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October 09, 2015

Reprisals Against Children of Human Rights Defenders in UAE

On October 8, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child released a report expressing “concern” about the United Arab Emirates’ treatment of human rights defenders and their families. It noted that the government has been persecuting the children of defenders, restricting their “rights to education, identity documents, to freedom of movement and to keep contact with their detained parents.”

The Convention on the Rights of the Child requires the UAE to protect children against discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of their parents. The UAE’s acts of intimidation violate children’s fundamental rights and inhibit the work of defenders.

Dozens of political prisoners in the UAE are serving long prison sentences after being convicted in a mass unfair trial in 2013. As Human Rights First noted in our blueprint on the UAE, the relatives of political prisoners live in fear of reprisals. Some have been targeted with arbitrary travel bans, while others have been disappeared. The U.S. government should speak out against these abuses.

It is crucial for the United States to support the families of human rights defenders not only when defenders are detained, but also when children and spouses are targeted in retaliation. As we observed in our blueprint, defenders and their families feel abandoned by the U.S. government because of the Obama Administration’s lack of criticism of the UAE.

The U.S. government’s ongoing political and military support for the UAE looks like an endorsement of its repression, unless accompanied by strong diplomatic measures addressing human rights. For example, as part of the White House’s initiative on countering violent extremism, the U.S. government partnered with the Emirates to set up a social media center to counter extremists’ propaganda—in a country where nearly all peaceful dissent is silenced, both online and offline.

The State Department should adhere to the objectives in its policy on supporting human rights defenders, including its goal of enabling them to work free from fear of retribution against their families.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child also expressed concern “about the reported continuous harassment of human rights defenders in the State party, which greatly undermines the emergence of a vibrant civil society as well as the protection and promotion of children’s rights.” The lack of a robust civil society in the UAE means that children’s rights issues are neglected and violations go unaddressed.

Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent human rights defender in the UAE, recently received the 2015 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. But he is under a travel ban and was unable to accept the award. The United States could show support for Mansoor’s courageous work on freedom of expression and civil and political rights by publicly congratulating him and calling on the UAE to lift his travel ban.

The United States, by taking public and private steps to urge the UAE to allow human rights defenders to do their work, could foster an environment that permits more research, documentation, and advocacy on children’s rights. The UAE will ultimately be a stronger U.S. ally if its citizens are allowed to engage in peaceful dissent and political dialogue.