It is interesting to read the transcript of the European Parliament’s debate last month on the UAE human rights record. This I did over the weekend and found the misinformation in many of the statements disturbing.
Before I review some of the interventions of the European MPs, it is important to qualify my review by stating that the UAE’s record, although commendable, faces challenges that are symptomatic of a society in transition. This is particularly true with regards to the issue of labour. It is no secret that we continue to struggle with this issue, and labour will remain a work in progress for many years to come.
Yet it is equally important to note that we continue to work hard at improving labour conditions through our laws and practices, and a neutral and fair assessment would attest to this fact.
In our UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review presentation in Geneva in 2008, it was notable that countries that had a close connection to our labour market were appreciative of the progress made in the UAE, and in their remarks urged us to continue on our path of legal reform and executive oversight. On the other hand, wild and inaccurate allegations emanated from participants from countries and organizations that had no contact, and I would venture, no knowledge, of our labour environment. Many of the comments were rather fantastic in their exaggeration, and far removed from a very dynamic process.
At that time the UAE had various issues with labour in the construction sector, when our laws and practices lagged behind an economy that was moving too fast for its own good. Yet we responded, many wrongs were addressed, and we continue to improve in this complicated and multifaceted issue.
Similarly, I found the European Parliament’s debate surprisingly uninformed on the status of women. The enablement of women, an integral part of our national record and vision, was not appreciated by many of the MEPs. Comments and interventions on the subject made it painfully clear that knowledge of the UAE was rather superficial.
The issue of the Al Islah detainees was prominent in the debate, and one would argue that it is the work of the many Islamist activists against the UAE that propelled this debate to the chamber. Unsubstantiated accusations were repeated as accepted truths, among them the allegation of torture, which the UAE government has strongly denied, as has the UAE Human Rights Association. The case awaits trial, so I will not go into further detail.
The UAE will continue with modernising its society and political processes. We will pursue greater political participation in line with our public pledge to modernise politically via a gradual approach. We are mindful of experiences in our region of societies divided by sect, tribe and region, and we will do everything necessary to learn from the lessons close to home. Our vision is of a modern Arab and Muslim society, tolerant of others, and to develop a fair and vibrant economy.
Now, let us look at some of the comments articulated at the European Parliament’s debate. Ana Gomes, of Portugal, repeats the allegations of torture and dismisses the UAE Human Rights Association, its report, and its visit to the detainees. Greek member Nikolaos Salavrakos is rather confused in his assessment of “the Arab Spring” and how it has turned into a “Christian Winter”.
The remark is indicative of the confused nature of the debate.
The intervention of Czech politician, Jaromir Kohlicek, is rather condescending and brings images of the Orientalism described by the late Edward Said; he speaks of the medieval conditions of monarchies of the Arab world. It is comments such as these that I find so sweeping in their generalisation, placing western institutions as judge and jury.
Finland’s Liisa Jaakonsaari is obviously unaware of our record on women’s issues when she said: “[A] major concern ... is the continuous deterioration in the status of women” who, according to her, are “assaulted and sexually abused”. The UAE’s record on women is further commented on by Sari Essayah, also of Finland, with her statement that “women’s rights in the country are very poor. Things are interpreted according to the laws of Islam and women do not have access to civil justice.”
It is very difficult to understand all these assertions in view of our progress on equality, but that is the sort of debate that was presented in Strasbourg.
As I read the transcript I became increasingly perplexed, as apparently were some reasonable MEPs, at the tabling of this motion under the Urgency Resolution Procedures. While this is an important matter, I struggle to understand what is urgent in this discussion, as the issues have been on our agenda for some time. The haste has excluded the UAE from being able to respond and clarify appropriately.
Naturally there were many objective opinions. Statements by Nirj Deva (UK), Eija-Riitta Korhola (Finland), and Charles Tannock (UK) gave measured interventions with appreciation of the UAE’s record and its geographical context.
Mr Deva, for example stated “the UAE has a better record on human rights, on looking after its migrant workers ... than any of the other countries in the region”. He pointed out that the UAE was “one of the better places in the Middle East”, and questioned “why are we talking about the UAE and not the other countries?”. Why indeed?
Ireland’s Paul Murphy seems to know the answer in a rather rhetoric response to Mr Deva. “Could it be the case that your unwillingness to criticise the human rights record in the UAE has something to do with the imperialist interests of the US and the major capitalist forces in Europe?”. A befittingly far fetched response to a wild and inaccurate discussion on the human rights record of the UAE.
Dr Anwar Gargash is the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs
On Twitter: @AnwarGargash