A woman dressed as a dugong, a rare marine mammal, implored passersby to end the burning of fossil fuels. Protesters wiped away tears as they recited the names of Palestinians killed by Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.
And human rights activists staged a turbulent protest in support of political prisoners held less than 100 miles away – complying with last-minute conditions that they not even display the detainees’ names on their posters, they said.
Tens of thousands of people from around the world descended on the Persian Gulf city-state of Dubai for the annual United Nations climate change summit, providing a rare spectacle of political mobilization in the authoritarian host United Arab Emirates. .
Holding the negotiations, known as COP28, in a major oil-producing country whose budget is built on revenues from fossil fuels that scientists say cause most of global warming has caused controversy in itself. But the climate and Human rights activists said COP28 was also testing the limits of a state that effectively bans most forms of political action, including protests, usually a essential part Summit.
To host the event, which began late last month, the Emirates, one of the most powerful countries in the Middle East, complied with UN rules that facilitate pre-approved protests in part of the site. This area, known as the “Blue Zone”, is surrounded by walls and is not subject to local laws.
Emirati officials also pledged to make COP28 one of the “most inclusive” editions of the summit by expanding the participation of youth, women and indigenous peoples.
Some participants said they were happy that people from certain regions of the “South”, who might have had difficulty obtaining visas to attend a summit in Europe, could travel more easily to the Emirates. Indigenous peoples from Africa and the Americas are also present, wearing makeup and feathered headdresses as they wander around this vast site.
But climate activists said that even within the Blue Zone, this year had been one of the most difficult years to organize protests. They also stressed that protests were almost impossible outside the area and that native Emiratis or foreign residents of Dubai would likely not be able to join without risking repercussions.
In the Emirates, protests are effectively illegal, political parties and unions are banned and media coverage is limited. very restricted.
“The fact that these very limited and contained actions are happening in the blue zone is dangerous, because it gives the impression that this is a rights-tolerant COP when in reality this is not the case ” said Joey Shea, who studies the Emirates for human rights. Watch.
For attendees familiar with the local political climate, COP28 created the eerie impression of a spaceship landing in the desert — temporarily disgorging the rioting passengers before preparing to suck them up and take off again — said researcher James Lynch British in human rights.
Mr Lynch was one of many people who were surprised to be able to attend COP28 after being no entry Dubai years ago. Using special visas for the summit, Human Rights Watch researchers arrived in Dubai for the first time since 2013, when a New York University professor was expelled from the Emirates in 2015 after investigating exploitation migrant workers.
“It is much more important than me that there are Emiratis who can express themselves freely here,” said Mr. Lynch, co-director of FairSquare, which investigates rights violations. “That’s the tragedy.”
Political freedoms have been limited in the Emirates since the country’s founding in the 1970s. But the government largely suppressed dissent after the Arab Spring, when pro-democracy uprisings spread across the Middle East.
In 2011, more than 100 Emiratis submitted a petition calling for an elected Parliament with legislative powers. Soon after, the government began arresting people who advocated change. Then, in 2013, the authorities organized a mass trial for 94 people, accusing them of conspiring to overthrow the state. The repression has reverberated throughout Emirati society, driving even mildly dissenting opinions underground.
For some Emiratis, the part of COP28 that seems most surreal is watching pro-Palestinian rallies. In a country where many citizens are deeply committed to the Palestinian cause, the latest such march it was in 2009, said Mira Al Hussein, an Emirati researcher at the University of Edinburgh.
“It was really good to have a demonstration, if you can describe it that way, in solidarity with the Palestinians,” Ms. Hussein said. Still, she says, she is disheartened that many talented Emiratis “won’t be able to shine, as activism has a negative connotation in our current political climate.”
Emirati officials sometimes say a firm grip is needed to prevent extremism and maintain peace and security in a place where foreigners of diverse origins make up 90 percent of the population and which offers greater security. social freedoms than some neighboring states.
Home to many nationalities “representing diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds,” the country is “firm in its commitment to and respect for human rights,” the government said in a statement to The Times.
But Mr Lynch said that over the years state control had become more subtle, with reliance on sophisticated surveillance technology and digital surveillance that masked “the heavy hand of repression”.
In a discussion on human rights on Wednesday, Hamad Al Shamsi, an exiled Emirati dissident who was convicted in absentia during the mass trial – and later designated as terrorist by the Emirates – joined via a shaky video connection, saying many of those convicted in the trial remain in detention after serving their sentence.
The government declined to comment on “individual cases.”
“It saddens me that I cannot participate in an event taking place in my own country,” said Mr Al Shamsi.
SATURDAY, Activists organized a small demonstration to highlight the case of Emirati prisoners. They delayed the event and made concessions to get it approved, they said. But minutes before the protest began, U.N. officials asked them to fold up posters showing a detainee’s face so that his name and details of his case were not visible, Ms. Shea said.
The United Nations told activists it feared for the “security of the event” if they did not comply, Ms. Shea said, calling the incident “shocking.”
“Our experience at this COP, in this blue zone, has been far more difficult and restrictive than at any other time,” said Tasneem Essop, executive director of Climate Action Network International, an advocacy organization.
One of the questions, according to Ms. Essop and other activists, was whether they could denounce “occupation” – a reference to the control exercised by Israel over the Palestinians.
In another action related to the war between Israel and Hamas, activists last weekend unfurled a banner calling for a ceasefire and told U.N. officials they risked losing their accreditation if they do it again. U.N. rules prohibit mentioning countries by name or flag, but it was unclear why calling for a ceasefire would be a violation, and during a protest that involved hundreds of people on Saturday, a banner read “CEASE FIRE NOW”.
Participating in such protests “really feels very powerful to us, especially when we are connected to other activists who come from here and we can’t do anything,” said an indigenous delegate from Brazil, giving only her first name, Camilla, for fear of reprisals.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which agreed to the summit, said there was space for people to “assemble peacefully and make their voices heard on climate-related issues.” The United Nations received 167 applications for political actions in the Blue Zone, and 88 of them took place in the first week, at a similar pace to last year’s summit, the UN said. organization.
“As part of our commitment to an inclusive COP, COP28 has dedicated spaces and platforms so that all voices can be heard,” the Emirati presidency of COP28 said in a statement.
But Harjeet Singh, head of global policy strategy at the Climate Action Network, said holding the summit in politically restrictive countries for three years running – COP27 was in Egypt and next year’s is expected to take place in Azerbaijan – raised questions about the role of this summit. the United Nations should play the role of “guardian of our rights and freedoms”.
The summit should be held in a location “where civil society can participate freely,” he said.
Regional politics further seeped into the summit, as Israel reduced its planned 1,000-strong delegation to 30 after going to war with Hamas, the armed group that rules Gaza and launched the 7 attacks. October in Israel. A notable proportion of the protests at COP28 condemned the war.
After a final Sunday, Selma Bichbich, 22, an Algerian climate activist, said watching the destruction of Gaza unfold had filled her with anger.
“What do you expect, honestly, to tolerate everything and fight the climate? » » she asked, sobbing openly. “You think the weather will distract us?
Somini Sengupta And Jenny Gross reports contributed.