The UAE is a very young country, having been formed just over forty years ago. But in those few short years a stable political system has evolved in response to the needs of a modern nation state and the aspirations of its citizens. This political system, which is consistent with the culture and traditions of the UAE and is underpinned by a Constitution that guarantees the rights of all UAE citizens, is characterised by a strong consultative relationship between citizens and government, the application of the rule of law and good governance.
UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan laid out the political parameters of UAE human rights policy in an address to the UN General Assembly:
. . . moderation and tolerance are basic principles in guiding our political orientation and represent lofty values to the citizens of the United Arab Emirates and to our society as a whole. In this sense, the United Arab Emirates has been and will remain committed to moderation in its approach, and accepts other communities as part of a diverse world built on mutual respect. It is these human values which have informed our convictions with regard to many issues such as counterterrorism, human rights, the empowerment of women, and coexistence among peoples and communities.
Today, the citizens of the UAE are reaping the benefits of substantial investment in infrastructure, housing, education and health services. In addition, the UAE's remarkably open and tolerant society has attracted over 200 nationalities to live and work here in harmony. The high standard of living experienced in the UAE is reflected in its inclusion in the 2013 UN Human Development Index's list of countries with very high human development, and its ranking of forty-first out of a total of 193 countries worldwide.
In a difficult and unstable region, and in a country with a rapidly growing population, a large percentage of whom are expatriates, the UAE's approach to human rights is both proactive and evolving, as is shown by the significant progress made in improving and expanding labour regulations and human trafficking laws, women's rights, protection of children, and promotion of equality before the law.
In particular, the UAE has made great efforts to bring its national legislation in line with international norms, ratifying many international human rights conventions in the process.
This high level of respect for human rights in the country is evident in the UAE's first place among Arab countries and fourteenth globally on the International Human Rights Rank Indicator (IHRRI), published in 2013 by the Swiss-based NGO, Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD).
The UAE scored highly in the provision of health and education, economic and labour rights, freedom of expression and racial tolerance, ahead of members of the European Court of Human Rights, such as Austria, Ireland, Germany and France, and even beating the US in twentieth place.
There is no doubt that much more needs to be done in the field of human rights in the UAE and part of this enhancement process involves review and debate in international fora.
In accordance with the Human Rights Council's mandate, which involves a periodic review of the human rights record of all UN member states, the UAE has completed two four-yearly Universal Periodic Review (UPR) reports, the second of which was adopted on the 7 June 2013. This second report described the significant steps that the UAE had taken to uphold the principles and norms of human rights over the previous four years, including details of the UAE's response to the recommendation made by the Human Rights Council at the last review. It also examined a range of remaining challenges, including issues related to contract workers and human trafficking.
Following a full evaluation by government and civil society of the recommendations made by member states following the second review, and taking the Constitution, domestic legislation and cultural issues into account, the UAE fully accepted 100 recommendations, partially accepted or noted 61 recommendations and rejected 19 recommendations made by member states. The few rejections were determined to be in conflict with the UAE's legal and cultural framework.
In his statement to the Council's concluding session, Dr Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, noted with satisfaction that the Council had recognised the significant progress achieved by the UAE in enhancing human rights protection and had applauded the UAE's national process in compiling the human rights report.
With the adoption of the UPR report, the UAE's Standing Committee on the Universal Periodic Review is overseeing the implementation of the recommendations that have been accepted. One of the most important tasks to hand is the strengthening of national institutional frameworks that aim to protect human rights, including the departments and government entities concerned with human rights at domestic and federal level. The UAE has accepted the Council's recommendation to establish a national human rights institution and the role of the Federal National Council in human rights protection has been enhanced through the establishment of a permanent committee on human rights. The Ministry of the Interior has also created a specialised committee on human rights that aims to increase awareness of human rights' standards within law enforcement agencies.
In cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner, the UAE is instigating a comprehensive national training and capacity building programme for national officials and will continue to raise awareness of human rights issues throughout the country in order to promote a human rights culture.
The UAE also continues to cooperate with the Council's Special Procedures, including visits by its Special Rapporteurs on Human Trafficking, Human Rights and Counter-terrorism, Independence of Judges and Lawyers.
In addition, the Government has renewed its financial support for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and contributes to a number of human rights funds such as the Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery; the Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture; the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Human Trafficking; and funds for UNDP programmes.
The UAE was elected to a three-year membership of the 47-member UN Human Rights Council commencing in early 2013, receiving the second highest number of votes of all 18 successful candidates.
Human Rights Conventions to which the UAE is a Party
Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)
International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
Convention on the Rights of the Child
Amendment to Article 43(2) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (Palermo Convention) and its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (Palermo Protocol)
Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam
Declaration of the Member States of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference
Arab Charter on Human Rights
The UAE is also party to six International Labour Organisation conventions and is considering accession to the two Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, one on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, the other on the involvement of children in armed conflict. In addition it is studying the withdrawal of a number of reservations to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
The pursuit of gender equality and the empowerment of women has been central to Government strategy since the foundation of the State. As a result, significant achievements have been made in this area – the figures speak for themselves.
Women occupy 30 per cent of higher leadership and decision-making positions in the UAE and participate in every aspect of civic and political life. There are four female ministers in the Federal Cabinet, seven women are members of the Federal National Council, women serve in the judiciary and occupy two-thirds of the jobs in the Federal Government – one of the highest percentages worldwide. Women also occupy 75 per cent of positions in the education and health sectors.
In relation to the private sector, the Businesswomen's Council in the UAE has more than 12,000 members who collectively run more than 11,000 ventures. Women also occupy one-third of the positions in banking and finance, one of the major economic sectors. Women in the UAE also work in jobs that are traditionally exclusively male, for example as police officers, fighter pilots and train drivers.
In addition, a decree by the UAE Cabinet, intended to promote the participation of women on the boards of government agencies and companies, means that the UAE is the second country in the world with a mandatory female presence in boardrooms and the first in the Arab region.
As far as educational opportunity is concerned, 95 per cent of female high school graduates pursue education at a tertiary level, compared to 80 per cent of males. Currently 70 per cent of all graduates from UAE universities are women.
The UAE's election to the membership of the Executive Council of UN Women from 2013 to 2015 is an indication of the progress made in gender equality in the UAE and the UAE's commitment to the empowerment of women worldwide, especially in the field of education. But there is also a deep awareness that more needs to be done nationally. In this regard, the National Strategy for the Advancement of Women has recently been updated to cover the 2013 to 2017 period.
The UAE acknowledges the contribution that foreign workers of over 200 different nationalities make to its economy and has reiterated its commitment to protecting their rights and empowering them to fully benefit from their residency in the country.
To date, the UAE has undertaken a series of measures that protect workers, introduce more flexibility and freedom in the labour market, establish a more balanced contractual relationship between employer and worker and improve monitoring systems. These include regulations protecting the rights of workers in labour disputes, access to effective legal remedies, as well as the right of workers to move from one job to another without time limitations.
Initiatives such as the Wage Protection System (WPS), introduced by the Labour ministry to ensure that workers receive their salaries without delay, have been praised by the International Labour Organisation with which the UAE has a cooperation agreement governing working conditions.
In response to complaints about the living standard of migrant labourers, the Cabinet adopted a manual setting down minimum conditions for workers' collective housing and related services. The regulations stipulate that employers are responsible for providing suitable housing in conformity with the conditions laid down in the manual, and every enterprise must comply with the minimum conditions by the end of 2014. As a result, many new model workers' cities have been built leading to a vast improvement in the standard of living of many labourers.
As far as health services for workers are concerned, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi has already implemented a comprehensive, compulsory health insurance scheme to cover all workers, including domestic workers. The cost is borne by the employer. Dubai is following suit and it is hoped that the scheme will be extended to all parts of the country.
The Government has also approved a law to further protect domestic workers, particularly women, who make up a major portion of this segment of the workforce.
On the international level, the UAE continues to cooperate with other countries to deal with issues of mutual concern surrounding migrant workers. Unfortunately, some of the temporary contractual workers that the UAE receives every year from across the world are deceived by labour recruitment agencies and become victims of human trafficking. Since the deceit begins before the workers leave their home countries, the importance of partnering with source and transit countries is central to the UAE’s strategy.
Perhaps the single most important achievement to date has been the recognition by countries of origin and destination that solving the issues surrounding labour mobility depends on consideration of the legitimate interests of all stakeholders: the worker, the employer and the respective country of origin and country of destination. This has paved the way for increased collaboration in identifying and implementing practical solutions to the problems that arise which, in turn, translate into joint initiatives.
Central to this strategy is the Abu Dhabi Dialogue initiative, which engages labour destination countries as well as countries of origin. Building upon policies agreed during the Abu Dhabi Dialogue initiative, the UAE Ministry of Labour has introduced a comprehensive range of protection measures covering both pre- and post-departure needs of workers, beginning in the country of origin (for instance, by shielding workers from illegal recruiters and setting up a contract validation system), continuing after arrival in the country of destination (e.g. through the measures outlined above curbing abuses such as non-payment of wages), and on return and reintegration back home.
In addition, as part of its efforts to strengthen international cooperation on combatting human trafficking and promoting human rights, the Ministry of the Interior signed no fewer than 11 treaties and memorandums of understanding with foreign governments and relevant organisations.
The UAE's national strategy to combat human trafficking is based on the five pillars of prevention, protection, prosecution, punishment and promotion (of international cooperation) and is coordinated by the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking (NCCHT).
Much progress has been made since Federal Law 51 was passed in 2006 outlawing all forms of human trafficking and stipulating strong punitive measures, including maximum penalties of life imprisonment, for infringement.
NCCHT's annual report for 2012–2013 indicated that while only 10 cases of human trafficking were reported in 2007, this figure doubled to 20 cases in 2008, went up to 43 in 2009 and 58 in 2010, reduced to 37 in 2011, and increased again to 47 in 2012. However, NCCHT believes that the numbers reflect both a growing awareness among the public, assisted by media campaigns, and intensifying counter-measures adopted by the government.
Regular workshops and training courses have been held to enhance the skills of government and law enforcement officials tasked with implementing the legislation related to such crimes. Strategies have been put in place to combat all forms of forced labour through the imposition of heavy fines and there has been an expansion in the number of shelters for for the protection, counselling and rehabilitation of women and children who are victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.
A Victim Support Fund has been established to meet the future needs of victims. The fund will work alongside the Ewa'a (meaning 'to shelter') centres run by the Red Crescent. Abu Dhabi energy company, Taqa is also supporting Ewa'a centres in Abu Dhabi, Ra's al-Khaimah and Sharjah. Traditionally, these rehabilitation centres housed women and children, but a centre for adult male victims of human trafficking and sexual abuse has recently been opened.
In addition Federal Law No 51 is being amended to bring it in line with the Palermo Protocol (to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children), which is attached to the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (Palermo Convention), both of which the UAE has ratified. In April 2013, the UAE also joined the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime.
As part of the 20-member Group of Friends United Against Human Trafficking, the UAE has signed the Declaration on the Global Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons and it has presented the UN with the funds to establish UN.GIFT, the UN Global Initiative to Stop Human Trafficking.
Although much progress has been made, the UAE is determined to address all the concerns related to this issue and will maintain a constructive dialogue with members of the international community to eliminate human trafficking.
In conclusion, the UAE has made significant progress in dealing with human rights issues in a short period of time, but realises that much more needs to be done, and is ready to move ahead constructively and systematically in improving its human rights record. Like other States, the UAE has to meet certain challenges and set priorities in the human rights domain in the light of the rapid changes in the world, which will be its centre of focus in the forthcoming phase.
At the same time, the Government is committed to serving as a model for change in the region and an active member of the international community. In keeping with this, it is developing and harmonising its human rights standards with international principles, as well as diversifying and strengthening the mechanism and institutions promoting these causes.