Her Excellency Mariam Mohammed Khalfan Al Roumi
Minister of Social Affairs
Ministry of Social Affairs
United Arab Emirates
We have the honour to enclose, for your consideration, a statement and briefing concerning the trial in the Federal Supreme Court of five United Arab Emirates (UAE) residents. Both documents were issued on 3 November by the undersigned as well as other human rights organizations.
We would also like to take this opportunity to express our organizations’ continued dismay at the Ministry of Social Affairs’ decision to dissolve on 17 April 2011 the elected board of the UAEs’ Jurist Association and to replace its members with state appointees. We are also dismayed by your 27 October 2011 decision to renew the government-appointed board for another six months.
The steps taken by the authorities against the Jurist Association can be seen as a hostile takeover of the association by the UAE government in an attempt to silence this active member of the UAE’s civil society. It is part of a larger crackdown on dissent that has also resulted in the arrest and trial of five activists on charges of “publicly insulting” ruling officials, although the five men were eventually pardoned on 28 November 2011 after a guilty verdict a day earlier.
Moreover, we believe that the independence of judges and lawyers is an essential requirement for the protection of human rights and the rule of law. Such independence could not be guaranteed if judges and lawyers do not enjoy, like other citizens, freedom of expression, association and assembly.
We understand that on 21 April 2011, you informed, by way of a decree sent as a letter, members of the former executive board of the Jurist Association that the association had violated article 16 of the UAE’s 2008 Law on Associations, which prohibits non governmental organizations (NGOs) and their members from interfering "in politics or in matters that impair state security and its ruling regime." The decree came days after the Jurist Association, along with three other NGOs, co-signed a public appeal calling for greater democracy in the country. On 2 May, another co-signatory, the Teachers’ Association, shared the same fate when your ministry dissolved its board as well with a similar decree.
Furthermore, it is also our understanding that the law empowers you to name a replacement board for an interim period of six months, after which an extraordinary annual general meeting (AGM) is to be scheduled in order to appoint a new executive board in accordance with the body’s registration. The law, however, enables you to grant a limited extension to the term of the temporary board.
The Jurist Association fulfils an essential role in the promotion of the rule of law in the UAE and plays an important role in upholding professional standards and ethics and providing legal services to all in need of them. Such an organization should also be able to protect is members from persecution and improper restrictions and infringements. As such it is imperative that the Jurist Association has an executive board that is chosen at an AGM by its members and which enjoys members’ trust.
As Your Excellency may recall, the Jurist Association had faced growing restrictions in recent years and in 2010 the government had prohibited representatives from taking part in meetings outside the UAE and cancelled seminars planned by the organization without a substantive reason. UAE security officials have also pressured some of the association’s members to resign from the association.
Accordingly, we are concerned by this delay in returning the Jurist Association to normality and we seek your urgent clarification of the reasons for the extension by six months of the mandate of the government-appointed board.
We are also concerned by reports of a surge in applications to the Jurist Association from those with some legal training serving in the police and armed forces and fear that such applications are part of an infiltration tactic by authorities to undermine the independence of the organization.
We would like to draw your attention to the United Nations’ Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers which state that:
16. Governments shall ensure that lawyers ( a ) are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference; ( b ) are able to travel and to consult with their clients freely both within their own country and abroad; and ( c ) shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics.
In respect to the freedom of expression and association enjoyed by lawyers, the Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers add that:
23. Lawyers like other citizens are entitled to freedom of expression, belief, association and assembly. In particular, they shall have the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights and to join or form local, national or international organizations and attend their meetings, without suffering professional restrictions by reason of their lawful action or their membership in a lawful organization. In exercising these rights, lawyers shall always conduct themselves in accordance with the law and the recognized standards and ethics of the legal profession.
With respect to the professional associations of lawyers, the Basic Principles add that:
24. Lawyers shall be entitled to form and join self-governing professional associations to represent their interests, promote their continuing education and training and protect their professional integrity. The executive body of the professional associations shall be elected by its members and shall exercise its functions without external interference.
In closing, we urge Your Excellency and the UAE government to issue an invitation to the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association to review the laws currently in place which govern NGOs and bring these in line with international human rights law and standards, in order to ensure that NGOs can function free from state interference.
Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui
Middle East and North Africa Programme
Middle East Divison
Human Rights Watch