x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Challenge lies ahead, says rights report

Government addresses issues including women's rights, labour conditions and human trafficking in submission to the UN.

Dr Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, spearheaded the report commissioned by the Government.
Dr Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, spearheaded the report commissioned by the Government.

ABU DHABI/UNITED NATIONS // The Government has submitted its first assessment of the country's human rights record to the UN, addressing issues including women's rights, labour conditions and political participation. The report is part of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review (UPR), in which the record of all UN member states is assessed every four years. The UAE is due to appear before the council for the first time in December.

The document - designed to appraise the country's commitment to national laws and ratified agreements and charters - notes that human rights are protected by law in the UAE, though its conclusion also states that more needs to be done on the issues of workers' and women's rights and in combating human trafficking. Meant to act as a yardstick to measure human rights conditions and gauge progress in the future, the Government report was compiled by a committee headed by Dr Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Federal National Council (FNC) Affairs, with the participation of organisations such as the jurists and journalists associations and the General Women's Union.

In addition to the Government's document, a corresponding UN report and another by several human rights organisations has also been submitted as part of the UPR framework, in advance of the assessment. The three reports differ on the state of human rights in the UAE. The UN notes a number of improvements in human rights, but states that more could be done on issues such as women's rights. The human rights organisations are not entirely negative, but allege violations including the physical abuse of prisoners and discrimination.

The 28-page document complied in the UAE cites the Constitution, which states: "All persons are equal before the law, without distinction between citizens of the Federation in regard to race, nationality, religious belief or social status." It says the Constitution safeguards freedom of religion, opinion and expression, education and the right to a fair trial and prohibits the use of force or coercion against suspects. There is, it adds, a clear legal framework that protects these rights.

Federal laws relating to issues including combating human trafficking, the rights of people with special needs and the rights of workers are also outlined. "The law does not discriminate between persons with regards to the right to employment... for any reason related to race, gender, social group or creed; all are equal before the law except with regards to job requirements and adherence to the work standards of the organisation," it says.

The document also addresses issues that have garnered international attention, such as the UAE's record on human trafficking and conditions for migrant workers. There are more than three million foreign workers in the country, according to the report. "The United Arab Emirates believes that human beings have the right to enjoy suitable living conditions, including the temporary contract labour class," it says.

The Government is also clamping down on companies that violate workers' rights. The Ministry of Labour conducted 122,000 inspections in 2007 and issued 8,588 fines to firms. It also co-ordinated with officials from labour-exporting countries to prevent abuses overseas. The report further addresses the issue of treatment of domestic workers, highlighting the 2007 adoption of mandatory work contracts requiring that workers be given "adequate rest periods and health care".

Meanwhile, the Government has tightened human trafficking laws and, by the end of 2007, had prosecuted 10 cases, five of which resulted in jail terms of up to 10 years. "Protection and support" for trafficking victims has also been pursued, according to the report, through the establishment of shelters in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, with other emirates expected to follow. Press freedom was bolstered, the report said, by the decision to prohibit the jailing of journalists for their work, while the importance of "spreading a culture of human rights" is also being addressed through the education system.

"Respect for human rights and basic liberties is a strategic choice for the United Arab Emirates to keep up with the urgent considerations and needs of a modern society," it says. "From this point on, the state's road to advancement, growth and stability included a real commitment to protect human rights and safeguard basic liberties." It notes the UAE's efforts to enhance political participation, through what the report describes as a "gradual election system", which started with the 2006 formation of an electoral college, the members of which went to the polls to elect half the members of the FNC.

The final stage, according to the report, will see full general elections for half of the FNC members. The document stresses the UAE's involvement within the UN system, referring to examples including working with Unicef on a programme to repatriate former child camel jockeys and reintegrate them into their communities. The report also discusses the UAE's obligations under international treaties and agreements, including the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention of the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

The UAE is a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and is working towards joining the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment. However, in outlining the UAE's human rights culture, the report acknowledges the challenges the country faces in this area. "There is no doubt that the [UAE], like other countries... suffers from the number of challenges and difficulties that it is seeking to deal with in order to enhance the status of human rights, but there is a number of challenges that the state is working to deal with," says the report.

These include providing more "mechanisms" to protect human rights and the need to update "laws and systems", as well as working to uphold workers' rights. While acknowledging the progress made with regards to the empowerment of women, the report calls for greater female inclusion. zconstantine@thenational.ae jreinl@thenational.ae