Universal Periodic Review: UN Member States urge UAE to protect human rights defenders, prohibit torture and uphold freedom of expression

May 17, 2023

The UAE received 323 recommendations from UN Member States on various human rights issues during its 4th cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Ahead of the review, MENA Rights Group submitted a shadow report outlining a set of recommendations. In the press release below, we summarise the most crucial recommendations.

The UAE delegation during the 4th cycle of the UAE's Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council © UN Web TV.

On May 8, 2023, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had its 4th cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a peer review mechanism by which United Nations (UN) Member States provide recommendations to improve the human rights record of countries under review. Ahead of the review, MENA Rights Group submitted a shadow report outlining a set of recommendations, and also met with a number of Permanent Missions in Geneva to share our key concerns.

The UAE received 323 recommendations from UN Member States on various human rights issues. These include the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, the protection of human rights defenders, the prohibition of torture, the abolition of the death penalty and the use of counter-terrorism in violating human rights. During the UPR, the Emirati delegation denied allegations of torture and avoided the topic of freedom of expression altogether. The UAE delegation now has until the 54th session of the UN Human Rights Council, which will be held in September 2023, to consider these recommendations and respond to them with acceptance, rejection or noting.

Freedom of expression and assembly

The UAE has yet to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which enshrines the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, among others. In this context, over 20 countries recommended the Emirates to ratify, or at least consider ratifying, the ICCPR.

Additionally, more than 20 countries made recommendations to protect and uphold freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, especially in relation to the work of human rights defenders.

Finland and the Netherlands specifically recommended the UAE to review articles within its domestic legal framework that restrict freedom of speech. In fact, many provisions under the 2014 Law on Combating Terrorism Offences limit freedom of speech, due to a vague and overly broad definition of terrorism.

Meanwhile, the United States called on the UAE to “revise the cybercrime law” to ensure the protection of freedom of expression. Costa Rica recommended repealing or amending the 2021 Law on Combating Rumors and Cybercrime, which replaced the former 2012 Law on Combating Cybercrimes and criminalises the use of digital spaces to call for regime change or constitutional reform.

Costa Rica was the only country to bring up the UAE’s use of cyber surveillance, recommending it to “cease all cyber surveillance operations and persecution of people in respect of their right to privacy” as well as “apply a moratorium on the use of spyware technology and introduce human rights-based monitoring mechanisms related to surveillance technologies.” This crucial topic remains unaddressed, even though the UAE famously used the Israeli Pegasus spyware to spy on human rights defenders as well as slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancée.

The UAE’s record on freedom of expression and assembly is clearly draconian, and we call on the Emirati authorities to implement these recommendations to ensure the respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Protection of human rights defenders

14 countries made recommendations pertaining to the protection of human rights defenders and activists in the UAE.

Indeed, the UAE’s State Security Apparatus has long been a tool of repression against peaceful dissenting voices, including human rights defenders. It played an instrumental role in the arrest of the “UAE94”, a group of Emirati scholars, activists, lawyers, doctors, and human rights defenders who were tried in 2013 after signing a petition that asked for democratic reforms in the UAE. They were sentenced to heavy prison penalties on the basis of vague ‘terrorism’ and ‘security-related’ charges following a grossly unfair trial during which confessions extracted under torture were admitted as evidence. In 2013, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued Opinion No. 60/2013, in which it found that the detention of the 61 individuals convicted in the UAE94 trial was arbitrary. Moreover, in 2022, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders and other UN experts expressed deep concern over this grave violation.

In this regard, Belgium specifically recommended the UAE to “ensure that human rights defenders, including those sharing information with United Nations human rights mechanisms, are able to work safely and effectively in the country, including by creating an enabling environment in which they can carry out their work on the promotion and protection of human rights.” This is a crucial recommendation given the UAE’s reprisal against Ahmed Mansoor for engaging with international human rights organisations, where his digital conversations with international NGOs were used as evidence to prove his ‘criminal activity’.

Argentina recommended the UAE to review its legislation and ensure it aligns with international human rights norms to ensure the freedom of expression of human rights defenders. Additionally, Liechtenstein recommended bringing the UAE’s legislation on terrorism in line with international standards and “halting its use to arrest, detain and prosecute human rights defenders and activists for the exercise of their fundamental human rights”. In fact, the 2014 Law on Combating Terrorism and the laws on combating cybercrimes are both used by Emirati authorities to target human rights defenders. For instance, the UAE sentenced in absentia Khalaf al-Romaithi, one of the UAE94, to 15 years of prison for supporting democratic reforms in 2013. He was recently extradited from Jordan to the UAE, where he faces arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and torture.

Belgium went further and recommended the UAE to “unconditionally release from prison all human rights defenders, prisoners of conscience and persons imprisoned solely because of their political convictions or the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression or association”. The UAE should immediately accept and implement all of the aforementioned recommendations.

Prohibition of torture and ill-treatment

Czechia recommended the creation of “a comprehensive national strategy to systematically prevent and eliminate torture and [...] arbitrary detention and incommunicado detention”. Echoing this statement, Italy recommended the prohibition of secret detention and the establishment of safeguarding measures against torture.

However, during the UPR, the Emirati delegation completely denied allegations of torture occurring within its country, and claimed that any evidence extracted through torture is nonviable in court and that victims of torture can seek redress through court. This completely contradicts countless documented cases of detainees in the UAE being tortured, as well as the Concluding Observations of the UN Committee against Torture issued in July 2022.

The UAE has yet to ratify the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT). In this context, 11 countries recommended to the Emirati delegation ratifying (or at least to consider ratifying) the UNCAT.

Not only is the UAE not a party to the UNCAT, it has yet to define torture in its own domestic legal framework. Consequently, both New Zealand and Tunisia recommended the establishment of a definition of torture in domestic law in accordance with the UNCAT’s definition.

Counter-terrorism and human rights

The UAE continuously uses the pretext of counter-terrorism to arrest, arbitrarily detain, and torture individuals exercising their fundamental human rights and freedoms. This is codified in the UAE’s domestic legal framework, as explained in the section of freedom of expression and assembly.

During the UPR, Switzerland recommended amending the 2014 Law on combating terrorism, the 2021 Law on combating rumours and cybercrimes, and the Penal Code, and aligning them with international human rights standards, and freedom of expression in particular. Luxembourg made a similar recommendation, adding that the UAE should end the use of counter-terrorism legislation against human rights defenders. New Zealand echoed this statement by recommending legislative amendments to ensure terrorism is not used as a pretext to limit public dissent.

The UAE not only imprisons individuals on the basis of counter-terrorism, but it also keeps them in arbitrary detention beyond their sentences under the pretext of “Munasaha”, i.e.’counselling’. This particular provision of the 2014 counter-terrorism law allows the authorities to keep prisoners detained even if they have completed their court-ordered sentence. Therefore, the UAE should immediately implement Netherlands’ recommendation to “release all prisoners who have completed their court-ordered sentences and are currently being held only under the “counselling” provision of the 2014 counterterrorism law.”

Independence of the judiciary, fair trial and due process

The judiciary of the UAE is far from independent, with judges being directly appointed by the executive. In this context, New Zealand recommended the UAE to ensure the independence of the judiciary from the executive branch.

In fact, not only is the judiciary controlled by the executive, but it enables the State Security Apparatus’ abuses. The SSA’s overarching powers allow for arbitrary and secret detention, torture, and a lack of fair trial and due process guarantees. Therefore, New Zealand also recommended to ensure that international and legal standards for fair trials are respected in the UAE, that procedural guarantees are implemented and that evidence obtained under torture be rejected.

The UAE authorities routinely detain individuals without informing them of the warrants and charges issued against them, all while denying them communication with the outside world and access to legal counsel. Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States thus made similar recommendations to ensure arrested and detained individuals are given the right to due process, fair trials and access to legal services, that their whereabouts be disclosed to someone they know, and that they are informed of the charges against them without delay.


The UAE should accept the recommendations made by UN Member States, especially those pertaining to freedom of expression and assembly, the protection of human rights defenders, the prohibition of torture, counter-terrorism and human rights, the independence of the judiciary and fair trial and due process guarantees.

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