by Eldar Mamedov
On October 4, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the harassment, persecution, and detention of prominent human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in May 2018 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The official statement of the UAE’s Ministry of foreign affairs explained that Mansoor was detained on a charge of “spreading false and misleading information over the Internet, through agendas aimed at disseminating antipathy and sectarianism.” MEPs concluded that such statements indicated that
the sole reason for his detention, trial, and conviction was the content of his expression online, and the charges against him are based on alleged violations of the UAE’s repressive 2012 Cybercrime Law, which has allowed UAE authorities to silence human rights defenders and provided for long prison sentences and severe financial penalties for individuals who criticize the country’s rulers.
Although the resolution focused on the case of Mansoor, it also addressed the broader context of the intensifying crackdown on any form of peaceful dissent in the UAE, particularly since 2011, as the UAE has sought to lead, together with its close ally Saudi Arabia, the counter-revolutionary reaction to the Arab Spring.
Given the use of technologically highly advanced tools in this repression, MEPs demanded an “EU-wide ban on the export, sale, update and maintenance of any form of security equipment to the UAE which can be or is used for internal repression, including internet surveillance technology.” The resolution also called on the high representative for foreign policy and the member states to demand publicly Mansoor’s release and to adopt EU-targeted sanctions against individuals related to serious human rights violations in UAE.
That same week, MEPs focused not only on the abuses perpetrated by the Emirati authorities inside the country but also outside its borders. In a resolution on Yemen adopted on the same day, they called for the first time for the introduction of an EU-wide arms embargo against the UAE for the role it plays in Yemen. Previously such calls were issued only with respect to Saudi Arabia.
The politics of these resolutions reflect the divide in the European Parliament when it comes to dealing with the authoritarian Persian Gulf regimes. As previously with condemnations of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain for their human rights violations, the resolution on the UAE is a product of the efforts of the progressive coalition of social democrats, liberals, Greens, and the far left.
The European People’s Party (EPP), the main center-right group, and, to its right, the British and Polish-led European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), participated in the cross-party negotiations but refused to endorse the resulting text for being too critical of the UAE. They tabled their own motions instead, with rather muted criticisms of the human rights abuses. The EPP, for example, failed even to condemn the arrest of Mansoor, merely saying it “pays attention” to his case. Instead, it praised the UAE as “an important and appreciated partner.” The ECR welcomed the UAE’s “commitment to advancing values of moderation and constructive role in defying extremism,” stressed that it is a key ally of the European Union in the “Arabian Gulf,” and that the stability of that “Arabian Gulf” is of strategic interest to NATO.
So, there were three motions tabled for the vote: the joint progressive one, the one authored by the EPP, and one by the ECR. In the days before the vote, the Emirati lobby intensified its efforts to derail the passage of the joint resolution. Once the lobby secured support of the right wing, it identified the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats of Europe (ALDE) as potentially the weak flank of the progressive coalition and sought to chip away a sufficient number of its members to sink the resolution.
Such efforts, however, produced meager results, with only one liberal MEP revoking her initial support for the resolution. To counter these efforts, pro-human rights NGOs such as Front Line Defenders intensified their own campaign, targeting the fence-sitting MEPs. In the end, the resolution was adopted with 322 votes to 220 against and 56 abstentions.
The results of the roll-call vote showed that the progressive bloc voted in a consolidated fashion, with few exceptions. It was helped by some defections from those political groups that voted against the resolution, such as Italians from the populist Five Star Movement, Flemish nationalists, and assorted moderates from EPP, notably from Sweden, Netherlands, Belgium, and Portugal. The chamber´s right wing, including the extreme right of the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group, which comprises the likes of the French National Front and Italy’s Lega, overwhelmingly voted to reject the resolution.
That the European Parliament has been able to adopt a critical resolution with a clear majority, despite its internal divisions and relentless Emirati lobbying, sends an important political message both to Abu-Dhabi and to the EU’s member states that the human rights situation in the UAE is under close scrutiny. This is relevant not only with respect to the residents of these countries, but also the EU’s own citizens. The Emirati authorities put on trial a British PhD student Matthew Hedges after ludicrously accusing him of spying and holding him in degrading conditions in solitary confinement for five months. Hugging the repressive Gulf regimes too closely, as is the preferred policy of both the United States and the EU, does not moderate their behavior. To the contrary, lack of accountability encourages further reckless behavior. It’s time for the EU governments to heed the strong message of the European Parliament.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.