On Thursday, 27 February, the European Parliament will vote on whether the United Arab Emirates should join the Schengen Agreement, which would provide their citizens with visa-free travel throughout European Union member states. When parliamentarians cast their vote, they must take into consideration that this is a country where human rights are violated with impunity and ensure that this privilege is not given without a measurable commitment by authorities to end their abuses.
Human rights situation gets worse
Since the European Parliament passed a resolution in October 2012, which condemned the incommunicado detention and alleged torture of Emirati political activists, the human rights climate of the UAE has deteriorated significantly. The political activists who were the subject of that resolution are serving lengthy prison sentences after being convicted in a trial described by the International Commission of Jurists as "manifestly unfair" in which authorities did not investigate allegations of torture.
Political show trials have increased in their regularity and expanded in scope to include citizens who use social media to criticise abuses by authorities. Self-styled 'netizens' have found themselves detained for months without charge before being convicted of endangering national security. A case in point is that of Mohamed al-Zumer, 19, who is serving a 3-year sentence and says he was tortured after being arrested for using Twitter to ask why authorities had failed to investigate allegations of torture.
This crackdown against political activists, which began after a petition calling for democratic reform was submitted to the rulers in March 2011, has included the targeting of prisoners' families for punishment. Activists have documented 30 cases where entire families of political prisoners have been placed on unofficial, indefinite and unexplained travel bans, as well as having access to their bank accounts summarily blocked.
A particularly troublesome case has been that of Aisha al-Zaabi, who became the first woman to be detained by state security when she was held incommunicado for four days in January. Aisha was arrested by state security when she attempted to leave the country to visit her husband, who is a political dissident and former judge living in the UK. She was not accused of having committed a crime but was interrogated at length about her husband's political activism before being released and told that her family are barred from leaving the country indefinitely.
Mistreatment of European citizens
Victims of human rights abuses in the UAE are not limited to Emiratis, however; and have included appalling treatment of European citizens. There was international outcry when a Norwegian woman was jailed for having extramarital sex after reporting to police that she had been raped and in a separate case, David Cameron was forced to ask for an investigation into the alleged torture of 3 Britons by Dubai police officers. Needless to say, conditions for migrant workers have not improved and there continues to be a litany of abuses carried out against them.
None of these concerns were raised when the EU's Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs committee voted in favour of adding the UAE to the visa waiver list, in spite of a requirement to review a country's human rights record as part of the approval process. There was no mention of the resolution passed the previous year that called for a clear and principled policy toward the UAE in light of continued human rights abuses.
Silence from the EU on this issue is made all the more disquieting in light of a recent report by a United Nations Special Rapporteur that called for an investigation into torture and concluded that the judiciary is not independent. This is in addition to consistent reports from Human Rights Watch denouncing a deteriorating rights climate and Amnesty International running campaigns calling for the release of Emirati prisoners of conscience.
Just words, but no actions by the UAE
Authorities in the UAE may have made very public commitments to protect human rights, through their signing of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and election to the Human Rights Council, but these actions have proved to be nothing more than a public relations exercise. Indeed, if the UAE is added to the visa waiver list then their rulers will publicise it as a vindication of their leadership and the EU will have effectively condoned the human rights violations taking place there.
It is of course desirable to ease travel restrictions and improve freedom of movement but it should be understood that this privilege could be manipulated to increase repression of the citizens it is supposed to benefit. Authorities in the UAE have shown themselves to restrict the freedom of their citizens by seizing passports when they call for democratic reform or criticise human rights abuses. In the current dire human rights climate, by making the UAE passport more valuable the EU will simply be giving an oppressor another tool with which to abuse the rights of Emirati citizens.
Measurable commitment by the UAE is needed
The EU should be very clear when deciding on whether to add the UAE to the visa waiver list: their joining of the Schengen Agreement must be contingent on a measurable commitment by authorities to end their abuse of human rights. When parliamentarians sit down to vote on February 27th they should consider the plight of the tortured political prisoner in jail because they asked for democracy, or the rape victims put in prison for reporting a crime of sexual violence, and understand that they possess the power to either condone these abuses or stand up to an oppressor and demand they respect human rights.