COP28, the 28th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, will bring together state parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as well as thousands of experts, journalists, climate activists, community members, and representatives from businesses and nongovernmental groups. It is a forum for states to discuss how to confront the climate crisis that is taking a growing toll on human rights around the globe. Despite growing urgency, the meetings have largely failed to result in the necessary cuts in greenhouse gas emissions or to adequately support a transition to renewable energy, protecting those hardest hit by floods, drought, hurricanes, and other climate-related disasters. COP28 will be hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from November 30 to December 12, 2023, a source of concern both because of the UAE’s climate-related policies and its human rights record. Why is the climate crisis also a human rights crisis? The right to live in a healthy environment is a human right that has been recognized around the world.
The climate crisis also affects many human rights, including the right to life and the rights to housing, food, and water. From burning forests, to sweltering cities, to parched farmlands, to storm-battered coasts, the climate crisis is taking a mounting toll on lives and livelihoods around the globe. Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere, caused primarily by burning fossil fuels, trap heat with profound consequences. Harm is already being felt, and the speed and scale will increase exponentially and erratically for the foreseeable future. About 3.5 billion people already live in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently warned. By 2050, more than a billion people living on small islands and in low-lying coastal communities and settlements are projected to be at risk from sea level rise and extreme weather. Climate change aggravates existing social and economic inequalities. Both acute disasters and longer-term changes like multi-year droughts are far worse for low-income and marginalized communities that governments have already failed to protect. Individuals with intersecting marginalized identities and vulnerabilities can have an even greater chance of dying, increasing poverty, or losing important resources because of climate change. Those affected include people with low incomes, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, older people, people with disabilities, LGBT people, women and pregnant people, children, and migrant workers.
These groups are also most at risk of being left behind when disasters occur. Governments should budget to protect people’s human rights from climate harm. Yet, the capacity of low- and middle-income governments to fulfill the rights of the most at-risk populations could become severely strained and, in many places, broken. Governments’ ability to confront the climate crisis will most likely depend, in large measure, on what governments are doing today to uphold the rights of those already experiencing the impact of climate change and to address the underlining industries and economic policies that cause it.
The climate crisis necessitates supporting non-fossil fuel-based economies and political systems that center ending economic marginalization, racism, ableism, ageism, misogyny, and other forms of discrimination. What is at stake for human rights at COP28? In March 2023, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading authority on climate science, confirmed that the world is warming at record levels and warned that governments are failing to take sufficient action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The panel urged governments to cut emissions by phasing out fossil fuels, halting deforestation, and scaling up renewable energy. To fulfill their human rights obligation to address climate change, at this year’s COP, governments need to ensure a just and equitable transition to renewable energy and help people adapt to the impact of the climate crisis.
They can do that by calling for the equitable and rights-respecting phasing out of all fossil fuels in the COP28 conclusions. Governments at COP28 should make a commitment not to authorize new fossil fuel projects. In addition, they should end all forms of support, including subsidies and international finance, for oil, gas, and coal developments to rapidly reduce emissions and to limit the impacts of climate change. Governments should also commit to upholding the rights of communities directly affected by fossil fuel operations, including the people working and living in and around sites of fossil fuel exploration, production, storage, transport, refining, use, and disposal. Governments should ensure their participation and representation in decision-making on fossil fuel operations and climate change. It is particularly important to ensure participation of groups historically excluded, such as people with disabilities. Two years ago at COP26 in Glasgow, governments made a commitment to phase down the use of coal. But last year, at COP27 in Egypt, a group of 81 countries made an ultimately unsuccessful push to include the phase out of all fossil fuels in the final text of the outcome document.
The push was stymied by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, the Guardian reported. Why is a fossil fuel phase out necessary to realize human rights? There is growing consensus, including from the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel that for governments to meet global climate targets there cannot be new oil, gas, or coal projects. Burning of fossil fuels is the primary driver of the climate crisis, accounting for over 80 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, existing fossil fuel projects are already more than the climate can withstand to limit global warming to an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius required to prevent a global climate collapse. Nevertheless, governments continue to authorize – and subsidize – building fossil fuel infrastructure and poorly regulate existing operations.
The fossil fuel industry deflects public and political pressure on its core operations, most recently by claiming that its operations can become “net zero.” How well does the current practice of regulating carbon markets work to reduce climate change and protect the rights of marginalized groups, and what should happen at COP28 to address this issue? COP28 should ensure the global carbon market contemplated under Article 6.4 of the Paris Agreement is strictly regulated to uphold rights, support climate action, and provide a remedy for harm.
These are vital issues given that state parties to the agreement, corporations, and other private entities are rapidly developing their presence in the market, even while safeguards in most countries range from inadequate to nonexistent. Carbon markets trade in carbon credits, which are supposed to represent carbon dioxide that has been removed from, or prevented from being emitted into, the atmosphere by projects ranging from forest conservation to clean energy, among others. Many corporations and governments purchase carbon credits to claim they offset their own pollution. Yet, many carbon credits traded in those markets do not actually represent permanently removed carbon or avoided emissions.
These hot air credits undermine climate action when they are used to offset pollution, as no overall emissions reductions actually take place. Further, some carbon offsetting projects have violated the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities by displacing them from their lands and criminalizing their livelihoods. In 2022, states parties to the Paris Agreement directed a group of experts, the Article 6.4 Supervisory Body, to propose rules for the carbon market foreseen in this new mechanism. In 2022 Human Rights Watch urged the Supervisory Body to adopt standard baseline requirements for consultation that align with international standards and best practice on Indigenous peoples’ right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent, and access to information and participation. Human Rights Watch has also echoed the recommendations of civil society organizations to create a substantial grievance and appeals procedure that is operational before the Supervisory Body can approve any project. Parties will vote on the rules proposed by the Supervisory Body during COP28. Ahead of and during COP28, the Supervisory Body should propose rigorous rules to ensure that the carbon market established under the Paris Agreement is strictly regulated to uphold rights, support climate action, and provide a remedy for any harm. How is the UAE using COP28 to launder its reputation on human rights and greenwash its expansion of fossil fuel production? It increasingly appears that the UAE, one of the world’s largest oil producers and a petro-autocracy that uses its fossil fuel wealth in part to fund its repression of fundamental rights and freedoms, is seeking to use the conference as a means of burnishing its image while continuing to push the expansion of fossil fuels, undermining efforts to confront the climate crisis, and protect human rights.
The UAE is, one of the highest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases fueling the climate crisis, and funds from its vast fossil fuel industry provide most of the UAE’s government revenue. Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) is the government’s foremost fossil fuel company, and recently announced it was expanding all aspects of its operations – despite a growing consensus that there cannot be new oil, gas, or coal development if governments are to meet global climate targets and protect human rights. While the UAE submitted a newly strengthened nationally determined contribution to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2023, Climate Action Tracker, an organization providing independent scientific analysis, found that there has been “little action in the real economy” and gave the country a rating of “insufficient,” particularly as the UAE still plans to increase fossil fuel production, and that these planned fossil fuel developments would also make its target unachievable.
These policies are inconsistent with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. On January 12 the UAE appointed Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber as president of COP28. He is the CEO of ADNOC, the world's 11th largest oil and gas producer, and responsible for a significant amount of global emissions in recent decades, and he also founded the state-owned renewable energy company Masdar in 2006. Jaber will maintain his role at ADNOC while serving as the UAE’s special envoy for climate change and leading the conference. After the UAE obtained the COP28 presidency it quickly hired several expensive United States public relations firms, apparently to promote its role as host. Similar to other large oil and gas producers, Emirati fossil fuel companies contribute to adverse climate change related human rights impacts through its production. ADNOC recently announced it was expanding all aspects of its operations and increased its production capacity from 4 million to 5 million barrels a day – despite the growing scientific consensus that new oil, gas, or coal development will need to be prohibited if governments are to meet global climate targets and protect human rights. Only 10 percent of ADNOC's expansion aligns with the International Energy Agency’s scenario for the world to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The New York Times reported in September on a leaked recording from a meeting between the COP28 communications team and a human rights official from the Emirati presidential court which revealed that UAE authorities do not want to meet and engage with human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. What are the human rights concerns about the UAE hosting COP28? Rights groups fear that the UAE’s criminalization of freedom of assembly, closure of civic space, and repression of critics will prevent meaningful participation of activists and human rights defenders in climate negotiations. Those in the UAE who speak out or research fossil expansion, or health and climate harms from fossil fuels, risk exposure to unlawful surveillance, arrest, detention, and ill-treatment. Over the last decade, authorities in the UAE have embarked on a sustained assault on human rights and freedoms, including targeting human rights activists, enacting repressive laws, and using the criminal justice system as a tool to eliminate the human rights movement.
These policies have led to the complete closure of civic space, severe restrictions on freedom of expression, both online and offline, and the criminalization of peaceful dissent. UAE authorities have a zero-tolerance policy toward dissent.
The UAE deploys advanced surveillance technologies to monitor public spaces, internet activity, and individuals’ phones and computers. For more than 10 years, UAE authorities unjustly detained at least 60 Emirati human rights defenders, civil society activists, and political dissidents who were arrested in 2012 because of their demands for reform and democracy, or their affiliation with the Reform and Social Guidance Association (al-Islah). Some of these unlawfully detained Emiratis, commonly known as the “UAE94” because of the number of defendants in their mass trial, were subjected to enforced disappearance, torture, and other ill-treatment.
They were sentenced to between 7 and 15 years in prison during a trial in 2013 that failed to meet minimum fair trial standards. Emirati authorities are continuing to incarcerate at least 51 prisoners held as part of the UAE94 case who have completed their sentences, some as long ago and 2019.
The UAE has also engaged in repression beyond its borders, including the extradition and arrest of an Emirati dissident from Jordan, the designation of four prominent exiled Emirati dissidents as “terrorism” supporters, and the international abductions and forcible return to the UAE by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE prime minister and Dubai ruler, of his two adult daughters, Shamsa and Latifa.
The UAE’s cybercrimes law, Federal Law no. 34 of 2021 on Combatting Rumors and Cybercrime, is used to silence dissidents, journalists, activists, and anyone the authorities perceived to be critical of the government, its policies, or its representatives.
The law contains abusive, vaguely worded, and disturbing provisions, restricts the UAE’s already severely limited and heavily monitored online space, and poses a serious threat to the liberty of peaceful dissidents, making it even harder for ordinary citizens, residents, and visitors to recognize what kinds of online activities could lead to arrest and prosecution.
The UAE’s criminalization of non-marital sex, sodomy, abortion overly broad “morality” offenses and its continuation of a male guardian system disproportionately affects women and LGBT people.
The authorities also still make it difficult for unmarried people to access certain forms of sexual and reproductive health care such as antenatal care and sexual health tests. This affects pregnant people as well as sexual violence survivors who need access to emergency contraception, checks for sexually transmitted infections, and post-exposure prophylaxis (or PEP) for HIV.
The UAE relies heavily on migrant workers, who form over 88 percent of the country’s population. Workers in the UAE are subject to a sponsorship (or “kafala”) system that ties their visas to their employers and places them in a position of high vulnerability that employers can, and often do, take undue advantage of. Recruitment and employment malpractices, such as wage theft and illegal recruitment fees, are rampant, including among workers engaged in the construction and service sectors at Expo City Dubai where COP28 will be held. Migrant workers at risk of these widespread labor abuses also will serve during COP28 as event staff, hospitality workers, facilities management, security guards and drivers, among other functions. UAE is also advancing climate injustice by failing to protect workers from extreme heat exposure, which is a health hazard. Outdoor workers, including in construction, are disproportionately exposed to these dangers. Like the rest of the Gulf countries, the UAE imposes summer midday work bans that prohibit employer from continuing outdoor work during pre-defined times and months, despite strong evidence that they do not adequately protect workers from heat. Heat harm does not occur in isolation and other common abuses including crowded living conditions, absence of shaded rest areas and air-conditioned transportation services during commutes also affect workers’ ability to rest, rehydrate, and recover. Multiple studies focusing on heat exposure risks in Gulf states found a strong correlation between heat stress and deaths due to cardiovascular problems and indicated that extremely hot days are associated with higher mortality risk, with migrant workers disproportionately exposed. UAE’s ban on trade unions and restricted freedom of speech further prevent migrant workers from collectively demanding better heat protections and other safeguards. Who is Ahmed Mansoor? Ahmed Mansoor is arguably the UAE’s most well-known human rights defender. He received the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2015 and is a member of the Human Rights Watch Advisory Committee for the Middle East and North Africa division. Before his detention, Mansoor was the last Emirati human rights defender still working openly in the UAE.
The UAE should immediately and unconditionally release Mansoor; all participating COP28 governments and UN bodies should repeatedly and publicly call for Mansoor’s release. Security forces raided his home and arrested him on March 20, 2017. Since then, UAE authorities have held Mansoor in a tiny cell in solitary confinement and deprived him of reading materials, a bed, a mattress, and other basic necessities. He is also deprived of any meaningful contact with other prisoners or the outside world, including regular visits or calls with his wife and four sons, in clear violation of prisoners’ rights under international standards, which the UAE falsely claims to uphold. In May 2018, the Abu Dhabi Court of Appeals’ State Security Chamber sentenced Mansoor to 10 years in prison on charges entirely related to his human rights activities. On December 31, 2018, the court of last resort, the Federal Supreme Court, upheld his unjust sentence, quashing his final chance at early release. Both trials were held completely in secret, and the government has refused requests to make public the charge sheet and court rulings. Mansoor’s tweets about injustices, participation in international human rights conferences online, and his email exchanges and WhatsApp conversations with international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, were all included as evidence of criminal activity to support his spurious charges. In August 2016, Mansoor was targeted with NSO Group’s notorious Pegasus spyware, according to the Toronto-based Citizen Lab. In 2011, Mansoor was targeted with FinFisher’s FinSpy spyware, and in 2012 he was targeted with Hacking Team’s Remote Control System spyware. Once Pegasus is on a device, the client can turn it into a powerful surveillance tool by gaining complete access to its camera, calls, media, microphone, email, text messages, and other functions, enabling surveillance of the person targeted and their contacts. What type of restrictions could be imposed in the UAE during COP28? The UAE’s assault on the right to free expression extends not only to Emirati citizens, but also non-Emiratis in the UAE. Emirati security forces detained a British academic, Mathew Hedges, in 2018 following a research trip for fieldwork for his doctoral thesis. He was arbitrarily held for months in solitary confinement before he was released under pressure by the UK government. Hedges’ case illustrates the potential threats posed by the UAE government to people attending COP28.
The UAE continues to expand its surveillance capabilities, online and offline.
The authorities deploy advanced surveillance technology to monitor public spaces using CCTV cameras and artificial intelligence. Many websites, blogs, chat rooms, and social media platforms are monitored to censor content the government perceives to be critical of Emirati rulers, government, policies, and other topics authorities deem sensitive. Have there been previous climate summits when participation of civil society was restricted? Representatives of civil society and Indigenous peoples have long fought for their right to participate in climate negotiations. For example, at COP25 in Katowice, the Polish government prevented some climate activists from entering the country and searched some of them in their hotel rooms. At COP26 in Glasgow, observers struggled to access negotiating rooms, online and in person. During COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, the Egyptian government imposed arbitrary registration restrictions on rights groups and activists, ramped up surveillance and detentions, harassed climate activists and denied entry (and subsequently deported) at least one activist. Why is meaningful participation of civil society and Indigenous peoples essential to a successful COP28? Rights-respecting climate action requires the full and meaningful participation of journalists, activists, human rights defenders, civil society, youth groups, and Indigenous peoples’ representatives. This includes those on the front lines of the climate crisis and populations most at risk from the impacts of climate change. What should the Emirati government do to enable full and meaningful participation in COP28? The Emirati government should ease its grip on civic space and respect its human rights obligations by upholding the rights to free expression, association, and protest.
The UAE authorities should immediately and unconditionally release all those arbitrarily detained for the exercise of their right to free expression, including Ahmed Mansoor and those wrongfully detained in the UAE94 case.
The Emirati government should amend the Cybercrime Law to align with its obligations on the right to free expression under international law.
The UAE should also decriminalize consensual non-marital sex, gender nonconforming expression, and other vaguely defined acts targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.
The criminalization of nonmartial sex and vaguely defined acts pose a serious risk to the safety and security of women and LGBT people attending COP28.
The UAE should ensure that laws and policies facilitate women’s access to sexual reproductive health care regardless of whether they are married, including access to emergency contraception, checks for sexually transmitted infections, and post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, important for survivors of sexual violence. What should the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) member states do to press the UAE on ending human rights abuses? The UNFCCC member states should emphasize the importance of a thriving and independent civil society to demand ambitious climate action and press the UAE government, publicly and privately, to respect its human rights obligations and immediately and unconditionally release arbitrarily detained activists and human rights defenders. What is the responsibility of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat to uphold human rights at COP28? The UNFCCC signed a host agreement for the 28th session of the Conference of the Parties on Climate Change with the UAE government on August 1, 2023. It has not made that agreement public.
The UNFCCC Secretariat should make the host agreement public and ensure that it “reflects the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter as well as respective obligations under international human rights law,” as mandated by parties to the UNFCCC in a decision from June 2023. Parties to the UNFCCC also encouraged the secretariat to continue upholding “human rights law and guarantee the integrity, dignity and safety of all observers at UNFCCC conferences.” The Secretariat should therefore press the UAE government to respect its human rights obligations to signal their intention to facilitate robust and rights-respecting climate negotiations before, during, and after COP28.
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