Climate: in Dubai, a COP28 which aims to be “inclusive” in a State where any dissenting voice is muzzled

“I am committed to ensuring that this COP is inclusive and transparent

Climate: in Dubai, a COP28 which aims to be “inclusive” in a State where any dissenting voice is muzzled

“I am committed to ensuring that this COP is inclusive and transparent. » Sultan Al-Jaber, the president of the 28th world climate conference (COP28), keeps repeating it: this meeting, which started on November 30 in Dubai (United Arab Emirates), is open to the greatest number. In fact, there are crowds on the immense site of the 2020 Universal Exhibition, which extends over more than 4 km2 around a gigantic steel dome.

In the impeccable alleys and modern buildings, representatives of indigenous peoples in traditional dress and youth organizations, delegates from around the world, members of civil society... Human rights activists were allowed to enter the country for the first time in years, a free visa has been put in place to facilitate the arrival of inhabitants of southern nations and the private sector is abundantly represented. Of the approximately 100,000 accredited people (at least twice as many as at COP27), nearly 2,500 are fossil industry lobbyists (four times more than a year ago).

However, this conference is not sold out: no Emirati environmental defender or living in the country will come to speak there. Human rights organizations fear that this total absence of local civil society will go unnoticed, and that the country will take advantage of this COP to further promote an image of tolerance and openness, a thousand miles from the ultra-repressive policy pursued in within its borders.

“A lot of people are scared.”

“How can we talk about an inclusive COP in a country that does not allow NGOs and local activists to express themselves freely?” asks Katharina Rall, researcher at the French branch of Human Rights Watch (HRW ). The Emirates have a strategy to present itself as a state that respects freedom of expression, and it seems to be working with a certain number of governments. » None of the approximately 130 leaders who traveled to Dubai spoke publicly about the subject.

“These climate conferences should be inclusive, which is clearly not the case here,” also believes the UN special rapporteur on environmental defenders, Michel Forst, present in Dubai and who fears being monitored. The green transition will not be effective if it happens without climate activists. »

The muzzling of any dissident voice by the autocratic regime in Abu Dhabi began around fifteen years ago. In 2013, 94 professors, students, engineers and lawyers were tried in a mass trial marred by irregularities, notably for having signed a pro-democracy petition. The majority of them are convicted and incarcerated. In 2017, Emirati activist Ahmed Mansour, known as the country's "last human rights defender", was in turn arrested and thrown in prison, where he has since languished in solitary confinement, without a bed or books. “Silence has fallen on the Emirates,” summarizes Devin Kenney, country specialist at Amnesty International.

As a corollary of this repression, any demonstration is prohibited and punishable by imprisonment. While global climate conferences are usually punctuated midway through large gatherings in the host cities, civil society organizations have this time decided against launching a call for mobilization for reasons of security.

“These demonstrations, which take place outside the COP premises, are very important to put pressure on governments, to send them the message that they are not acting in a bubble,” insists Katharina Hall. If there had not been a large march in Sharm El-Sheikh in 2022, Egypt being known for repressing all opposition very harshly, local activists were still able to express themselves within the framework of COP27.

In Dubai, activists must be content with “actions” organized within the “blue zone”, managed by the United Nations and only accessible to accredited people. Support for the Palestinians in Gaza, calls for more climate justice or getting rid of fossils... These gatherings, authorized in advance, are strictly supervised: they can only bring together a few dozen people, must be static and not too noisy. “The system is not transparent and many people are afraid, they don’t know what they can say. People have had their badges taken away for 24 hours after calling for a ceasefire in Gaza,” says Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

Climate of self-censorship

NGOs report a climate of self-censorship: a report published on November 30 recalls that 300,000 cameras and drones are deployed in Dubai and that the communications of all COP participants are likely to be monitored. On Tuesday, December 5, several organizations were still waiting for a green light to organize an action to call for the release of Ahmed Mansour and other prisoners.

This repressive climate does not spare the environmental sphere. “The red line is criticizing power,” summarizes Devin Kenney. There may be environmental organizations, but they will not be able to criticize what the government does. » On Monday, HRW published a report pointing to “alarming” levels of air pollution linked to the fossil fuel industry in the Emirates, drawing on official documents and the work of researchers living outside the country . Collecting testimony, even anonymously, from locals wishing to express themselves on the subject proved almost impossible.

At COP28, a special dugong envoy – a costumed American activist – also visited the “blue zone”. The world's second largest population of these large marine mammals lives off the coast of the Emirates. The NGO Leave it in the Ground is trying to warn about the impact on biodiversity of hydrocarbon exploitation projects in the Marawah marine reserve, which is part of the national network of protected areas. A new gas field will be operated there by the Emirati national company, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

Led by Sultan Al-Jaber, it ensures that it acts in favor of marine biodiversity. She explains that she works "in close partnership" with the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency, chaired by one of the brothers of the President of the Emirates, and has carried out "one of the largest impact studies on the marine environment”. The latter has not been made public.