The UAE is committed to pursuing its efforts to enhance human rights, in keeping with its own cultural identity and special characteristics, and in cooperation with international human rights bodies. It has made significant progress in this field over the last few years.
In November 2012, the UAE won membership of the UN Human Rights Council for a three-year term, starting from early 2013.
The UAE was elected in a secret ballot, conducted by the UN General Assembly, in which 21 candidate countries from 18 geographical groups competed for 18 vacant seats.
The UAE got 184 votes, the highest vote turnout of the total garnered by the four winning Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Japan, South Korea and Pakistan) and the second highest amount of votes of the 18 winners.
Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Foreign Minister, said the win "crowned a series of achievements made by the UAE in its human rights record over the recent years, particularly in areas of legislation to uphold and protect fundamental freedoms and legal rights of individuals, rights of women and children and advanced regulations on the rights of the foreign workforce."
In another achievement, Dr Abdul Rahim Al Awadi, Assistant Foreign Minister for Legal Affairs, was elected in December 2011, as Chairman of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights for the period 2013-2015.
The UAE’s commitment to protect and promote human rights is manifested in its leadership’s approach and vision.
Inaugurating the second ordinary session of the 15th Legislative Chapter of the Federal National Council on 6th November 2012, the UAE President, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, underlined the fact that the UAE constitution protects rights and freedoms.
"This makes the UAE a paradise for citizens and expatriates. All live in peace in a tolerant community that is free from segregation and injustice," he said.
"We are going forward firmly to bring our political experience to its desired ends so as to achieve development and expand participation. We are also looking forward to the pivotal role of the FNC, as a supportive and control authority to further strengthen the government with its visions and innovative ideas," Khalifa added.
The UAE has acceded to various international conventions, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the International Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (whose optional protocol was signed in 2010), the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the Convention on Trans-national Organised Crime and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children and the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Mindful of the significance of its human rights record, the UAE has continued to modernise its laws and legislations. These include: Anti-Trafficking Law, Child Protection Law, Rights of People with Special Needs Law, Juveniles Law, Social Security Law, Labour Law and others.
The Emirates Human Rights Association (EHRA) was established in March 2006 as the first non-governmental human rights organisation in the country, with the aim of promoting the principles of human rights in accordance with applicable laws and the UAE constitution.
The EHRA plays its role in an effective and transparent way to achieve objectives and implement strategies. It enjoys the support of the political leadership and cooperates with a number of regional and international organisations, including the Human Rights Council and the Arab Organisation for Human Rights.
In a follow-up of the case of the secret organisation seeking to seize power in the country, EHRA's delegates have paid two visits to the detainees involved in it, including one with a delegation of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights.
During a press conference held on 23 October 2012, Abdul Ghafar Hussein, Chairman of the EHRA, said, "The delegates from the Association who went to visit the detainees found their rooms to be good, with air conditioning, a good bed, and very good food was available which comes from five-star hotels. They also have access to health services 24 hours a day."
Answering questions about reports from some international human rights organisations, Hussein referred to the visit of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights (AOHR) delegation to the UAE and their meeting with the detainees.
''The door is open to whoever comes from any human rights group to enquire about the said detainees or others,'' he said. Hussein said claims made by Human Rights Watch were unfounded and they had "their own political agenda".
He noted that the detainees had expressed their appreciation for the gift of about Dh 50,000 they had received from President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
''The gift was an initiative of the President and underscores the care of both leadership and officials,'' he told the media.
In another kind gesture, Sheikh Khalifa has also approved medical treatment for UAE citizen Fatima Hassan Mohammed Al Za'abi, one of the accused in the secret organisation case, sending her to the USA for medical treatment at the expense of the state.
Nevertheless, the UAE was disappointed by the US State Department's Report 2012 on Human Rights Practices in the UAE, published on April 19th 2013. The report provides an unbalanced picture of the human rights situation in the UAE and fails to give adequate recognition to the significant progress that has been made to promote and protect human rights in the country.
This came in a statement made by Abdul Raheem Al Awadhi, Assistant Foreign Minister for Legal Affairs, on April 28th 2013.
The statement stressed that "The UAE is a tolerant, multicultural society in which people with many different nationalities worship freely in churches, temples and mosques.
“UN indicators show that it has a high level of gender equality, and it provides citizens and residents with access to education and healthcare."
"By focusing on specific instances of alleged violations of human rights and what the State Department considers to be the remaining human rights challenges facing the UAE, the report fails to adequately reflect this overall progressive context."
In addition, it does not mention some of the important steps that the UAE has taken in 2012 to further the protection of human rights. For example, when discussing torture, the report makes no mention of the fact that the UAE acceded to the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in July 2012.
Additionally, when discussing discrimination against women, it makes no mention of the fact that in December 2012, the UAE Cabinet made it compulsory for corporations and government agencies to include women on their boards of directors - or of the prominent role of women in UAE politics, including four female Ministers in the Federal Cabinet," the statement said.
"The UAE government takes concerns of any possible violation of human rights very seriously and is constantly working on strengthening its capacity to respond to these," it added.
In December 2012, the Federal National Council approved the creation of a permanent human rights committee to support the country's efforts on that front both locally and internationally.
Meanwhile, in the first quarter of 2013, the Ministry of the Interior created a specialised committee on human rights that aims to increase awareness of human rights’ standards within law enforcement agencies.
On January 28th 2013, the UAE government presented a report on the progress that the UAE has made in promoting and protecting human rights at the United Nations in Geneva.
The UAE government accepted thirty six recommendations stemming from the first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2008, including measures aimed at reinforcing protection of the rights of children, women and workers. In addition, the UAE made nine voluntary pledges of its own.
In a formal presentation about the UAE’s progress in implementing the recommendations from the first UPR, Dr Anwar Mohammed Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, informed the Human Rights Council about the steps the UAE government has taken to further enhance the protection of human rights.
During the interactive session, ninety UN member nations welcomed the positive progress that has been made and asked questions regarding the protection of human rights in the UAE. They also made a series of recommendations on possible further action to enhance human rights protection.
"While we recognise that the UAE will continually need to review and enhance its efforts to protect human rights, the level of protection of human rights already achieved represents a significant success", said Dr. Gargash in his statement.
"While there is still much more to do, the UAE possesses one of the strongest human rights records in the region. We intend to build on it and use the UPR process to set milestones and a roadmap for us to achieve an ever higher standard," he noted.
"In 2010," he added, "we set up a committee specifically to support the objective of ensuring that we are following through on our commitments under the UPR.
“The committee is comprised of government bodies, both federal and local, and advisers from civil society organisations. It now acts as a permanent forum for the consultative process with civil society in the UAE.
"The committee developed a plan to implement the outcome of the review, working closely with a host of national actors. Feedback on a draft of the plan was sought from government ministries, civil society associations and our national assembly - the Federal National Council."
Dr Gargash stressed that "the UAE has a stable political system characterised by a consultative relationship between its citizens and its government, the application of the rule of law, and good governance. This is underpinned by a Constitution which guarantees the rights of UAE citizens."
He said the UAE’s political system has evolved over time in response to the needs of a modern nation state, while staying consistent with its traditions.
"We take pride in our achievements but we are never satisfied with the status quo. Let me be clear: we are facing challenges. In a difficult and unstable region, and in a country with a rapidly growing population, a large percentage of whom are expatriates, our approach to human rights is inevitably an evolving one."
Outlining the work that has been done in various areas, Dr. Gargash referred to a number of key laws the UAE has adopted in recent years to safeguard the rights of women, children, contract workers and people with disabilities, noting that additional and significant legislative changes are currently being prepared.
He pointed to the amendment of the UAE Constitution in 2009, expanding the tenure of Federal National Council members to four years and of the remit of the FNC to include a role in debating international treaties and international conventions undertaken by the government.
Gargash explained, "During recent years, the UAE has also implemented diverse legislative initiatives to address other human rights issues, including the enactment of several measures to strengthen the rights of workers, and the amendment of legislation on the rights of people with disabilities."
Referring to the efforts to reinforce children’s rights, he said the UAE is in the process of adopting a federal law concerning children’s rights which includes a number of measures designed to protect children and prescribes severe penalties for breaching its provisions.
The Minister further stressed the importance of promoting institutional frameworks that aim to strengthen the protection of human rights, noting that several departments and governmental entities concerned with human rights have been established at both federal and domestic levels over the past few years.
Speaking about the UAE’s extensive strategy for safeguarding the rights of workers and improving their work and living conditions, he said: "We are fully committed to the goal of strengthening the rights of workers so that they can enjoy opportunity in the UAE, free of any form of abuse or exploitation.
"We have undertaken a series of measures that create more flexibility and freedom in the labour market. These include: regulations protecting the rights of workers in case of disputes with employers and providing access to litigation processes; measures guaranteeing decent and safe accommodation for workers; and provisions regarding medical care and rights for workers to move from one job to another without time limitations.
Importantly, the government has recently approved a new law to further protect domestic workers, which will be issued this year, affording them far greater protection and assurances. This new law particularly benefits women, who make up a major portion of this segment of the workforce."
Talking about women’s achievements, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs noted that women now occupy thirty per cent of higher leadership and decision-making positions in the UAE and participate meaningfully in every facet of civic and political life."
He added, "Seven women now serve in the FNC and the UAE now has female federal judges. Women occupy two thirds of the jobs in federal government - one of the highest percentages worldwide. There are four female ministers in the Federal Cabinet, which is one of the highest ratios in the Arab world. Women occupy seventy five per cent of positions in the education and health sectors."
Regarding Women’s contributions to the UAE’s economy, Dr. Gargash referred to official statistics which indicate that the Businesswomen’s Council in the UAE has more than 12,000 members who collectively run more than 11,000 ventures, with an estimated value of $3.4 billion. Women also occupy more than one third of the jobs in banking and finance, one of the major economic sectors in the country.
In the education field, he said, "95 per cent of female high school graduates go on to pursue higher education, as do 80 per cent of their male counterparts. Currently, 70 per cent of all graduates from UAE universities are women. Women in the UAE work in jobs that are not considered traditional jobs for women in a conservative Muslim society. For example, women have been certified as fighter pilots in the UAE Air Force".
Gargash also mentioned another important step taken in 2011 to cement the rights of women, when the UAE President issued a decree according children born to Emirati women, but whose fathers are not Emiratis, citizenship rights.
"It is not surprising then that according to the UN Gender Inequality Index for 2011, the UAE ranked as the 38th most gender equal in the world and one of the most gender-equal Arab countries," he remarked.
Gargash described the UAE’s election to the membership of the Executive Council of UN Women for a three-year term from 2013 to 2015 as "A clear indication of the international community’s confidence in the UAE’s achievements in this field".
In his presentation, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs emphasised the UAE's commitment to global efforts to combat human trafficking, saying that the country is taking a lead on this issue regionally and it was the first country in the Arab region to enact a comprehensive anti-trafficking law.
"Remarkable progress was made between 2007 and 2012 on the UAE’s four-part anti-trafficking strategy, which focused on developing legislation and regulations related to human trafficking, guiding the relevant authorities towards implementing preventive and deterrent measures, securing protection and support for the victims of these crimes and promoting regional and international cooperation to combat human trafficking."
Gargash highlighted some of the UAE’s anti-trafficking activities in recent years, including an expanded media campaign to enhance public awareness about the crime of human trafficking, a series of training courses and workshops over the last four years which involved various government agencies and institutions concerned with the welfare of victims of human trafficking, a strategy to combat all forms of forced labour through the imposition of heavy fines, an expansion in the number of shelters for women and children who are victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, and submission for ratification of an amendment to Federal Law No. 51 on combating human trafficking in order to bring it in line with the Palermo Protocol.
In addition, Gargash spoke about the progress achieved in the development of infrastructure in remote areas of the UAE, noting that: "A series of government initiatives, with an estimated cost of $4.4 billion, have contributed to the development of housing, water and electricity utilities, roads and bridges, and hospitals and health care centers in remote areas of the UAE."
"According to the UN’s Human Development Index," Gargash said, "the UAE has the highest level of human development in the Arab world. We take pride in the fact that the people of the UAE have a high level of well-being, that our’s is a tolerant and multicultural society in a region that has long been beset by multiple and complex challenges, that the empowerment of women has been one of our notable success stories, that all citizens have a right to education and access to healthcare, that we are pioneers in promoting sustainable development and clean energy, and that people from over 200 nationalities residing in the UAE worship freely in churches, temples and mosques."
According to Dr Gargash, "the UAE’s progress has not always come easy but we have worked hard to set new standards in the protection of human rights and we will continue to do so. At the same time, we acknowledge the remaining challenges and reiterate our resolve to meet them, based on the bedrock principle that governments must act with fairness and equity to protect the rights of people."