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Laptop spying

Report on the occasion of the 6th UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, 27-29 November 2017

The responsibility of multinational corporations and other international institutions for human rights violations in the UAE


Geneva, 28 November 2017

The International Centre for Justice and Human Rights (ICJHR) is addressing, through this report, transnational corporations and other institutions which deal with the government of the United Arab Emirates without taking into account the consequences of the repressive use of modern technologies in countries such as the UAE.

The ICJHR would like to remind these corporations and institutions of the Human Rights Council resolution n°4/17 of 16 June 2011 on the Guidelines of Institutions and Human Rights. This emphasises the role and duty of enterprises to take into consideration the principles of human rights in their commercial activities, and not be involved in the violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The cooperation between these multinational corporations and the UAE authorities in different commercial, financial and technical activities – without investigation into the existence of legal and actual guarantees for the respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms – could be considered as tantamount to involvement with Emirati officials in the grave violations being committed against political activists, human rights defenders and bloggers in the country. They are regularly being deprived of their personal safety and dignity and their physical and moral sanctity; while the Government of the United Arab Emirates continues to delay acceding to various international human rights instruments and covenants, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance; they continue to maintain a reservation on certain articles of the International Convention Against Torture, and have not acceded to the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture. This leaves Emirati citizens vulnerable to the violation of their rights, not having the guarantees that allow them to complain or demand respect for public freedoms.

The UAE authorities have deliberately drafted criminalisation and punishment provisions in vague and ambiguous language to enable them to easily prosecute political activists, lawyers and bloggers and sentence them for long periods. The amendment of the Penal Code and Article 182 (bis) did not contain language accurate enough to guarantee the controls that are necessary whenever freedoms are restricted, most importantly necessity, subordination, proportionality and legitimate purpose.

This has resulted in the UAE achieving a low ranking in the 2016 Global Democracy Index, at 147th position, and in the Emirati government being described as an authoritarian regime. The United Arab Emirates is also classified as a "closed" country according to the civil space observatory CIVICUS, since public protest in the UAE has been deemed impossible and the internet is strictly censored and controlled. The country also achieved a low position in the Internet Freedom Index for 2016, ranked 55th out of 65 countries, and ranked 119 out of 167 in the Freedom of Information and Press Index.

It is important to notice that the dealings and cooperation between multinational companies and the UAE government have violated the rights of Emirati citizens in several aspects, such as the right to privacy and freedom of expression.


Transnational corporations and other institutions’ involvement in the violation of civil and political rights in the United Arab Emirates

The British defence company BAE Systems is supplying the UAE with advanced spy technology and decoding systems. In 2015, the UAE acquired from British companies new systems to intercept communications and carry out wiretapping, including the so-called “IMSI-catchers.”

Prior to dealing with the authorities of the UAE, these companies did not stipulate that the use of such sophisticated technology shall not undermine and violate human rights and fundamental freedoms and arbitrarily interfere in a person’s privacy, family, home, correspondence or even reputation; they did not require the enactment of laws in conformity with international standards, nor the existence of independent and impartial judicial supervision or the respect for the right to appeal, reparation and rehabilitation for victims.

Indeed, the UAE has launched the "Eye of the Falcon System" to monitor calls, intercept communications and correspondence, and track the activities of politicians, human rights defenders and bloggers.

Human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor affirmed prior to his arrest that his mobile phone, an iPhone 6, had been hacked and spied on, which led to the Apple company intervening to confirm that they will increase security on their phones in order to prevent such situations.

The UAE has enacted numerous laws that have violated the privacy of politicians and human rights activists and have invaded their private lives, including Law No. 5 of 2012 on Combating Cybercrimes, Federal Decree Law No. 3 of 2012 on the Establishment of the National Electronic Security Authority, and Federal Law No. 12 of 2016 which amended Federal Law No. 5 of 2012 on Combating Cybercrimes.

All of these deliberately lack precise wording, a situation which has been examined by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of the Judiciary and lawyers during her visit to the UAE in 2014, and are enacted to facilitate the imprisonment of human rights defenders.

Furthermore, the equipment used by the State Security Apparatus to wiretap and monitor the movements and activities of human rights defenders has contributed to the imprisonment of many of them, based on recordings of their criticisms of the political or justice systems or their reporting of violations of human rights. The ICJHR recalls the following cases that have been received by the Centre:

  1. The case of blogger and human rights activist Mr. Osama Al-Najjar who on November 25, 2014, was jailed for three years, fined half a million dirhams, had all his electronic devices confiscated and was ordered to close all his social media accounts. This sentence was for defending his father Hussein Al-Najjar and proclaiming his innocence from his Twitter account, as well as for his cooperation with the United Nations system and his meeting with the Special Rapporteur on the independence of the judiciary during her visit to the United Arab Emirates in 2014.
  2. Tayseer Najjar, a Jordanian journalist, who was sentenced to three years' imprisonment and a fine of 500,000 dirhams for expressing his opinion about the issue of Gaza, under the Federal Law on Combating Cybercrimes.
  3. The case of the Al Abduli siblings: Amina, who was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, and her brother Musab, imprisoned for seven years, both on charges of posting tweets about their father, who died in Syria.
  4. The arbitrary arrest of human rights activist and winner of the Martin Ennals Award in 2015, Ahmed Mansoor, who was arrested under a warrant issued by the Public Prosecutor for Cybercrime. He has been detained by the State Security Apparatus since 20 March 2017 because of his human rights activities on social networks and his cooperation with international organizations. Before his arrest, he was banned from travel, was under close surveillance and his mobile phone was hacked using highly sophisticated technical means. In a statement issued on March 28, 2017, the UN Experts considered his detention to be a suppression of the activities of human rights defenders, and called on the UAE authorities to release him immediately and disclose his whereabouts.


Transnational corporations and other institutions’ involvement in violations of economic, social and cultural rights

Several transnational corporations and other institutions have undertaken work and contracts for the benefit of the UAE and have placed workers from different nationalities under the sponsorship (Kafala) system.

It is known that Kafala system violates more than one human right, including the right of the worker to change their job and to leave the country without their sponsor's permission, as well as their right to resign from their work; indeed, one of the violations entailed in the Kafala system is the requirement of an "exit permit" for the worker to be able to travel outside the country.

Indeed the seizure and confiscation of migrant workers' passports by employers is widespread in the UAE, despite the fact that this act of confiscation is considered illegal by Emirati courts.

In his report submitted to the 33rd Session of the Human Rights Council, held in Geneva from 13 to 30 September 2016, the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery focused on the issue of the rights of migrant workers, and criticized the sponsorship system in the Gulf region in general and in the United Arab Emirates in particular.

Moreover, the rights of migrant workers along with their families are violated in full view of the authorities; wages are low compared to the long hours of work, and employers do not abide by the minimum wage. Many workers are accommodated together in a single bedroom, in humiliating and undignified conditions. The absence of safety and security measures at work, especially with regard to the construction of high buildings, has caused high rates of injury and death among workers, with employers often failing to cover treatment expenses for the injured and provide them with appropriate medical care. There is an additional trend of employers paying workers late, while many of these workers are sending the bulk of their salaries back to their families in their countries of origin. All of these conditions are contributing to the high suicide rate among migrant workers.

Foreign workers are also prohibited from organising trade unions and collectives to negotiate better terms with their employers, and the authorities do not authorise the formation of any civil society organisation to monitor and highlight violations of workers' rights or to inform and advise those affected.


In view of all these violations, the International Centre for Justice and Human Rights calls upon the Working Group on the Issue of Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy, the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants and the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression to:

  • Investigate the multinational companies dealing with the UAE authorities and charge them with responsibility for violating the privacy of political activists, human rights defenders and bloggers, violating the right to freedom of expression and assembly, and violating the economic and social rights of workers within the UAE.
  • Call upon these corporations to abide by the guidelines of institutions and human rights adopted by the Human Rights Council No. 4/17 of 16 June 2011, and to examine and reform the terms of their cooperation with the UAE until all legal, judicial and effective guarantees of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms that are enshrined in international charters are provided.
  • Urge the Emirati government to respect human rights and freedom of expression and to refrain from using repressive means to infringe on the privacy of human rights defenders or to limit freedoms under the pretext of combating terrorism and protecting national security.