Open Letter to the Selection Committee of World Expo 2020

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Bureau International des Expositions

34 Avenue d’lena




To the selection committee of the World Expo 2020,


Dubai have officially submitted their bid to hold the World Expo in 2020 under the banner ‘connecting minds, creating the future’. The bid is predicated on the belief that we live in an increasingly interconnected world and progress relies upon interaction and cooperation between individuals worldwide.


Sadly, although the UAE have made dramatic and impressive progress economically since independence in 1971, recent developments in freedoms of speech and association have been regressive.


The past year has seen the detention of sixty-three peaceful political reformists. Human rights lawyers, judges and student leaders have been detained for their advocating of greater democratic accountability in the UAE. The rule of law has not been applied to those detained, with some now entering their tenth month of detention. Those held have been denied regular family visitation, refused the right to have access to legal representation and are yet to have been charged or brought to trial. Of most concern are the allegations of torture and enforced disappearance against detainees, made by Human Rights Watch in September.


Many of those held are members of one of the UAE’s oldest civil society organizations, al-Islah. Islah was established in 1974, just three years after independence, and has been active in the educational and charitable sectors for nearly forty years.


Islah has supported calls for the Federal National Council to be wholly elected by universal suffrage and for it to possess full jurisdiction over the law making process. Other civil society organisations including the Jurists’ Association and Teachers’ Association have supported such calls. As a result, the authorities have dismissed boards, detained members and severely restricted the independent operating of civil society groups. These actions have not been limited to domestic groups, with the offices of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a German pro-democracy think-tank, and the National Democratic Institute having been forcibly closed in 2011.


The Bureau International des Expositions website states that participants of the expo include civil society organisations and citizens. Civil society organistions in the UAE are unable to operate freely and independently. Citizens experience some of the region’s severest restrictions on freedom of speech and association.


These restrictions have tightened after the announcement of a new Cybercrimes Law that came into being on August 27th, placing severe restrictions on the Internet and telecommunications.


The law states that fines of up to 1 million dirhams could be applied to those who advocate for a change in the system of governance and Emiratis are banned from providing information to independent journalists and human rights organisations.


In a country that already has some of the region’s severest restrictions on freedom of speech, this law is a clear attempt to close the Internet as the last avenue of free expression.


In addition, the law stipulates fines of up to 1 million dirhams and five years in prison for those who promote the ideas of an ‘unlawful group’. For those who arrange demonstrations without permission from the authorities there is a 500,000 dirham fine.


This is a clear attack on freedom of association and is part of a coordinated attempt by authorities to stifle any calls for alterations to the UAE’s autocratic governance system.


This law comes as families of the sixty-three detainees have begun to gather at the Supreme Court, demanding that their loved ones be put on trial or released.


Furthermore, the Expo 2020 Dubai website states that construction of the venue for the exhibition will take place on a 438 hectare site on the southwestern edge of Dubai. The proposed legacy of the expo will be a magnificent complex where people can come together, but the hands that will build it should be remembered too.


The UAE has a terrible record concerning the rights of migrant workers, many of who work in the construction industry. The Kafala sponsorship system has been likened to modern day slavery by human rights bodies. High recruitment fees paid by employees contribute to a system categorized by abuse: confiscation of passports, false contracts and dire working conditions are all commonplace. In consideration of the UAE’s bid, their record on migrant workers’ rights should be taken into careful consideration.


The UAE bid for Expo 2020 speaks of creativity and interconnectivity but seeks to stifle such ideas for its citizens. The Expo should be a celebration of human achievement and provide a forum to explore innovative solutions to the challenges we face in a localized world; the UAE’s approach to civil and political rights is oppressive and not indicative of these values.


The UAE should not be awarded the prestige of hosting World Expo 2020 whilst it continues to restrict freedoms of speech and association with oppressive law, brutal treatment of political dissent and widespread abuse of migrant workers.


Synonymous with creativity, innovation and freedom, the World Expo 2020 should embrace and further these values rather than validating a regime that continues to abuse them.


The European Parliament expressed deep concerns about the human rights record of the UAE in a resolution recently; we urge you to take these considerations seriously and impress upon those bidding from the UAE that selection to host the World Expo in 2020 is about upholding and furthering shared values.


Yours faithfully,

Emirates Centre for Human Rights