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Climate Summit Host UAE Blasted by HRW for Migrant Worker Abuse, Toxic Pollution & Mass Surveillance

StoryDecember 04, 2023
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The U.N. climate summit underway in Dubai marks the first time in nine years that representatives from Human Rights Watch have been allowed access to the United Arab Emirates. We speak with researcher Joey Shea about toxic pollution from UAE fossil fuels processing, and the state of political rights in the authoritarian country — especially for migrant workers who constitute 88% of the population but lack many labor protections under the kafala system. “There is no independent civil society in this country,” says Shea, adding that there is “sustained targeting of human rights defenders, activists, judges, lawyers, regular Emirati citizens” and anyone else who speaks out. Shea also warns that attendees of the COP28 conference are subject to mass surveillance from the moment they step foot in the country.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from the U.N. climate summit in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

This year marks the first time in nine years that Human Rights Watch has been allowed access to the United Arab Emirates. We’re turning now to look at conditions here in the UAE, the climate crisis, as well as human rights. Human Rights Watch is out with a new report headlined “'You Can Smell Petrol in the Air': UAE Fossil Fuels Feed Toxic Pollution”; its earlier report titled “Heat at COP28 Highlights Risks to Migrant Workers.”

For more, we’re joined by Joey Shea, researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, investigating human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. She, along with four colleagues, has been allowed in for the first time in nine years to UAE.

Joey, thank you for joining us. Talk about the significance of what you have found in one report after another that you’re putting out now.

JOEY SHEA: Yeah, and it’s great to be here, and it’s great to be here in Dubai. As you said, this is the first time that Human Rights Watch has been able to access the UAE in nine years. Over the past decade, UAE authorities have engaged on a sustained assault against basic rights and freedoms. There is no independent civil society in this country. Civil society organizations have been banned, and there has been a sustained targeting of human rights defenders, activists, judges, lawyers, regular Emirati citizens who dare speak out about the human rights abuses taking place.

One of the cases that we have been following very closely is the case of Ahmed Mansoor, who is a current member of Human Rights Watch’s advisory committee, and he has been imprisoned in an isolation cell since March 2017. He was arrested and detained and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2018 based purely on tweets that related to documentation of violations in the UAE, and as well as private WhatsApp messages sent from Ahmed Mansoor to groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. So it’s very striking that HRW is here today. We’re happy to be here. We want to continue to engage. But the rights crisis in this country is very concerning.

AMY GOODMAN: And it’s not only Ahmed Mansoor, of course, in prison. If you can talk about other mass trials of people who simply signed petitions?

JOEY SHEA: Yeah, absolutely. So, we have been following this case called the UAE94 case for the past 10 years. In 2011, a group of academics, lawyers drafted a very politely worded petition calling for greater participation in governance in the UAE. For that petition, starting in 2012, there was a monthslong crackdown on those individuals, and they were arbitrarily arrested, 94 of them, which is where the UAE94 case comes from.

In 2013, after a trial marred with due process violations that did not meet the standards for a fair trial — HRW was there at the time and documented these violations — 69 of these defendants were sentenced to between five and 10 years’ imprisonment. Now, many of those defendants have actually been up for release. Even though they should not have spent a single day in prison, they are still being held beyond their release date on these bogus counterterrorism charges, which effectively allows UAE authorities to keep individuals imprisoned indefinitely.

AMY GOODMAN: Joey, can you talk about migrant workers? People may be surprised to understand that 88% of the population of United Arab Emirates are migrant workers. Eighty-eight percent. What are the conditions that they work under?

JOEY SHEA: Horrendous. So, migrant workers in the UAE work under what is called the kafala, or sponsorship, system, which ties their legal status in this country to their employers. And this makes them incredibly vulnerable to labor-related violations, so exorbitant recruitment fees, wage theft, and also extreme heat-related health risks. Where we are today in Dubai Expo City, where COP28 is being held, was built by migrant workers. And in the summer months in the UAE, the temperatures come up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, completely, you know, extreme, extreme heat, and yet these workers are forced to labor even in these conditions of extreme heat, and there are woefully inadequate protections in place in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Have there been some changes in dealing with their working conditions, that they not be required to work when it is so hot out?

JOEY SHEA: Yes, so, there have been some reforms. So the UAE now prohibits explicitly forced labor. And as well, they have brought in what is called a midday work ban, which spans from June until September and does not allow work between the hours of noon and 3 p.m. However, if you’ve ever been to Dubai in August, extreme heat goes beyond just noon and 3 p.m. And yet these workers are forced to labor in these conditions. As well, the government doesn’t enforce these regulations across the board. And we’ve documented, time and time again, health risks from migrant workers who have been forced to work in these conditions.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about where these migrant workers are from.

JOEY SHEA: So, this is what’s so important for COP28. These migrant workers come from countries on the frontlines of the climate crisis. They are from Nepal. They are from Bangladesh. And the UAE is externalizing its climate risks. Because these workers are on the frontlines of the climate crisis, their families back home are subject to the extreme weather events. So, for example, their homes are being destroyed. And the migrant workers here are unable to send remittances back, because they’re subject to this abusive kafala system. So, migrant —

AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re talking about Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Philippines.

JOEY SHEA: Yes, absolutely. And yeah, the families back at home are under severe financial stress from the climate crisis, and the workers here are unable to provide that financial support because they are subject to the abusive kafala system, which takes their wages. And they also have health impacts from working in extreme heat, and there’s no compensation from the UAE government or from their employers to help them deal with these health impacts.

AMY GOODMAN: How did they get here?

JOEY SHEA: So, they’re subject to this kafala system, so they’re brought in by companies, and these companies often charge them exorbitant recruitment fees. So, already when they arrive here, they are subject — in many cases, subject to extreme debt, that’s very difficult to get out of.

AMY GOODMAN: Joey Shea, if you can talk about your mass surveillance report?

JOEY SHEA: Yeah, absolutely. So, from the moment COP28 participants landed in Dubai, they were subject to intense mass surveillance from the Emirati government. So, in Dubai alone, there are 300,000 cameras around in public spaces. As well, where we are, in Dubai Expo City, there are thousands of cameras conducting mass surveillance.

In addition to mass surveillance, the UAE government has been documented using targeted digital surveillance. So, for example, Ahmed Mansoor, who we just spoke about, he was an early recipient of NSO’s notorious spyware, Pegasus spyware, and the WhatsApp messages that were used to incriminate him in his case, which with organizations such as Human Rights Watch, were taken from his phone through the use of Pegasus.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are people doing about this? I know at the airport we were handed back with our passports a 5G SIM card.

JOEY SHEA: Yeah. I hope you didn’t put that SIM card in your phone. But yeah, and it has an absolute chilling effect on COP28 participants, who see the cameras, who understand that there’s mass surveillance. It’s very difficult — impossible to have private conversations here, especially if you’re a climate activist trying to mobilize against fossil fuels.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what would happen if you put those 5G SIM cards in your phone.

JOEY SHEA: It’s very likely that you would be tracked, of course, and your phone may be infected with spyware that we don’t even know exists.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 20 seconds. How does it feel to be back here in the UAE, your organization, Human Rights Watch?

JOEY SHEA: It feels very good. But we also have seen the intense deterioration in the human rights situation in this country over the past 10 years. We want to be able to have access, but, unfortunately, we are not sure that will be the case beyond the special rules set out by the U.N. just for COP28.

AMY GOODMAN: Joey Shea, we want to thank you for being with us, researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. We’re going to link to all of your reports, “Heat at COP28 Highlights Risks to Migrant Workers” and “'You Can Smell Petrol in the Air.'” And it’s very good to know that you are back here telling us what’s happening here.

Happy belated birthday to Emily Gosselin! I’m Amy Goodman, from Dubai.

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