August 19, 2022
Recent years have seen a sharp rise in the number of cases of enforced disappearance in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), indicating this practice has become widespread in the country. In many cases, the practice of enforced disappearance in the UAE specifically seeks to target and silence dissenting voices, particularly those of human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers who have publicly criticised government policies.
Where there are concerns regarding the practice of enforced disappearance in a given country, a general allegation can be submitted to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID), which is then transmitted to the state with the invitation to comment. In its submission to the UN group of experts on August 18, 2022, MENA Rights Group alleged that (i) existing legislation does not offer sufficient protection against enforced disappearance, (ii) the unchecked and increased concentration of power with the State Security Apparatus (SSA) has contributed to a culture of impunity, and (iii) rules and practices related to investigation embolden the commission of disappearances.
A widespread practice
Although the full extent of enforced disappearance in the UAE is masked by a culture of secrecy, accessible information indicates a clear trend in relation to secret and incommunicado detention.
The allegation identifies how arrests carried out by the state security forces follow a specific pattern; victims are arrested in their homes by SSA forces, often dressed in civilian clothes, without being presented a warrant. The victims are then brought to a secret detention facility where they are forcibly disappeared for anywhere between a few weeks and several months. In many cases, the victims ‘reappear’ in order to be charged and put on trial. Cases suggest that the practice of enforced disappearance is mostly carried out against prisoners of conscience accused of state security crimes and in the context of the armed conflict in Yemen.
Cases documented also indicate that, in many instances, the practice of holding individuals incommunicado in the UAE is tantamount to enforced disappearance as it is characterised by a lack of official information as to the whereabouts of the individual, ill-treatment and torture (often as a means of interrogation), and no access to legal representation. As many victims of enforced disappearance in the UAE are foreign nationals, the general allegation also emphasised the denial of their right to consular protection.
Enforced disappearance in the context of the armed conflict in Yemen was also highlighted in the allegation, namely the network of secret detention sites that the UAE and the Yemeni armed groups it has supported have kept, where various human rights violations occur, including incommunicado and secret detention.
MENA Rights Group further alleged that the lack of available remedies for enforced disappearance, and the fear of reprisal, undermine the implementation of the 1992 Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance (Declaration).
Institutions and legislations
Since its creation, the UAE’s SSA has held ever-growing powers and influence over security matters in the country, fostering a widespread and systematic pattern of human rights violations, including enforced disappearance, in the UAE.
The general allegation sets out how there are limited legal safeguards to prevent enforced disappearances in domestic law and, contrary to article 4 of the Declaration, there is no specific criminalisation of enforced disappearance in the UAE. Furthermore, the concerns of the UN Committee against Torture that existing legislation was both inadequate and not respected in practice, as set out in their 2022 Concluding Observations were also noted.
The allegation identifies the SSA as the main responsible force for the crime of enforced disappearance. It is under the pretext of combating terrorism, one of the SSA’s main prerogatives, that the vague language used in the UAE’s counter-terrorism legislation has enabled the SSA's long-standing practice of human rights violation, including enforced disappearance, as a way to crackdown on peaceful dissidents.
In addition, Emirati legislation fails to guarantee the right of detainees to contact the outside world as it prescribes different situations in which this right may be restricted. For example, the allegation also notes that the 2003 State Security Law foresees its own detention periods, trumping the application of the code of criminal procedure and enabling the SSA to hold individuals in incommunicado detention for up to 60 days, which can be renewed for another 30 days, before they are brought before the public prosecution.
Finally, it was emphasised that by not ratifying several international core human rights conventions, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (“Rome Statute”) and International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED), there remain limited legal grounds by which the crime of enforced disappearance can be investigated and the perpetrators prosecuted in the country.
In the general allegation, MENA Rights Group recommended that the UAE prevent the perpetration of enforced disappearance by (i) introducing national legislation which prohibits enforced disappearance, (ii) adopting all the measures necessary to ensure that no person deprived of their liberty is held in secret detention, guaranteeing all fundamental legal safeguards in law and in practice, including in cases purportedly related to state security, (iii) repealing all legal provisions that allow individuals to be placed in incommunicado detention for prolonged periods of time, (iv) ensuring the right to habeas corpus as well as access to legal counsel from the moment of arrest, (v) restructuring the national institutions to ensure an independent judiciary, and (vi) introducing legislation which protects witnesses and other persons making enquiries in relation to, and participating in investigations into, enforced disappearances. It was also recommended that the UAE ratify the ICCPR, the ICPPED and the Rome Statute.