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Emirates TravelUAE guide / Human rights in UAE

Human rights in the UAE

Concerns of human rights activists about possible abuses in the United Arab Emirates generally focus on the rights of workers
Concerns of human rights activists about possible abuses in the United Arab Emirates generally focus on the rights of workers, particularly migrant workers; human trafficking and prostitution in Dubai; use of underage camel jockeys; and treatment of those in police or government custody.

In the UAE, citizens do not have rights to change their government in any democratic manner. The UAE government restricts free assembly and freedom of association. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are also restricted by the government, and the press regularly practices self censorship.

Negative comments about the government, Islam, the ruling tribal leaders of the UAE, or even UAE citizens by expatriates are theoretically punishable by imprisonment. These regulations, however, are rarely enforced.

The UAE government has cracked down on printed material considered violent, pornographic, derogatory of Islam, or contrary to the government’s policies. The Dubai government in 2007 stopped the broadcast of two Pakistani news channels that were uplinked from Dubai Media City. Though these restrictions were removed, the coverage practiced by the Pakistani news channels has reportedly been perceptibly different in the time since restrictions were supposedly lifted.

The constitution of the UAE prohibits torture, and indeed there have been no reports of government officials using torture. However, a parallel system of Shari’a courts based on Islamic law for criminal trials does sometimes sentence those found guilty of prostitution, adultery, or drug abuse to flogging, even if they are not Muslims. Flogging is, however, illegal in Dubai.

Problems with prisons in the UAE are mostly concerned with overcrowding, and police in Dubai allow non-governmental organizations to observe conditions in prisons if they ask to do so. Though the UAE constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and arbitrary detention, incommunicado detention is permitted in cases where officials believe that communication between the alleged perpetrator and third parties could impede their investigation. Incommunicado detention is very rare in the UAE, according to U.S. State Department reports.

Noncitizens of the UAE make up 75% of prisoners, 80% of the UAE population, and 98% of the UAE’s private sector workforce. There are no labor unions in the UAE, and the U.S. State Department has reported on poor working conditions for some foreign laborers, failure to pay workers’ wages, and cases of foreign household servants being abused.

Migrant workers do not have the rights associated with UAE citizenship, and are regularly restricted in their rights as workers. For example, it is common in the UAE for employers to hold the passports of their employees for as long as the employment contract lasts. While this is illegal, the laws are rarely enforced. In general, labor laws in the UAE favor the employer and restrict employees’ rights in order to keep up the UAE’s rapid economic development that has taken place in the early and mid 2000s.

The Ministry of Labor Development in the UAE has been the subject of criticism for failing to enforce laws against late or missing overtime payments to blue collar and white collar workers. Also, job discrimination based on ethnic origin is not illegal or discouraged. Advertisements for job openings regularly include requirements for “Arabs only,” or “US/UK educated” for applicants.

The UAE has, however taken steps to make the lives of migrant workers from foreign countries better by providing automatic monthly electronic payments, improving safety standards for housing, and creating a standard contract to be used by household workers regulating working conditions, salary, and medical care, among other conditions.

Human trafficking and prostitution thrive in the large urban areas of the UAE, particularly in Dubai, which is the UAE’s primary tourist magnet. Though prostitution is illegal, it is practiced fairly openly in heavily tourist-traveled areas. Women from Russia, Ethiopia, and Eastern Europe make up the largest numbers of prostitute. The UAE government however tries to keep a lid on prostitution, and in 2007 deported over 4,000 sex workers.

A concerted effort to revoke business licenses of firms that participate in trafficking in prostitution and other illegal activities has resulted in increased prosecution of cases of prostitution. In 2007 the UAE government endowed the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN GIFT) with $15 million for fighting the practice.

While the practice of using very young boys from Bangladesh, southern Asia, and Sudan as camel jockeys has been largely wiped out, occasional allegations of this practice sometimes surface. This topic was the subject of an HBO documentary in 2004, which alleged that the children were subjected to unreasonably unsafe work conditions, and also physical and sexual abuse. In 2005 the UAE begin actively enforcing a ban on camel jockeys under 15 years of age and under 45 kg in weight. Owners of camel racing stables were made responsible for returning underage camel jockeys to their countries of origin.

While the UAE has been accused of violating human rights, particularly those of foreign workers, the country has made attempts to improve their record on human rights. With Dubai and Abu Dhabi recognized worldwide as popular travel destinations, the UAE can’t afford to have allegations of human rights abuses affect the huge tourism industry there.

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