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At Cop28, the UK must be honest about UAE’s human rights record

Climate breakdown and rights abuses are intrinsically linked.

By Caroline Lucas

When the roulette wheel of climate diplomacy landed on the United Arab Emirates as the prospective host of Cop28, it’s fair to say more than a few eyebrows were raised. Two years later, with the summit beginning this week, the country has sought to cultivate a squeaky-clean reputation. But a hard truth must be acknowledged by all those attending this Cop: the UAE is not only a major oil state intent on a vast expansion of fossil fuels in the middle of a climate emergency; it’s also a nation with a deeply concerning human rights record that cannot be brushed under the carpet.

First, its climate record must be put under the microscope. The climate impacts felt all around the world over this past year need little introduction: wildfires raging across Europe; Antarctic ice melting much faster than originally thought; catastrophic floods sweeping across the UK. But they do add a sense of urgency to tackle the crisis we face.

Fossil fuels are by far the largest contributor to that crisis. So to see the UAE planning a vast expansion of its oil and gas production, when one of the principal aims for this summit is to secure agreement on a rapid and fair phase-out of fossil fuel use, is extraordinarily perverse. 

Evidence also emerged of the UAE’s state oil firm – whose own chief executive also happens to be the Cop28 president – having access to emails related to the climate summit, while its PR professionals are providing “additional support”. It looks like the equivalent of putting arsonists in charge of a global conference on fire safety and handing them a match. 

This climate hypocrisy will come as no surprise to many who know the UAE to be a proud petrostate, and it has already been widely covered in the media as such. But it bears repeating that the UK government is carrying out its own fossil fuel expansion. After it approved drilling at the morally obscene Rosebank oil field off the coast of the Shetland Islands, and a coal mine in Cumbria, I question the extent to which Rishi Sunak will hold the UAE accountable for its blatant greenwashing.

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[See also: Asset managers won’t fix the climate crisis]

Less well-documented than its climate record, however, are the UAE’s egregious examples of human rights breaches. Consider the barely known case of the businessman Ryan Cornelius, a British citizen detained in the UAE since 2008. The UN’s working group on arbitrary detention ruled in 2022 that Ryan has been imprisoned unlawfully. He has been subjected to serious human rights violations, including prolonged solitary confinement, aggressive interrogations without legal representation, and he has contracted tuberculosis while in detention. The UN has called for his immediate release, with reparations for his suffering, in line with international law. Consider the case of British businessman Charles Ridley or the human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, also imprisoned unfairly in the UAE.

Meanwhile, the consequences of failing to confront these abuses are bearing poisoned fruit today. At Cop27 last year, Rishi Sunak met with Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to discuss, among other climate-related issues, his country’s unlawful imprisonment of Alaa Abd el-Fattah – a British citizen and pro-democracy activist. Sunak, the then foreign secretary James Cleverly and other Foreign Office staff huffed and puffed for a short while, until the media circus moved on. Almost a year to the day since that discussion, Alaa remains behind bars – and with Egypt now occupying a crucial geostrategic role in the Gaza conflict, the opportunities for his release appear slimmer than ever.

[See also: 5 key things to watch out for at Cop28]

The intersection of climate concerns and human rights is not merely coincidental. Climate breakdown leads to the displacement of vulnerable communities, exacerbating existing inequalities and endangering lives. Similarly, nations that disregard human rights are more likely to neglect environmental stewardship. The two are intrinsically linked: a sustainable future cannot be achieved without respecting the fundamental rights and dignity of all individuals. Cop28 represents an opportunity to address these interconnected challenges head on, ensuring that the struggle for climate action is also a struggle for justice, equality and human rights.

Cop summits represent a forum for exactly these kinds of discussions. Delivering on a loss and damage fund, for example – to help countries on the front line of this crisis rebuild from past disasters and protect themselves from future ones – is an objective with climate justice at its heart. Yet achieving breakthroughs in this area risks becoming so much more challenging when the summit’s host nation has such a troubling human rights record, stifling dialogue rather than sustaining it.

As Cop28 kicks off in a matter of days, it’s time to see some of that dialogue taking place. The UK government should proactively be raising human rights abuses with the UAE host delegation – staring them down, not looking the other way – and highlighting these cases publicly in the Prime Minister’s podium statement, not just privately. This is a moment to deliver climate justice in all its facets: to stand up for the rights of protesters; to safeguard freedom of speech; and to protect our planet for those most at risk from its breakdown.

[See also: South Africa’s energy crisis shows the need for climate finance]

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