Participants at the United Nations' COP28 climate talks Sunday found themselves greeted by the rarest sights in the United Arab Emirates: public protests. Activists allowed into the UAE can protest under strict guidelines in this autocratic nation inside the summit, and they're demonstrating on such issues as the Israel-Hamas war and environmental issues, the AP reports. Meanwhile, human rights researchers from organizations long banned by the country also have been let in, providing them some the opportunity for the first time in about a decade to offer criticism—though many acknowledge it may mean they're never allowed back in the country.
"One of our major issues with COP28 is the fact that the UAE government is using this to burnish its image internationally and the fact that limited protests are allowed ... is a good thing," said Joey Shea, now on her first trip to the Emirates as a researcher focused on the country at Human Rights Watch. "But at the end of the day, it helps to create this very false image that the UAE does have respect for rights when in fact it does not." The UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms led by Abu Dhabi's ruler, bans political parties and labor unions. All power rests in each emirate's hereditary ruler. Broad laws tightly restrict speech and nearly all major local media are either state-owned or state-affiliated outlets.
Laws also criminalize the few protests that take place by foreign laborers. The Emirates' overall population of more than 9.2 million is only 10% Emirati. The rest are expatriates, many of them low-paid laborers seeking to send money back home to their families. Many avoid saying anything, seeing their livelihoods at risk for speaking up as their visas and residencies remain tied to their employers. The UAE's diplomatic ties to Israel, reached in 2020, also make protesting on behalf of Palestinians more fraught. However, the UN and the UAE agreed before COP28 that free expression would be allowed. Activists described a process of having to seek approvals with organizers for their demonstrations. UN rules at the summit have caused demonstrators to avoid waving national flags or specifically call out countries.
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But Sunday afternoon, over 100 people gathered as part of a solidarity protests on behalf of Palestinians, only a short distance from Israel's pavilion at Dubai's Expo City, per the AP. About as many onlookers and journalists watched as they chanted, read names of the dead, and held their fists up to the sky. Israeli security personnel watched from a distance. Still, unlike at some other COP summits, there haven't been marches of tens of thousands of people. James Lynch of Amnesty International said, "It's a nervy and sort of tense event in many ways." That includes being watched by "thousands of security cameras, CCTV everywhere in public spaces, inside of buildings," Shea said. "You were effectively tracked from the moment that you stepped down in this country."
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