Ambassador Corbin

In a recent interview with a decidedly pro-government newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, the U.S. ambassador dismissed suggestions that the detention of more than 90 Emirati citizens was a “human rights” issue.

Since the middle of last year, the UAE security forces have mysteriously detained 94 citizens and held them in undisclosed locations without charges. In early January, as the country  prepared to present its report on human rights in the country to the United Nations, prosecutors announced formal charges against all of them. The government has yet to release a list of all the people in detention.

Prosecutors allege that these Emiratis were plotting to overthrow the government. However, many of the people detained have simply asked questions publicly — many on social media sites such as Twitter — about the decisions of the government, according to observers. One of the detainees, Dr. Mohammad al Rokr, is a lawyer who represented the five activists convicted in 2011 on charges of insulting the president.

When the Khaleej Times asked about the human rights record in the United Arab Emirates, Ambassador Michael Corbin was quite upbeat:

The country just made a very successful presentation to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on the subject of what the UAE does, such as focusing on human trafficking. There are issues that every country is facing in this region and the announcement by the UAE that they’re going to try 94 people for working against the country is not a human rights issue because the accusations are over what the charges are in these cases and now the Government is going to present the cases, so we’ll see. When you look at countries that are under the spotlight for human rights, this is not one of them.

So Corbin says there’s no human rights concern at all because the 94 people are going to court. There are several problems with his reasoning:

1) Many of these people were held for months without any charges or due process whatsoever.
2) The courts in the UAE are not independent, a fact noted by the US government’s Department of State.
3) Most of the detainees face charges because of their speech. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right that can’t be negated because a country’s laws makes some speech illegal.

Of course, the local media has totally ignored all of these detentions. Moves by the security forces are an understood “red line” in news coverage that simply isn’t crossed. Of course, positive statements from a high-ranking U.S. official are totally acceptable.

The United Arab Emirates is a major U.S. ally in the Middle East, so we can understand that the Ambassador wouldn’t want to make critical comments in the press about the country’s internal policies. However, making this statement — essentially defending the human rights record of the country — is ridiculously out of step with America’s stated positions regarding the ideal conditions for free expression and the rule of law.

In the future, the US Ambassador should just stay quiet rather than embarrass himself — and all U.S. citizens — with false platitudes about the UAE’s human rights record.