UAE questioned about rights record on migrant workers, women

United Arab Emirates MapGeneva - The United Arab Emirates came under close scrutiny Thursday, particularly on the treatment of migrant workers, during its periodic review before the United Nations' Human Rights Council.

Labour exporting countries in south Asia, as well as European states, questioned the UAE over what steps were being taken to improve the conditions of blue collar labourers.

Estimates say foreigners make up about 85 per cent of the Gulf state's population, and they account for about 99 per cent of the private sector workforce, according to Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group.

A UN report said that a "sponsorship system" had been in place for contractual workers, which tied them to an employer, increasing their vulnerability to rights abuses.

Moreover, many paid large sums for the chance to work in the oil- rich state, with the result "described as equivalent to debt bondage."

Anwar Gargasg, the UAE foreign minister, who appeared before the council, said his country was "working on a new law to protect domestic workers, which will afford them greater protection," in addition to other schemes to make sure workers' salaries were not withheld and that they had avenues of redress for abuses.

The new domestic labour law was particularly intended to benefit women, whose rights also featured heavily during the review.

Little was done to protect women from domestic abuse and sexual harassment, non governmental groups said in a shadow report, and they had restricted rights, relative to men, when it came to marriage, child custody and other issues.

The UN did note some progress for women, such as increased participation in the political and economic fields.

Western countries closely questioned the Emirates' tightly controlled social and political system, which includes reported restrictions on the media and access to certain websites.

Amnesty International said "political parties do not exist in the Emirates, political dissent is not tolerated and those targeted for arrest" are usually Islamists or human rights defenders.

There was also concern in the UN report about lawyers who were "detained on account of their peaceful activities in defence of human rights."

Gargash said his country was committed to political reforms and was engaged in the process. The UAE was "keen on tackling human rights issues head on," he added.

The Human Rights Council was founded in 2006 to replace a previous commission and began work a year later. Under the Universal Period Review programme, each member country of the UN has its rights record surveyed every four years. (dpa)

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