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Unpacking the UAE’s New National Human Rights Institution

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) became the 19th country in the Middle East to establish a new national human rights institution (NHRI) when it passed Federal Law No. 12 in May 2021. The government waited until August 31st to publicly announce its plans; over the last eighteen months, it has gradually released more information on the makeup of the NHRI, its mandates, and the next steps necessary for the body to begin its work. Many important questions remain as to how the institution will truly function, what its goals and priorities will be, and how it will address potential challenges to its mission. Above all else, why did the UAE choose to create the NHRI now, and to what extent did regional and international geopolitical considerations play a role in its inauguration?

NHRI’s Responsibilities

Signed into law by the former president of the UAE, the late Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Federal Law No. 12 calls for “an independent body” to be established in Abu Dhabi that “enjoys an independent legal personality, a financial and administrative independence in the exercise of its functions, activities, and competencies, and is represented by its chairperson before the judiciary and in its relations with third parties.” The stated objective of the NHRI, per Law No. 12, is “to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with the provisions of the UAE Constitution, laws, and legislation in force in the state in relevance with international treaties, covenants, and conventions.”

The persons selected to serve at the NHRI require introduction. Sheikh Khalifa selected Dr. Saeed Al Ghfeli as Secretary General, and in December 2021, the Board of Trustees was established overseeing the group’s operations. Ghfeli holds a Ph.D. in Constitutional Law from the University of Wales and brings substantial experience from various Emirati legal committees that address human trafficking and other human rights issues. The body consists of 11 members, who represent academia, civil society, advisory bodies, and other sectors within the UAE. Maqsoud Kruse, an organizational psychologist with significant experience across Emirati governing institutions, was announced as Chairperson of the NHRI. On January 14, 2022, he announced the NRHI’s first “100-day plan,” as well as its stated purpose: to “enhance [the] UAE’s human rights track record, promote human rights protection, raise awareness levels and [ensure] the integration of such practices into institutional frameworks.”

On February 3, Kruse outlined the six committees, each with their own issue topic, that will make up the institution: civil and political rights; economic, social, cultural and environmental rights; complaints, monitoring and field visits; international relations and non-governmental organizations; enhancement of culture of human rights; and legal and legislative affairs. Article 5 of Federal Law No. 12 outlines the scope of these committees. Their duties will include developing “a national action plan to promote and protect human rights in the state,” and hosting seminars and other conferences to “disseminate the culture of human rights and raise public awareness” of these critical issues. Importantly, the law also includes a mandate to check UAE laws and regulations for compatibility with “international treaties, covenants and conventions on human rights to which the UAE is a party.”

Of particular interest are the NHRI’s monitoring efforts and its power to check state authority on human rights, as these directly impact the institution’s ability to act upon its mandate. More specifically, the NHRI’s ability to “monitor human rights abuses and violations, verify their authenticity and report them to the competent authorities” and “receive and consider individual rights complaints in accordance with the NHRI’s standards and refer them to the competent authorities [i.e., officials, vaguely defined]” will determine the organization’s institutional leverage.

Divergent Media Narratives

Emirati officials have conducted an extensive public relations campaign to announce the NHRI. Indeed, media coverage of the rollout offers the best look at NHRI’s leadership, their thoughts on the direction of the institution, and the narrative Abu Dhabi wants to project. From media accounts, it appears that the NHRI represents different things to different sectors of Emirati society.

The Gulf Times, for example, suggested that Emirati officials wanted to promote the narrative that the UAE seeks to adopt international best practices and standards. After the passage of Federal Law No. 12, the newspaper reported that policymakers attempted to align the UAE with many international organizations, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). “In developing this law,” the paper wrote, “the UAE was keen to follow best practices and benchmark previous experiences of other countries with similar institutions.” Of course, this means Abu Dhabi—like many other Gulf states marred by allegations of human rights violations—wants to be seen as abiding by international norms.

Rather than an attempt to align the UAE with international conceptions of human rights, however, the official Emirates News Agency (WAM) emphasized that the NHRI would serve as a locally developed institution. WAM cited multiple experts in the human rights field who argued that the field of human rights must be localized, rather than imported from abroad. Indeed, many point to human rights regimes themselves as a form of “meddling” in states’ internal affairs. While the UAE says it abides by an international human rights agenda, the implicit argument is that human rights concerns must remain contingent on a territorial entity’s particular socio-political context. “The NHRI focuses on all aspects of human rights in the UAE, including the rights of women, children, those of people of special needs, labourers and workers, among other things,” the article specifies.

Other Emirati media highlighted the core tenets of the NRHI, including a major focus on accessibility and responsiveness to the public, including mechanisms for information sharing, social media outreach, a call center, and regular field visits for investigators. Additionally, reporting emphasized resources for people inside and outside the country, as well as a platform for submitting suggestions, proposals, and ideas for developing human rights in the UAE. For his part, Kruse stressed a whole-of-society approach, with “close partnerships with governmental entities, civil society,” and other entities.

The Paris Principles: A Gold Standard for Human Rights

Previously developed international standards indicate how the NHRI will function—specifically the Principles relating to the Status of National Institutions, or Paris Principles, and the regulations outlined by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI). Adopted in 1993 under United Nations General Assembly Resolution 48/134, the Paris Principles outline a set of core competencies and responsibilities for any given NHRI, as well as any such organization composition, methods of operation, jurisdiction, and conflicts of interest. GANHRI was established in 2016 as an extension of the International Coordinating Committee—an organization that assesses each sovereign state’s NHRI or NHRI-equivalent institution. In addition to providing leadership and support in the promotion and protection of human rights, GANHRI and other human rights institutions and civil society organizations measure the overall effectiveness of over 110 NHRIs around the world. The Paris Principles guide their work, and require NHRIs to “be vested with competence to promote and protect human rights” and “be given as broad a mandate as possible.” This mandate includes consulting with a country’s governing body to ensure that legislation considers human rights law, encouraging the ratification of international laws, cooperating with UN agencies, and supporting public education initiatives.

The Paris Principles recommend that NHRIs should be independent and able to “freely consider any questions falling within its competence, whether they are submitted by the Government or taken up by it without referral to a higher authority, on the proposal of its members or of any petitioner.” NHRIs should also be able to hear any person or non-governmental organization and obtain any information necessary for assessing situations, even if that requires establishing a public forum. Petitioner access is also critical. People must be able to make complaints, hear the reasoning behind decisions, and become informed of their rights. Dr. Kirsten Roberts Lyer, Associate Professor of Practice at the Central European University, explains to the authors  that for an NHRI to function properly it must meet certain requirements that allow for independence and the “smooth conduct of activities.” She noted that the selection of board members “must be broad and transparent, with an independent selection panel … [and] should also meet the substantive requirements of a broad human rights mandate and have the powers and functions to both promote and protect human rights.”

NHRIs should be adequately funded, Dr. Lyer adds to the authors, and should represent the various social groups that make up a country’s population. The Paris principles highlight this as well, outlining “the pluralist representation of the social forces,” in human rights or related fields, and the need for “infrastructure which is suited to the smooth conduct of its activities, in particular adequate funding.” Importantly, the final note on composition lists that “appointment [of board members] shall be effected by an official act which shall establish the specific duration of the mandate,” designed to ensure a “stable mandate” for NHRI board members that allows for real independence. Ultimately, the overarching theme of the Paris Principles is independence; NHRIs require the ability to conduct their work safely and independently of government overreach or censorship.

Grasping for Independence

To be formally recognized as a national human rights institution, the UAE’s NHRI will eventually need to be reviewed by GANHRI to determine if it meets the benchmarks set out in the Paris Principles. An important part of this review, according to Hanny Megally, a Senior Fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, is the official act that details the duration of the NHRI’s mandate, giving board members the security they need to fulfill their duties. “Much depends on the law establishing the commission and the degree of independence it will be able to maintain,” he says. In this regard, Federal Law No. 12 appears to align with international standards well in principle, especially in terms of Article 3 (Independence), Article 5 (Competencies), Article 7 (Membership Conditions), and Article 8 (Term of Membership). Some potential challenges exist for the UAE’s NHRI, however. Both the independence and overall capacity of the NHRI to carry out its mandate within the UAE’s current criminal and civil legal framework, as well as the nature of presidential powers in the country, could raise concerns about the body’s impartiality.

For example, Article 6 defines how the board of trustees’ members are chosen. In the UAE’s case, only the president has the power to select members. This is not necessarily uncommon compared to other NHRIs across the globe, but it could affect GANHRI’s assessment, given the near-total powers of the UAE’s leadership. Specifically, GANHRI might determine that the UAE’s NHRI lacks political independence, a vital component of the Paris Principles, because the president exercises exclusive control over appointments to the NHRI—creating a conflict of interest for board members who must act in accordance with their mandate but at the same time serve at the behest of the president.

The language in three other articles of Federal Law related to the termination of board members could also spark concerns of improper government influence. The language is particularly true when observing Article 6’s relationship to Article 7 (Membership Conditions) and Article 11 (Expiration and Termination of Membership), which includes vague language on the process of firing board members. It reads: “If a member has acted contrary to the NHRI objectives or would have impaired the performance of its mandate and duties,” they are subject to termination. The provisions of Article 7 complicate this, adding more vague language on membership criteria stating that trustees “must have civil capacity, exemplary conduct, a good reputation and no previous convictions for dishonorable offenses, even if they have been rehabilitated.” Such subjective terms of employment grant government officials significant leeway to alter the NHRI’s composition if they are unhappy with the NHRI’s work.

The UAE appears to be aware of this concern. Article 12 outlines guarantees for the NRHI, emphasizing that it “shall enjoy full independence in carrying out its competencies, and a member of the Board may express any views and opinions within those competencies during meetings of the Board.” It further aims to address any flagrant breach of NHRI privacy by the government, stating that “the NHRI headquarters may be inspected only by judicial order and in the presence of a representative of the Public Prosecution, provided that the Chairperson is notified and a representative is invited to attend the inspection.” Even so, these are the only two lines in the article that provide the substantive protections necessary to ensure the independence and protection of the institution. Simply declaring the NRHI “independent” will not satisfy GANHRI’s concerns, especially considering the state’s capacity to subject the institution to judicial orders for many criminal statutes containing nebulous and expansive language related to state security. One need only observe the UAE’s Crime and Punishment Law (Penal Code, 2021) and the new cybercrime law to understand GANHRI’s apprehension. Article 184 of the Penal Code, for example, outlines charges for actions that ridicule, insult, or harm the reputation or prestige of the state. How the NHRI will function in an independent matter without breaching this law will be of great interest to GANHRI.

Federal Law No. 12’s Article 13 may also hamstring the new national human rights institution. The section, which delineates the relationship between the institution and Emirati officials, consists of only one clause, stating authorities shall “cooperate with the NHRI to carry out its duties and achieve its objectives, including the provision of information, data and documents requested by the NHRI, and to respond to the observations and recommendations contained in the NHRI’s reports.” This sentence is vague and once again presents the issue of NHRI independence to fulfill its mandate. Without a clear breakdown of the real powers possessed by NHRI personnel and the government, the level of cooperation expected between Emirati officials and NHRI staff is difficult to discern.

One final concern regarding the Paris Principles’ “stable mandate” standard is related to the NHRI’s funding structure and appropriations. Articles 19 and 20 explicitly state that the NHRI will have an independent budget outline. This aligns well with the concept of independence in the Paris Principles, but could go further by guaranteeing long-term funding instead of year-by-year appropriations. Such an assurance would alleviate concerns that the government could cut the NHRI budget in retaliation for criticism of its policies.

Regional and International Motivations

Ultimately, the Emirati NHRI’s formation and its convergence with the Paris Principles carries international implications. The UAE aspires to be a regional leader that engages with international institutions, and the establishment of the NHRI certainly furthers this agenda. The United States and other Western powers generally attempt to enshrine human rights issues in their approach to foreign policy, giving Abu Dhabi an incentive to slowly align with this view in order to strengthen its relationship with Washington.

Regional considerations, however, are also important, especially in the Gulf, where other countries have developed NHRIs before the UAE. “When every state in the region establishes an NHRI, non-compliance [with international human rights standards] becomes more visible and challenging to hold out,” says Dr. Turan Kayaoglu to the authors, Associate Professor at the University of Washington.  “As UAE leaders aim to polish their international image as a state—modern, moderate, innovative, and rich, and assert their claim for Arab leadership as an anti-Iranian and Israel-friendly force—they might be thinking that having an NHRI helps to build that image.”

Countries such as the U.S. face domestic pressure to apply human rights standards to their relationships in the Middle East and North Africa. In reaction, many states in the region have attempted to address these concerns. Egypt, for example, developed a National Council for Human Rights and a National Human Rights Strategy in response to decreased military aid from Washington. Saudi Arabia has also instituted numerous changes across its society, from granting more rights to removing the religious police from the streets. The Kingdom even established an NHRI in 2004.

Considering such shifts, Abu Dhabi likely does not want to be left behind, regardless of the skepticism the state may have toward human rights issues. The UAE’s regional and international ambitions contribute to a pattern of behavior whereby Abu Dhabi often puts forward-looking foreign policy decisions ahead of regional trends. In this regard, when it established its NHRI, Abu Dhabi probably considered its current membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council, which it will serve on until 2024 after winning re-election in 2021, and its status as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Emirati leadership correctly views its direct engagement in such institutions as strategically critical, given the UNSC and HRC sit at the pinnacle of international institutional power. In this context, international engagements on issues such as Yemen, Iran, and maritime security will likely enhance UAE interests further.

The NHRI’s establishment in the UAE is an ongoing process. The UAE will begin addressing specific files soon, likely beginning with disability rights and possibly some labor issues. Political sensitivities will probably play a role in the topics the NHRI addresses, making its work difficult to predict. Only time will tell what type of final institution will emerge and what powers it will be given to implement its mandate.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Politics & Governance, Society & Culture
Country: UAE

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