Arab Spring inspires Dubai crackdown on International Bar Association meeting

by Lisa Anderson | | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 4 November 2011 10:21 GMT

UAE security branch cracks down on IBA Dubai meeting content citing threat to stability of region

(CLARIFICATION: Representatives of the International Bar Assn. clarified that the authorities that intervened in the conference plans were from the umbrella UAE security branch, which operates in the emirates)


By Lisa Anderson

NEW YORK (TrustLaw) - A session on legal issues involving women and Islam emerged as a flashpoint and the major casualty in an unexpected crackdown by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) security branch on a prestigious and long-planned global gathering of more than 5,000 lawyers and other delegates in Dubai this week.

Accused by security forces of hosting discussions which might threaten the political stability of the Gulf region, the International Bar Association (IBA) annual meeting, which wraps up a six-day run in the Emirate on Friday, turned out to be a conference that nearly didn’t happen, according to Mark Ellis, Executive Director of the London-based IBA.

Ellis told TrustLaw in a telephone interview from Dubai that he was shocked to learn five weeks ago that UAE security forces abruptly cancelled the entire conference. The only prior even remotely similar problem IBA had encountered, he said, was at its 2007 annual meeting in Singapore, where the government was concerned about discussions on the rule of law. But that situation was far less intrusive and swiftly resolved, he said.

“This particular incident was much more severe and much more surprising because up until five weeks ago the preparations for the conference were going as smoothly as they could. There have never been, in any of our dealings here, any indications that officials would question the content of or any aspect of the conference,” said Ellis, adding that the lawyers and ministers he long had been dealing with in Dubai were as surprised as he was at the development.

At first, Ellis said, he thought Dubai’s security concerns involved the physical safety of the conference participants, who set an IBA record for attendance this week. Since it was the first time the IBA had held an annual meeting in Dubai and the timing coincided with the Arab Spring, he said he was primarily concerned that IBA members from Israel would be welcomed in Dubai without incident. One of the historic elements of the conference, he said, was that the Israeli members had no problem attending, moving and speaking freely and received “red carpet treatment”.

Ellis said it quickly became clear that UAE security forces weren’t concerned about possible danger posed to the conference participants but about the possible danger the conference participants posed to the stability of the UAE and its fellow members in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which also includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. The UAE is a federation of seven emirates: Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain, Ra's al-Khaimah, Fujairah and Abu Dhabi, its capital.

“Obviously, that’s absurd in its entirety,” said Ellis of the security forces' concern. He attributed the “heightened paranoia” to the pressures of the Arab Spring

Ellis, who said he dealt with the UAE security branch only through intermediaries, discovered that out of the nearly 200 conference sessions scheduled, the security forces focused on only seven session titles that it considered dangerous and “a possible catalyst for individuals to act against the government.”These concerned “things like the death penalty, migrant workers, extraterritorial jurisdiction of human rights, corruption” and women and Islam.

Faced with a fast-approaching deadline to either accept the conference cancellation or try to negotiate a solution, Ellis and colleagues at IBA drew up a list of five “red lines” the organisation would not cross and submitted them to the security forces through the intermediaries. The list included: an assurance that the sessions deemed offensive by the security branch would not change; no session would be cancelled; no speaker would be barred; no restrictions would be placed on discussion of UAE or GCC countries and wording of session titles would be handled solely by the IBA.

In addition, Ellis worked on and submitted new, more “international” titles for the sessions cited as inflammatory by the security branch, a process that he said that at times bordered on the “absurd.” For instance, death penalty was deemed “bad”, but capital punishment was fine; extraterritorial jurisdiction regarding human rights was bad, but international jurisdiction wasn’t a problem. In each case, he said, he consulted the chair of the group sponsoring the session and offered them a chance to cancel the session if they objected.

He said he changed the Monday session “Women and Islam - challenges and opportunities” to “Women and the law - challenges and opportunities.” The security forces had objected to what they perceived as a religious aspersion implicit in the title. The Women’s Lawyers Interest Group, which presented the session, deemed the new title too bland to attract a proper audience, Ellis said, and decided to cancel the session. Ellis said he took the blame for this and should have tried the title “Women and Shariah Law,” which the security forces may have accepted. Attempts to reach members of the group were unsuccessful.

The only other session keyed to women’s issues, “Women’s inequality and the rule of law” is scheduled to take place on Friday during the Rule of Law Symposium. Some have questioned why this women-oriented panel will take place on a day which much of the Muslim world considers a day of prayer and rest. Ellis said it’s simply because the Rule of Law Symposium, begun in 2007, has always taken place on the Friday of the conference to enable more people to attend and was not changed due to the fact the conference is taking place in a Muslim country.

Asked why there was no conference session on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights, although such a session had been sanctioned at the last IBA meeting in Vancouver, Canada, Ellis said there had been a very active LGBT working group and luncheon at the conference but it chose not to host a session on the issue.

Ellis said he probably will never know what really happened in Dubai and why, but he has a theory. “If the Arab Spring was the catalyst for the heightened paranoia about this conference, then the financial collapse of Dubai was the catalyst for the security branch to have greater control in Dubai.”

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