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Workers clean the exterior of the Museum of the Future, currently under construction, in Dubai on November 19, 2020. © Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images

(Beirut) – The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was responsible for serious human rights violations at home and abroad in 2020, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021. The government held peaceful critics in jail, fostered labor abuses against low-paid migrant workers, and contributed to abuses abroad in Libya and Yemen.

UAE prisons and detention centers hold detainees in dismal and unhygienic conditions, and overcrowding and denial of medical care are widespread, putting detainees at heightened risk of serious complications of Covid-19. On June 10, Human Rights Watch reported on the prison administration’s inadequate response to Covid-19 outbreaks in at least three detention facilities. Prisoners living with HIV are denied regular access to life-saving medication and are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. Repeated calls for the UAE authorities to open prisons and detention facilities to inspection by international and independent monitors have gone unheeded.

“UAE authorities jail peaceful critics on baseless charges, and the Covid-19 pandemic further threatens the lives and well-being of vulnerable detainees in abuse-ridden detention facilities,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Despite presenting itself as an open and rights-respecting country and amid mounting allegations of serious abuses, the UAE forbids inspection of its prisons and detention centers by independent, international monitors.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort. 

Especially in cases related to state security, people in the UAE experienced arbitrary and incommunicado detention, torture and ill-treatment, prolonged solitary confinement, and denial of access to legal assistance. The prominent human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor remains in solitary confinement more than three years after his arrest in March 2017.

The UAE provided weapons to and conducted air and drone strikes in Libya, some of which killed and wounded civilians, to support the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) armed group. In Yemen, UAE-backed Yemeni troops and armed groups committed grave abuses. 

Labor abuses persist, driven by an exploitative kafala (visa sponsorship) system, under which employers control migrant workers’ presence in the country. Low-paid migrant workers especially face serious abuses, most commonly unpaid and delayed wages. The Covid-19 pandemic has further exposed and amplified the ways in which migrant workers’ rights are violated. Tens of thousands of migrant workers faced massive unemployment and were left stranded in dire conditions without legal residencies. Many struggled with unpaid wages and wage theft, and were unable to pay rent or buy food.

Despite amendments to the law regulating personal status matters in 2019 and 2020, some provisions still discriminate against women. UAE laws also discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

In November, the UAE announced a series of legal reforms, including decriminalizing drinking or possessing alcohol and attempted suicide, allowing unmarried couples to cohabitate, and no longer allowing men to benefit from lighter sentences for assaulting a female relative in so-called “honor” crimes. The announced reforms would also allow couples who married outside the UAE to follow the laws of their home country or the country in which they married in matters of divorce and inheritance. 

“While the UAE did announce commendable legal reforms mostly aimed at its majority expat population, the authorities continue to clamp down fiercely on basic political and civil rights,” Page said.

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