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Rhetoric or Critical Action? The Role of Human Rights in EU-UAE Relations

[Emirati security forces crackdown on activists in Dubai, 2012. Image from Gulf Center for Human Rights.] [Emirati security forces crackdown on activists in Dubai, 2012. Image from Gulf Center for Human Rights.]

An EU resolution passed in October 2012, which condemned human rights abuses in the United Arab Emirates, caused outrage among defenders of the Emirati regime and gave hope that human rights may play a greater role in EU foreign policy. Several months on, has this resolution proved to be anything more than empty rhetoric?

The resolution criticized repression of political activists in the United Arab Emirates, where seventy-seven individuals have been detained without charge in the past year. It also called for authorities to conduct impartial inquiries into alleged physical attacks on prominent Emirati activist Ahmed Mansoor. Politicians and Emirati commentators responded angrily to the resolution, with UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash labeling it "biased and prejudiced." Prior to the resolution passing, the UAE regime lobbied hard to oppose it, sending a letter to Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) threatening that it would “needlessly damage EU-UAE relations." At the center of these relations is the 20.25 billion dollars of bilateral trade between the two in the first six months of 2012. 

The fear of reputational damage alone may have prompted the threatening UAE lobbying efforts, given that the resolution carried no further action on behalf of the European Union. Although human rights organizations received it with hope, questions have arisen about the degree to which the resolution was simply empty rhetoric aimed at convincing domestic populations that the European Union cares about human rights. Indeed, these concerns have deepened with news on 18 January that the European Union had announced the opening of a diplomatic mission in the United Arab Emirates.

It is not so much the opening of a mission in the United Arab Emirates that is of concern. Rather, it was the press release that heralded it, which stated that the announcement "highlights the importance of our geo-strategic interests in and our political and economic ties with this country [UAE]." It is disquieting that Cathy Ashton, EU Representative for Foreign Affairs, has not mentioned the human rights abuses taking place in the Emirates publicly and this highlights the lack of coherence between the various bodies of the European Union.

The hope that this resolution marked the initial stages of integrating human rights into EU foreign policy stemmed from a new strategic framework released in June 2012. The EU Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy pledged to place human rights at the heart of all internal and external policies of the union. Whilst this document sets out laudable intentions, it must be backed up with tangible action and consistent language from all of its bodies.

In the case of the Emirates, Cathy Ashton and the new diplomatic mission must publicly pressure the regime into ceasing its crackdown against political dissidents. Authorities there have been accused of torturing prisoners and freezing bank accounts of detainees’ families, as well as passing legislation criminalizing all forms of dissent. In terms of specific action, the answer may lie within EU member states.

Snooping software is readily used by the state to spy on dissidents, and European and US companies have been implicated in the sale of such items to Gulf rulers. The EU resolution mentions the attacks on Ahmed Mansoor, who was the subject of a report by Bloomberg in October 2012 detailing the use of spyware on his computer. Citizen Lab exposed the spyware as being an Italian-made surveillance tool and comes on the back of Bahraini activists receiving emails containing spyware made by the UK-based Gamma Group.

At the very least, the EU should be working to stop the support of state repression by companies operating within member states. Of course, the culpability of Western governments and companies in this repression goes beyond the sale of software, as numerous lucrative arms deals attest. The United Kingdom and France appear to be vying with each other over the sale of fighter jets to the Emirates, after recent visits by both Cameron and Hollande. These deals seem sure to expand the military power of a ruling family exposed by the New York Times as having already established a private mercenary army to take charge of "civil uprisings."

In the past, human rights have been a negotiable issue for the European Union and of secondary importance to wider trade and geo-strategic interests. The October resolution was the first public comment on the rights record of the United Arab Emirates. Along with the strategic framework released in June, it raised hopes that human rights would play a greater role in external relations. Sadly, Cathy Ashton’s announcement of a diplomatic mission opening in the Emirates was notable for its silence on the issue of human rights in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), appearing to confirm that words from the European Parliament are simply empty rhetoric.

The Presidency of the Council of the European Union passed to Ireland in January with a statement of "deep commitment to peace, democracy and human rights" and intent to "promote implementation of the EU’s human rights strategy." As a means by which to realize that commitment, resolutions from the European Parliament should include measurable outcomes that can be pursued by MEPs in pressuring the EU Council and Cathy Ashton to act. The Parliament may have the ability to pass resolutions, but the Council and High Representative must take them seriously if they are to have practical impact. If the resolution includes specific action points, then MEPs would have the ability to seek updates on progress and the President of the European Parliament could place pressure during his or her address to the EU Council.

The ideas within the European Union’s Strategic Framework on Human Rights suggest that steps are being made in the right direction. For the framework to be anything more than a box ticking exercise, all bodies of the European Union must act together to ensure that human rights shape policy and is not simply a propagandistic tool of legitimation. In the case of the United Arab Emirates, the new diplomatic mission should act to stop software companies based in EU member states from selling spyware to a repressive regime. That would be a significant step towards integrating human rights into policy and advancing impressive words beyond rhetoric.

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