The early signs of a public campaign against human rights violations by the United Arab Emirates (UEA) looked to be taking shape in London yesterday evening. A public seminar organised by the Arab Organisation for Human Rights in the UK (AOHR) attracted a wide audience of people, many with the level of outrage, feelings of injustice and determination required to sustain such a campaign.
The AOHR's report on forced disappearance and torture in the UAE, whose launching initiated this seminar, is one of many reports that have highlighted the growing concern over human rights violations in the UAE, since the Arab Spring began in 2011. Unlike previous reports by Amnesty International and Human Right Watch, the launching of this report in the presence of notable members of the Arab community and civic organisations here in the UK and the Middle East looks to be building a sustainable campaign.
The report by AOHR was merely a catalyst for sharing the personal accounts of many within the audience who have been victims of UAE's repression over the past three years. The panellists, (Nasim Ahmed – writer and commentator on Middle Eastern affairs, David Wearing –PHD candidate in SOAS and Sue Willman – A Human Rights Lawyer) only provided the stage for the passionate, energetic and at times heart wrenching, discussions that was to follow.
Each presentation moved coherently from the content of the report through a discussion about foreign complicity and ending with an examination into realistic chances of legal redress.
Nasim Ahmed presented the main findings of the report and analyzed the wider political context behind UAE's move towards even greater repression. He spoke of the structural socio economic problems inherent in the UAE, which he stressed, will continue to cause even more instability in the future until there is greater democratization in the country.
David Wearing examined UK's relationship with the UAE, questioning if the nature of that relationship compromised Human Rights in the UAE. He also highlighted a number of facts including UK very profitable arm sales and its strong military ties with the emirates. His most notable point was that the UK supports these regimes not despite their repressive nature but mainly because of their repressive nature in order that British interest is secured in the region.
Sue Willman provided the material for much of the discussion that was to follow. She examined the most effective legal means through which a public campaign could be mobilized. She stressed the importance of the seminar and the report in documenting human rights violations in the UAE, which are all vital in building momentum for a legal case against state actors. She recalled a number of recent examples of legal proceedings related to leading figures from Israel and Bahrain who faced legal challenges following violations of human rights.
Sue also explored legal paths to secure prosecutions. Targeting corporations in the UK who are actively supporting the regime in carrying out torture and other human rights violations was one route. Another approach was through Universal Jurisdiction where the residency or visits by Emirati officials to the UK can be restricted through the fear of prosecution.
A key fact that was noted by a number of people in the audience was UAE's vulnerability to such a campaign because it projects itself as a progressive country at least when it comes to business and economics. The UAE spends vast amounts of money in the UK and around the world in projecting its sterile image which if targeted can undermine its prized image needed to fuel its global investment plans.
Other related issues including the role of the emirates in undermining popular uprising in the region particularly Libya was vocally discussed. Libyans in the audience insisted they will not remain quiet about atrocities resulting from UAE's interference in their country.
One of the recommendations was to empower the victims by compiling a tool kit of legal avenues that can be adopted to secure prosecutions. This was embraced by a number of organisations attending the seminar who also suggested creating a core group to follow up on these recommendations.
We will have to wait and see how effective this campaign will be in the long run. In any case it has shone a spotlight on one of the main allies of the UK in the Middle East. At the very least it is strengthening civic activism and providing invaluable experiences for people here in the UK and around the world who are concerned about the ease by which many modern states move to suppress their own people.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.