The United Arab Emirates (UAE) will reportedly welcome Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a leader credibly implicated in rampant atrocities, to COP28, the global United Nations climate conference, while civil society and human rights defenders will be left out in the cold.
If Assad attends, it would be his first appearance at a global conference since before the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011.
The UAE, which has shown little leadership on core issues at COP28 like phasing out fossil fuels and stopping new oil and gas expansion, now seems prepared to help Assad burnish his image, despite having overseen crimes against humanity against his own people. If Assad travels to Dubai, it will mark his third visit to the country since 2022. The UAE government has said nothing in public during any of his visits about the crimes committed under his rule.
The Syrian government has committed serious crimes on a vast scale and displaced millions. Humanitarian aid continues to be weaponized by the government and diverted away from populations that oppose Assad’s rule. War crimes continue: as recent as November 2022, Syrian government forces dropped banned cluster munitions on camps for the internally displaced in northwest Syria.
Meanwhile, Arab countries, spearheaded by the UAE, have rushed to normalize ties with Assad’s government without demanding accountability for the grave abuses committed over the last 12 years. The Arab League readmitted Syria on May 7, 2023, after suspending it in 2011 and apparently made no requirement that Syria respect the human rights of its population.
While Assad is set to be welcomed, it is unclear if independent members of Emirati civil society will be able to meaningfully participate in the COP28 conference climate talks, given the country’s severe repression and complete closure of civic space. Since 2011, UAE authorities have carried out a sustained assault on freedom of expression and association, arresting and imprisoning scores of government critics and activists, including Ahmed Mansoor, a leading Emirati human rights defender.
What’s more, the UAE appointed Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), the government’s foremost fossil fuel company, as president of COP28,. He will maintain his role at ADNOC while serving as COP president. ADNOC recently announced it was expanding all aspects of its fossil fuel operations.
It is outrageous that a conference meant to spur ambitious climate action is being exploited to bring the Assad government back into the international fold, without any attempt to ensure accountability for its widespread abuses. Governments attending COP28 should ensure that serious crimes committed under Assad’s rule are investigated and prosecuted.