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(Beirut) – The Human Rights situation in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) deteriorated rapidly during 2012, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2013.

The government has carried out a repressive campaign that has targeted Islamists, liberals, activists, and scholars alike, Human Rights Watch said. The campaign has systematically violated UAE citizens’ rights to free expression and fair trial, and employed tactics that directly contravene the international prohibition on arbitrary detention and forced disappearance. At the same time, the authorities have failed to reform a labor system that facilitates the trafficking and forced labor of its migrant workers.

“If the UAE keeps violating basic human rights and core international prohibitions, it will do major damage to its reputation,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

In its 665-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including an analysis of the aftermath of the Arab uprisings. The willingness of new governments to respect rights will determine whether the Arab uprisings give birth to genuine democracy or simply spawn authoritarianism in new clothes, Human Rights Watch said.

The UAE authorities’ campaign to quash free expression, and silence critics and proponents of reform, led the European Parliament to voice its “great concern” in a resolution on October 26.

The UAE has detained 66 people with ties to a peaceful Islamist group, al-Islah, all but two of whose whereabouts remain unknown, prompting concern for their safety. The whereabouts of 11 Egyptian nationals, detained in December on the basis of alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, are also unknown. The Emirati detainees include two prominent human rights lawyers, Mohammed al-Roken and Mohammed al-Mansoori, as well as judges, teachers, and student leaders.

Authorities have also taken action against foreign lawyers employed by the Emirati law firm that offered legal assistance to the detainees, arresting, deporting, and intimidating them.

Human Rights Watch has received numerous reports of torture at state security facilities, including credible allegations of torture by two Syrian nationals.

UAE authorities also deported an advocate for the rights of stateless bidun to Thailand in July, they also failed to properly investigate a campaign of harassment, and two physical assaults against a prominent human rights activist. In November, the authorities issued a new federal decree on cybercrime, which poses a serious threat to the freedoms of peaceful activists and ordinary citizens alike.

Although most international attention focused on the UAE’s violation of its own citizens’ civil and political rights in 2012, UAE authorities took no action to improve rights for foreign migrant workers, whose labor underpins the Gulf state’s economy. Despite years of criticism, the UAE has signally failed to address the shortcomings in its legal and regulatory framework that facilitate the serious exploitation of migrant workers.

The UAE took one positive step, acceding on June 19 to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. On November 12, the UAE was elected to the UN Human Rights Council, whose members are enjoined, under UN General Assembly resolution 60/251, to uphold the highest standards to promote and protect human rights. In that regard, the UAE should take the following steps:

  • Cease arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances, and respect the right to fair trial;
  • Respect the rights to freedom of expression and opinion;
  • End the use of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in detention; and
  • Respect the fundamental rights of migrant workers and stateless bidun.

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