Human rights groups send COP28 demands to UAE, governments

'Cop28 UAE' logo is displayed on the screen during the opening ceremony of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW) under the theme of 'United on Climate Action Toward COP28', in Abu Dhabi

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) -More than 200 civil society groups have written to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), host of this year's COP28 U.N. climate summit, and all participating governments with a series of demands concerning the Gulf nation's human rights record.

The UAE, a Gulf trading and tourism hub, big oil producer and a U.S. ally, does not allow political parties and shows little tolerance towards dissent. State and local media are tightly controlled and freedom of speech is restricted.

The UAE rejected the groups' allegations and issued a statement saying that the Gulf Arab state welcomed constructive dialogue and that all COP28 visitors will be permitted to "assemble peacefully to have their voices heard in designated areas".

"The UAE is one of the most tolerant and diverse nations and the right to freedom from discrimination is protected by the UAE's constitution," the statement said.

Regional and global groups such as Amnesty International made seven demands in their letter, including calls to repeal laws that they said criminalise LGBTQ individuals and to free "prisoners of conscience" including those being held past their sentences. They also want pay reparations for migrant workers who helped to build the COP facilities and made a plea not to spy on summit delegates.

The COP28 conference hosts did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The climate summit organised by the U.N. meets annually and its host countries rotate among member states. It is set to take place between Nov. 30 and Dec. 12 in Dubai and will be headed by Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber - a controversial pick since his country is an OPEC member and a major oil exporter.

While the UAE has pledged to allow peaceful protests, some NGOs say they will not attend the summit for fear of restrictions on their freedoms or even arrest while others are calling for a boycott.

"How can you have global climate negotiations in a country where peaceful critics and activists are behind bars?" said Sunjeev Bery, executive director for climate and human rights campaign organisation Freedom Forward, who coordinated the letter and is one of 218 signatories.

"Fossil fuel lobbyists and oil executives will be free to roam the halls, while climate and human rights activists will be busy worrying that their phones are hacked by the UAE's spies while wondering if they will be thrown behind bars if they speak too loudly."

He told Reuters his organisation would not attend, citing fear of arrest.

The UAE has previously said allegations of arbitrary detentions were false and unsubstantiated.

Recent global summits in the Middle East, such as the 2022 U.N. climate summit in Egypt and the men's soccer World Cup in Qatar, have also put host nations' rights records on issues such as labour and detainees under the microscope and have been used by activists as a way of pressuring countries to improve.

The New York Times reported that COP28 had raised concerns among officials about the UAE's image, citing a leaked recording of a meeting.

(Reporting by Emma FargeAdditional reporting by Maha El DahanEditing by Mark Potter and David Goodman)