The United Arab Emirates announced earlier this week that it would set up an independent national human rights organization. The new institution will open an office in Abu Dhabi and, according to the UAE's state media, "aims to promote and protect human rights and freedoms" in accordance with the local and international laws and guidelines.
"This is just another tactic, part of the UAE's decadelong whitewashing campaign to make themselves look like a tolerant, respectful and open country," said Hiba Zayadin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, who focuses on abuses in the Gulf states.
"But the situation on the ground is very different," she told DW. "In fact, there is absolutely no room for dissent in the UAE. There have been no independent civil society groups there since 2012 and so many people have been jailed. There is a lot of fear of retaliation for speaking out and a high level of censorship, even amongst UAE-based international journalists and academics."
Other human rights organizations and media watchdogs have come to similar conclusions.
In its 2020 report, Freedom House, which assesses how democratic and open countries are, rated the UAE as "not free." The country has "one of the most restrictive press laws in the Arab world," researchers wrote. Additionally, "local human rights activists are at serious risk of detention, prosecution, and mistreatment in custody," the report said.
Rights groups cite lack of freedoms
Amnesty International maintains a long list of "prisoners of conscience" in the UAE, "including well-known human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor," who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for posts on social media about human rights violations in the UAE.
In June, the UN's special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders called on the UAE to release a number of people who had been imprisoned since 2013 for speaking out against the government.
"They should have never been detained in the first place for legitimately exercising the freedoms that all people are entitled to," said Mary Lawlor.
'Joke of the season'
Social media users in the Middle East were also critical about the announcement of the human rights organization. "The UAE and human rights don't really go together," one Twitter user wrote.
"This is the joke of the season," UK-based researcher Fahad al-Ghofaili, quipped on the same website.
The UAE has said the new body will be set up in line with the so-called Paris Principles.
Those standards, officially adopted by the United Nations in 1993, essentially outline how a national human rights institution's leadership should be selected, how it will be funded and staffed and how it can cooperate with both civil society organizations and the government, but also remain independent.
Alexis Thiry, a legal adviser at Geneva-based legal advocacy organization MENA Rights Group, told DW it was too early to know if the new UAE organization would be sticking to the Paris Principles, as promised. This was because the rights group had not yet been able to read a publicly available version of the law, UAE Federal Law number 12 of 2021, that enabled the creation of the institution, said Thiry.
"It is difficult to have an opinion about the forthcoming independence of the [institution] and its compliance with the Paris Principles," he explained. "At this stage, it is also too early to comment on the performance of the institution since its members have yet to be appointed, to our knowledge."
When a new institution like this is formed, it often applies for accreditation with the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions to see if it is adhering to the Paris Principles. The MENA Rights Group often provides assessments to the Global Alliance, which has 118 member organizations from around the world.
From the information the legal advisory group did have, it seemed that the UAE's new law would be similar to those in neighboring countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain. All of these countries already have national human rights institutions.
However, if the UAE's attempts at creating this institution are really genuine, then organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty would welcome that, activists said. In promotional materials, UAE media said the institution "would seek to cooperate and deal with the UN and concerned international bodies."
"It will be interesting to see if the UAE are now willing to engage with external organizations," Human Rights Watch researcher Zayadin noted.
Despite multiple attempts asking UAE authorities to respond to allegations of abuse inside the country, and to get access to prisoners there, Zayadin said her organization has never received any response from the government.
"A very first step towards a genuine commitment to improving human rights in the country would be to allow international, independent monitors access to the country," said Zayadin. "An even more important step would be to release from prison all those who have been unjustly detained simply for exercising their right to free expression and association."
*This story was amended on September 3 to reflect the fact that the UAE human rights institution does not as yet have a hotline where abuses can be reported. This was mistakenly reported by a UAE based publication..