GENEVA // The UAE's human rights record came under the UN spotlight for the first time yesterday with talks focusing on migrant workers' rights. A 25-member delegation led by Dr Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Federal National Council Affairs, appeared before the Geneva-based Human Rights Council as part of a process introduced this year known as the Universal Periodic Review.
Under this process the rights record of all 192 UN member states will be examined every four years. Dr Gargash responded to more than 60 questions and comments from the council floor. Delegations from other countries raised issues including the treatment of women in the UAE, the repatriation of former child camel jockeys, and allegations of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, among others.
The review began just after 9am Geneva time, when Dr Gargash took his place on the stage beside the council president. Dr Gargash said the Constitution outlined the rights of "all citizens, prohibits torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, respects civil liberties, including freedom of speech and press, peaceful assembly and association, as well as religion". The UAE is determined to tackle human rights issues "head on", he said.
"This aspiration stems from our own cultural heritage and religious values which enshrine justice, equality and tolerance. The Government is also aware that respecting human rights in accordance with international human charters and customs is a priority, and we look towards meeting this priority at all levels." But, he added, it was labour issues, political participation and women's rights, that the Government regarded as the three most critical human rights areas for the country.
The issue most pressingly addressed by delegates from countries including Cuba, the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, Mexico, France, the Philippines and Sri Lanka was the rights of migrant workers. The UAE did not shy away from an area that has led to some of its harshest international criticism. With more than 200 nationalities among the labour force, Dr Gargash said challenges were part and parcel of such a diverse population.
Achieving the right conditions for the entire workforce is "a work in progress", he said, although recent "sweeping reforms" had been enacted to improve the lives and working conditions of migrant workers. "For the UAE, respecting labour rights is a moral, cultural and economic imperative," he said, acknowledging that the so-called "unskilled" labour force in particular had made "significant contributions to the growth of the economy".
Several delegations referred to allegations of mistreatment of domestic workers. The UAE responded by saying the Government was working on a new law to protect that category of workers, aiming to provide "greater protection and assurances". The UAE submitted its first report on human rights, compiled over the summer, to the UN in September. It included inputs from government bodies, civil society groups such as the General Women's Union and the UAE jurists and journalists associations.
The report, published in Arabic and English, was the first human rights assessment ever released by the Government. Yesterday's council hearing was told the UAE was engaging more closely with countries such as India, the Philippines and Pakistan, which together account for much of its workforce, to tackle specific labour issues. Several countries alluded to the progress made through initiatives including the Abu Dhabi Dialogue - a conference held earlier this year to forge links between worker destination countries, such as the UAE, and countries of origin, including India and the Philippines.
International partnerships were also being forged to fight human trafficking, a crime the UAE took "extremely seriously", Dr Gargash said. Questions concerning greater political participation in the UAE were also raised. Dr Gargash highlighted progress made through partial FNC elections in 2006. He also noted the UAE's traditional form of political participation through consultative meetings between the leadership and the people, in the majlis or councils.
The UAE's movement towards greater political participation is based on a "gradualist perspective", he said, as well as "the need to transform the country's political heritage". Dr Gargash said the UAE was studying the framework for accession to treaties, including the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and would join the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The UAE's efforts at developing a balance between its cultural and religious traditions and international norms was also covered. "Though the impact of social change has been significant and has resulted in several challenges, the UAE is proud to be a tolerant and open society that nonetheless cherishes its traditional roots," Dr Gargash said. The delegation, to demonstrate the UAE's commitment to social welfare, noted that in 2008 the Government allocated US$600 million (Dh2.2bn) to needy sections of society, including the elderly, orphaned children and widows.
Women's rights were also addressed by Dr Gargash and Dr Amal al Qubaisi, a female member of the FNC. Both spoke of countering misconceptions and stereotypes of Arab and Muslim women. In the UAE, Dr Qubaisi said, the reality is "better than the dreams of women in some other countries". "I am one of the examples of women in the UAE who have made great gains. Women in the UAE are constantly supported and included in all sections of development, are active and productive, and hold prominent positions. The UAE is constantly making every effort, we are enabling women more and more."
Several countries, including France and Italy, raised the issue of capital punishment, voicing concerns that the UAE had not joined a moratorium on the practice. Other delegations raised concerns about restrictions on access to the internet. The Norwegian delegate brought up the issue of freedom of assembly, including workers' right to strike. The rights of homosexuals were also raised. Overall the tone of the session was cordial and UAE delegates said they were pleased by how they were received by the council. Many delegations took the opportunity to commend the UAE on recent efforts to address human rights issues.
"Amid a rapid modernisation process, the UAE has had a challenging, but progressive track record on human rights issues," Dr Gargash told the council. "We have had our ups and downs in this process and how our efforts have been appraised. But our commitment is resolute and we intend to do better by sharing our experiences and learning from the best practices of the international community." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org