, but rather the rest of the world’s lethargy towards the country. 

“The United Arab Emirates is not a state that respects the rule of law or international human rights,”

he tells me, accusing the country of “frequent use” of “torture, and unlawful and arbitrary detention”

“To hold an important UN event in such a country without properly mentioning its human rights record is, to my mind, outrageous,”

he adds. Keith and fellow barrister Rhys Davies, on behalf of an anonymous client, have written to 19 companies, including Unilever, Ikea and Coca-Cola, urging them not to get involved with COP28 and to use their corporate power to condemn human rights abuses.

What may happen to protesters at COP28 is of great concern to Keith.

“There is a huge difference with a Just Stop Oil protester getting a conviction in the UK,” he says. 

“If they want to go to prison for breaking the law, that’s their issue. But you do that in the UAE and there is a serious risk of torture.”

He names an awful” 2013 report by NGO Reprieve that details electric shocks, beatings, abuse and forced confessions in Dubai’s central jail.

“Whether that will happen to foreigners, I don’t know,”

says Keith. He cites the treatment meted out according to one British doctoral student, Matthew Hedges, who was arrested at Dubai airport in 2018 on suspicion of spying for the British government. Hedges was sentenced to life imprisonment in the UAE before being pardoned. Keith also highlights the case of Ali Issa Ahmad, a British Arsenal fan, who was arrested and detained in the UAE in 2019 after wearing a Qatar national team shirt to a football match.

 “If they can imprison and torture a man for wearing the wrong shirt, what they are going to do to someone who says: ‘You are lying about your commitment to climate change; you fabricated your green credentials; you are only hosting COP28 to launder your own reputation’?”  

Activists with “any sort of profile” may have the spyware Pegasus inserted on their phone, he warns. This, however, may be a blessing in disguise, if they are stopped at the border and turned back. Individuals who make it into the UAE and protest are “likely to be detained in custody”, he says. “The chances of mistreatment are very high and the chances of conviction are a basic certainty.”

It’s possible that the UAE may have “international sensitivities”, Keith suggests. Rather than protesters being charged with political activity, he says, they are

“far more likely to be charged with a drug offence or some other minor offence that is fabricated to make them look like a common criminal. That will give the UAE the ability to convict, sentence and deport people from the UAE quickly.”

Keith’s hope is that the UAE officials are

“a bit like the Qataris in the World Cup and will just ignore everybody”.

Though his fear is that the UAE may be too “thin-skinned” to turn a blind eye in the same way.

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.