In a report titled "UAE: Tolerance Narrative a Sham"

HRW: Expo 2020 is yet another opportunity to help the UAE whitewash its image

1 Oct 2021
HRW: Expo 2020 is yet another opportunity to help the UAE whitewash its image

A new Human Rights Watch report criticized the UAE authorities' constant endeavor to promote a public image of openness that is at odds with the government’s efforts to prevent scrutiny of its rampant systemic human rights violations. Expo 2020 is a prominent global cultural event built on the free exchange of ideas.

“Dozens of UAE peaceful domestic critics have been arrested, railroaded in blatantly unfair trials, and condemned to many years in prison simply for trying to express their ideas on governance and human rights,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Expo 2020 is yet another opportunity for the UAE to falsely present itself on the world stage as open, tolerant, and rights-respecting while shutting down the space for politics, public discourse, and activism.”

The report, titled "UAE: Tolerance Narrative a Sham", stated that Domestic critics are routinely arrested and, since at least 2015, UAE authorities have ignored or denied requests for access to the country by United Nations experts, human rights researchers, and critical academics and journalists. The government’s pervasive domestic surveillance has led to extensive self-censorship by UAE residents and UAE-based institutions; and stonewalling, censorship, and possible surveillance of the news media by the government.

The report indicated that local news sites, many of which are owned or controlled by the state, exercise self-censorship in accordance with government regulations and unofficial red lines. Foreign journalists and academics say their organizations may exercise self-censorship for fear of denial of entry or deportation.

The report added that Expo 2020, which will be held from October 1, 2021 to March 31, is just, as with other expensive entertainment, cultural, sports, and educational events before it, is designed to promote a public relations image of the UAE as an open, progressive, and tolerant country while its abusive authorities forcefully bar all peaceful criticism and dissent, Human Rights Watch said. 

The report added that Expo 2020 is the latest in a long list of investments in ambitious cultural and educational projects that seek to further that goal, Human Rights watch said. Others include the acquisition of the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and New York University outposts, establishing Dubai as a luxury tourism destination, and hosting global cultural events such as the 2019 Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi and the upcoming World Expo in Dubai.  

The report criticized the leading international academic and cultural institutions first established a presence in the UAE with the promise to serve the public good by promoting “ideas, discourse, and critical thinking,” they have since remained silent in the face of increasing repression of basic rights. They operate in the UAE even at the expense of academic freedom and the right to free expression within their own spaces. 

The report added that The UAE has embarked on a decades-long effort to whitewash its reputation on the international stage. These efforts were made explicit in the government’s 2017 Soft Power Strategy, which includes cultivating “cultural and media diplomacy” as a central pillar and has a stated objective “to establish [the UAE’s] reputation as a modern and tolerant country that welcomes all people from across the world.”

Human Rights Watch called on Governments and businesses that they should have a human rights responsibility to avoid contributing to UAE authorities’ efforts to whitewash its abuses. As countries prepare to showcase their pavilions at the Dubai EXPO, they should help prevent the UAE’s whitewashing attempts by either advocating for the UAE to unconditionally release all those unjustly detained for exercising their right to free expression and to regularly open up the country, including its jails and its courts, to scrutiny by independent researchers and monitors, or not participate in the EXPO. Human Rights Watch said.

“With widespread arrests, intimidation, surveillance, and retaliation that citizens and residents face for speaking out, Expo participants and other countries should raise concerns about rights abuses in the UAE,” Page said. “Countries participating in the expo should ensure that they are not helping the UAE whitewash its image and obscure its abuses.” Human Rights Watch added.

The European Parliament had previously called on regional and international companies and institutions not to participate in Expo 2020 in Dubai due to the deteriorating human rights situation in the UAE, and even held Emirati officials accountable, especially after the inclusion of 4 human rights defenders on the terror list, angering Mary Lawlor, the Special Rapporteur. On the situation of human rights defenders at the United Nations.