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. The Government respects the integrity of every individual residing in the country. Its commitment to guarantee equality and social justice for all citizens is embodied in the Constitution, which also outlines the freedoms and rights of all citizens, prohibits torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, respects civil liberties, including freedom of speech and press, peaceful assembly and association, and the practice of religious beliefs.
Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in his address to the UN General Assembly in September 2012, spelt out the parameters of UAE human rights policy:
. . . 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.
In an article published in the UK newspaper The Times in early November 2012, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash also made a strong defence of the UAE's commitment to tolerance, something which, he emphasised, was an essential part of the country's values and beliefs. These, he said, were:
. . . intangible, unquantifiable but critical for stability and progress. Most important of all is a respect for people's freedom to live life as they wish: in short, tolerance. Cultures that defend tolerance have a strong sense of what should not be tolerated: namely, those who preach that people should be persecuted because of their beliefs.
While continuing to support the principles of freedom of beliefs and of expression that are guaranteed under the country's Constitution, the UAE Government has been obliged over the last year to take action against a small group of individuals linked to the international Muslim Brotherhood who have sought to challenge the country's tolerant approach. While the group presents itself internationally, in English, as arguing for human rights and reforms of the political system, Dr Gargash noted in The Times, 'in Arabic it reveals its true agenda driving religious minorities from the Arabian Peninsula, shutting churches and temples, reversing women's rights and introducing its own interpretation of Islamic law. Far from defending human rights, it wants to trample all over them. Such intolerance does not merely grate with Emirati culture; it threatens to undermine it', Dr Gargash said.
In 2009, the UAE submitted its first report on the status of human rights in the State to the UN Human Rights Council under the Universal Periodic Review process. The UAE's second report, which outlines the State's efforts to follow up on the issues raised, was submitted at the end of January 2013 and adopted on the 7 June 2013, the UAE having accepted 100 recommendations, partially accepted or noted 61 recommendations and rejected 19 recommendations. Dr Gargash, who presented the report, 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.
In recognition of its many achievements in the field of human rights, the UAE was elected to a three-year membership of the 47-member UN Human Rights Council in November 2012, receiving the second highest number of votes of all 18 successful candidates.
The Government continues to renew its support for the funds of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which will help the Office to implement its 2012–2013 programme. The State's contributions to these funds now amount to US$390,000. Moreover, at the Pledging Conference for Development Activities held at UN Headquarters in New York, the UAE announced its intention to donate US$7,194,000 in 2012 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.
Mindful of the significance of its human rights record, the UAE continues to modernise its laws and practices. Government policy focuses on legislation to uphold and protect fundamental freedoms and the legal rights of individuals, rights of women and children, labour rights, as well as the development of high-quality education and healthcare systems and the assimilation of members of society with special needs and other vulnerable groups into the development process.
The UAE acknowledges the contribution that foreign workers (almost 4 million of 200 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. 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. For the majority of trafficked persons, it is only when they arrive in the UAE that they realise that the work they were promised does not exist and they are forced instead to take up employment in other jobs or under conditions to which they did not give consent. Since the deceit begins before the workers leave their home countries, the importance of partnering with source and transit countries is now paramount to the UAE’s strategy.
Perhaps the single most important achievement to date has been the recognition by countries of origin and destination that improving the developmental outcomes of labour mobility is contingent on the due consideration of the legitimate interests of all its 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 impede such outcomes, which, in turn, translate into joint initiatives.
Central to this strategy is the Abu Dhabi Dialogue initiative, which engages countries of labour destination as well as countries of origin. Since the convening of its first meeting in Abu Dhabi in 2008, the initiative has not only succeeded in fostering constructive dialogue among member countries, it has also contributed to elevating mutual trust and identifying avenues of collaboration that have concretely improved the administration of the contract employment cycle and enhance its outcomes.
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 (for instance, through measures curbing abuse and non-payment of wages), and on return and reintegration back home.
To date, the UAE has signed ten memorandums of understanding with Asian labour-sending countries and eight bilateral cooperation agreements with Arab labour-sending countries with a view to the regulation and protection of the rights of migrant workers from these countries.
The UAE has also signed a technical cooperation agreement with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to provide decent working conditions in the country. The major components of the strategy include protection of the rights of labourers, development of national employment policies and monitoring systems, as well as the enhancement of social dialogue. Recent initiatives to protect the labour force have been praised by the ILO, such as the Wage Portection System (WPS) introduced by the Labour Ministry to ensure that workers receive their salaries without delay. Other innovations are aimed at introducing greater flexibility and freedom of movement in the labour market, and establishing a balanced contractual relationship between employer and worker. At the same time, access to effective legal remedies in the event of a labour dispute have been improved. In particular, the Ministry has set up a collective labour disputes committee, with representatives of workers and employers, in each labour office. The committees must issue a decision on a dispute within two weeks of referral. Their decisions can be challenged before an appeal court within 30 days of issuance.
The Cabinet's Decision No.13 of 2009 adopted a manual setting down minimum conditions for workers' collective housing and related services and stating that, as of 1 September 2009, building permits for workers' housing must only be issued in accordance with the Cabinet Decision. The Decision also affirms that employers are responsible for providing housing in conformity with the conditions laid down in the manual, and every enterprise must comply with the Decision by the end of 2014. Work has begun on the construction of model workers' cities, of which there are now 21, serving 345,400 workers.
In relation to health issues, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi has devised a comprehensive, compulsory health insurance scheme to cover all workers, including domestic workers. The cost is borne by the employer and the scheme, which is already in effect in Abu Dhabi, will be extended to all parts of the country.
Moreover, the Domestic Service Workers Bill, approved by Cabinet Decision No 1/1/1 of 2012, which sets down minimum employment conditions for domestic workers, will be promulgated as soon as the Ministry of the Interior has prepared the implementing regulation.
The UAE's national strategy to combat human trafficking, based on the five pillars of prevention, protection, prosecution, punishment and promotion (of international cooperation), is coordinated by the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking (NCCHT).
Federal Law 51, which was passed in 2006, covers all forms of human trafficking and calls for strong punitive measures, including maximum penalties of life imprisonment for infringement. Regular workshops are held to enhance the skills of law enforcement officials dealing with this crime.
A victim support programme includes protection, counselling and rehabilitation. Police departments and non-Government organisations provide shelter and support for human trafficking victims until they are able to acquire the right documents and many victims are then sent home at the Government’s expense, under the Crime Victim Assistance Programme.
NCCHT's annual report for 2012–2013 indicated that while only 10 cases 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. NCCHT believes that the numbers reflect both a growing awareness among the public and intensifying counter-measures adopted by the government.
At the international level, the UAE has ratified the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (Palermo Convention) and its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (Palermo Protocol) and, as part of the 20-member Group of Friends United Against Human Trafficking, has signed the Declaration on the Global Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons. The UAE also presented the UN with the funds to establish UN.GIFT, the UN Global Initiative to Stop Human Trafficking.
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.
In April 2013, the UAE joined Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime. One of the main recommendations of the Fifth Ministerial Conference of the Bali Process is the adoption of a programme, sponsored by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, to record information and share data on 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.
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
International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
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)
Signatory to the Arab Charter on Human Rights
Elimination of forced and compulsory labor – Convention 29
Elimination of forced and compulsory labor – Convention 105
Elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation – Convention 111;
Abolition of child labor – Convention 138
Abolition of child labor – Convention 182.