October 4, 2011

It was an ambitious, laudable goal the University of Paris-Sorbonne had set itself: to build a "bridge between civilizations" by opening a satellite university in Abu Dhabi.  But It was a message of hope  light years beyond the sad reality of recent events.

The current trial  in Abu Dhabi of  five individuals prominent in UAE civil society could prove of interest in France once the very close links between that country and the United Arab Emirates are more closely scrutinized--even more so if we take a look at the existing tiest between the Universityof Paris-Sorbonne (Paris-IV) and the University of Paris-Sorbonne at Abu Dhabi (UPSAD) created in May 2006.

Nasser Bin Ghaith is one of the five people currently on trial in Abu Dhabi, an expert in international business who teaches at UPSAD. Mr. Bin Gaith, like his unlucky companions,  has been in prison since April and is now being tried for publicly « insulting » the UAE authorities.

The accusation is, in our opinion, completely groundless. What Bin Ghaith did was nothing more than to express –publicly,on the internet--his wish for a democratic transition in the UAE.

In France: No Comment

The accused face several years in prison. As of the moment no statement in response to these arrests of « pro-democracy » citizens.  has come out of France, which has  close relations with the UAE (a military base which opened in 2010, major business contracts, a proposed Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi, UAE participation in the military coalition in Libya…). That is, say the least, unfortunate, given that François Fillon paid a personal visit to UPSAD as recently February 2011. It ought to be the right moment for France to excercise, in the UAE, its new doctrine of support for peaceful, pro-democratic expression in the Arab world.

But there is another issue of concern here, and quite an  alarming one It concerns the University of Paris-Sorbonne and it’s clearly demonstrable association with the UPSAD. Not only did  the University of Paris-Sorbonne sign the ageement with the UAE that made UPSAD possible ; UPSAD’s chairman  of the board is GeorgesMoliné,also the  chairman of the board at Paris-Sorbonne. Many professors at « Paris-IV » travel on a routine basis to give courses at Abu Dhabi.

Moreover, Paris-Sorbonne  pockets 15% of Abu-Dhabi’s tuition earnings, which can reach up to 10,000 euros a year. With roughly 400 students enrolled, this amounts to about 600,000 euros a year

Mr. Bin Gaith, himself, is a highly regarded figure in the worl d of UAE higher education. He teaches at the Dubai School of Government and also at the Army’s higher education facility there. He has taught at Abu Dhabi-Sorbonne since 2010.

“No department is authorized to issue a statement”

Human Rights Watch has obtained a copy of the program for Abu Dhabi’s Master’s in International Law, and Diplomacy and International Relations, in which Mr. Bin Gaith was still teaching this year. He chaired a seminar in international economics law which lasted the entire week before his arrest on Sunday, April 9. He was to due to participate again between April 10 and April 12.

Mr. Bin Ghaith’s family, whom we met with in Abu Dhabi quite recently, is appalled at the fact that UPSAD has expressed no concern whatever that one of it’s instructors has been unjustly imprisoned . Paris-Sorbonne,  itself, has even tried to downplay the association between Mr. Bin Ghaith and UPSAD.

In a September 26 press release, Paris-Sorbonne’s president, whom HRW had fruitlessly attempted to contact since the arrests in April, bluntly re-stated the position the board had  taken in June. It said:

“Since April Mr. Bin Gaith has been the subject of investigations under UAE law, for reasons that are, in any case, entirely external to his  academic activities. University officials, while they may  themselves deplore infringements on human rights wherever these occur, have no authorized means to express an opinion in this particular case on the institution’s behalf.”

According to President Molinié, Mr. Bin Ghait is merely an economist who, «like dozens of other guest participants, has been invited to chair several forums for the Masters in International Relations program».

Not merely--Bin Ghaith does conducts a regular eight-day seminar—hardly marginal activity. But even lacking full status as a professor, doesn’t he deserve to be defended— first and foremost by the French university that fostered the creation of Sorbonne Abu Dhabi?

Unworthy of the French tradition

With a historic wave in favor of expression, democracy, and the rule of law sweeping the Arab world, how to justify the fact that the Parisian university has not, until now, deemed Bin Ghaith worthy of a simple gesture of support?

This attitude is unworthy of the French university tradition. And some in the French academic community have already stepped forward to condemn the Sorbonne’s passive response.

As  Nasser Bin Ghaith’s trial continues, he has already spent six months behind bars without bail. After five closed-door meetings, the UAE authorities finally yielded and granted permission for observers from international NGO”s –Human Rights Watch among them, to meet with Bin Ghaith on October2.

Nothing we saw or heard that day in any way altered our belief that the most basic human rights were being flouted. Not only is the trial unfair. The government should never have placed five innocent persons—who had done nothing but peacefully exercise their right of free expression--under investigation to begin with.

Pro-democracy intellectuals in the UAE deserve the support of all those who honor citizens of the Arab world in their extraordinary strivings for democracy.  The University of Paris-Sorbonnne is duty-bound to make it plain that the UPSAD’s motto, “A Bridge Between Civilizations” is indeed a moral reality, not just an advertising slogan.

Jean-Marie Fardeau is France director at Human Rights Watch