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Pressure is mounting on the UK government to obtain assurances from the United Arab Emirates that Britons who stage protests in Dubai around the COP28 UN climate summit this autumn will not face arrest.
British human-rights barristers wrote to foreign secretary James Cleverly this week demanding he seek an undertaking from the Emirati authorities affirming the rights and safety of UK citizens travelling to the UAE to engage in peaceful demonstrations.
Campaigners have warned the Gulf state’s restrictions on freedom of expression could curb the ability of activists to stage meaningful protests at the summit and leave them at risk of detention.
The UAE pledged in a joint statement with the UN this month that it would make “space available for climate activists to assemble peacefully and make their voices heard”.
But human rights groups reacted with scepticism. Amnesty International said it remained “to be seen whether the UAE’s promise is anything other than a hollow commitment”, adding that it was “unclear” exactly what the authorities would allow.
The last COP summit, which took place in Egypt, was preceded by a security forces crackdown on activists and in the aftermath campaigners complained that the space set aside for protest had been inadequate.
Ben Keith and Rhys Davies, UK barristers acting for a human-rights activist who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, said in their letter to Cleverly: “The accommodations apparently offered by the Emirati regime are profoundly flimsy and represent no sensible guarantee to either the right to protest in general or the safety of any protesters who may choose to do so.”
The letter added: “Dissidents are routinely arrested, and protests against the [UAE] government are crushed.” It said that speakers at a climate and health conference held in the Gulf state in April, were told not to protest or “criticise corporations” in a warning that cited the UAE’s laws.
The choice of the oil-rich Gulf state as the host of the next UN climate change summit has been controversial. There was a backlash earlier this year from green groups and many climate experts after Sultan al-Jaber, the head of Abu Dhabi’s state-owned oil company, was appointed president of COP28.
The UAE state oil company last month brought forward its net zero carbon emissions target by five years to 2045 but intends to increase oil production capacity in coming years.
In the letter, Keith and Davies asked Cleverly to clarify what steps, if any, the government was taking ahead of COP28 to ensure the rights of UK citizens will be respected if they engage in peaceful protest at the summit.
The pair also asked what specific advice the Foreign Office had for British nationals planning to travel to the UAE for the summit.
In response to a request for comment from the Financial Times, the Foreign Office pointed to its published travel advice for visiting the UAE, which does not mention COP28.
The Foreign Office has come in for strong criticism recently over its handling of the case of Matthew Hedges, a British academic arrested in the UAE in 2018 on suspicion of being a spy and allegedly tortured while in prison.
Earlier this month, the Foreign Office was ordered to apologise and pay compensation to Hedges, who was pardoned days after being given a life sentence as his case threatened to derail the close ties between Britain and the UAE, which has repeatedly denied any mistreatment of Hedges.
The UAE foreign ministry and COP organisers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Additional reporting by Simeon Kerr