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Rare protest allowed in UAE at COP28 climate talks

Activists and researchers held protests under strict guidelines in the protected ‘blue zone’ to raise issues relating to the Israel-Hamas war, environmental degradation and human rights

Environmental activists at the COP28 World Climate Summit in Dubai, UAE.
Environmental activists at the COP28 World Climate Summit in Dubai, UAE. (Reuters)

Participants at the United Nations' COP28 climate talks on Sunday were greeted by a rare sight in the United Arab Emirates — public protests.

From the largest demonstration seen in the UAE since the start of the Israel-Hamas war to environmental issues, activists allowed into the UAE can protest under strict guidelines in the ‘Blue Zone’ of the summit. Human rights researchers from organizations long banned by the country have been let in—though many acknowledge they may not be allowed back in the country.

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“One of our major issues with COP28 is the fact that the UAE government is using this to burnish its image internationally and the fact that limited protests are allowed ... is a good thing,” said Joey Shea, on her first trip to the UAE as a researcher at Human Rights Watch. "But at the end of the day, it helps to create this very false image that the UAE does have respect for rights when in fact it does not.”

The UAE bans political parties and labor unions, and laws restrict free speech. About 10% of the total population of more than 9.2 million people is Emirati. The rest are expatriates, many of them low-paid labourers seeking to send money back home to their families. Many avoid saying anything about working conditions, human rights and environmental issues as they see their livelihoods at risk. However, the UN and the UAE agreed before COP28 that free expression would be allowed. 

On Sunday afternoon, over 100 people gathered as part of a solidarity protests on behalf of the Palestinians, only a short distance from Israel's pavilion at Dubai's Expo City. The same number of onlookers and journalists watched as they chanted, read names of the dead and held their fists up to the sky. However, unlike some other COP summits, there haven’t been marches of tens of thousands of people outside the venue.

Babawale Obayanju, an activist with the Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice from Benin City, Nigeria, taking part in Sunday’s protests, told the AP that it was important to highlight the killing of civilians in the Gaza Strip as “it’s time for the world to take action” on that and the environment. “Every opportunity we have, every arena of this struggle is one that we must embrace,” Obayaju said. “And the COP is in that arena of struggle.”

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