COP28: At Dubai’s Climate Summit, Protesters Test the Limits

A woman dressed as a dugong, a rare marine mammal, beseeched passers-by 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 fraught demonstration 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 have descended on the Persian Gulf city-state of Dubai for the annual United Nations summit on climate change, bringing the rare spectacle of political mobilization to the United Arab Emirates, the authoritarian host.

Holding the talks, known as COP28, in a major oil-producing country whose budget is built on revenue from the fossil fuels that scientists say cause the bulk of global warming spurred controversy in itself. But climate and rights activists said that COP28 was also testing the limits of a state that effectively outlaws most forms of political action, including protests, typically an essential part of the summit.

To host the event, which began late last month, the Emirates, one of the most powerful countries in the Middle East, complied with U.N. rules that facilitate preapproved protests within part of the venue. That area, known as the “blue zone,” is walled-off and 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 youths, women and Indigenous people.

Some participants said they were happy that people from parts of the “global South,” who might have struggled to obtain visas to attend a summit in Europe, could travel more easily to the Emirates. Indigenous people from Africa and the Americas have also been a visible presence, wearing face paint and feathered headdresses as they stroll through the sprawling site.

But climate activists said that even within the blue zone, this had been one of the most difficult years to stage protests. They also pointed out that protests were nearly impossible outside the zone, and that native Emiratis or foreign residents of Dubai could probably not join without risking repercussions.

In the Emirates, protests are effectively illegal, political parties and labor unions are prohibited, and news coverage is highly restricted.

“The fact that these very limited, contained actions are happening in the blue zone is dangerous, because it creates the impression that this is a rights-tolerating COP when it actually is not,” said Joey Shea, who researches the Emirates for Human Rights Watch.

For attendees familiar with the local political climate, COP28 has created the uncanny impression of a spaceship landing in the desert — temporarily disgorging riotous passengers before it prepares to suck them back up and depart — said James Lynch, a British human rights researcher.

Mr. Lynch was one of several people who was surprised to be able to attend COP28 after being barred from entering Dubai years ago. Using special visas for the summit, Human Rights Watch researchers have arrived in Dubai for the first time since 2013, as has a New York University professor barred from the Emirates in 2015 after researching the exploitation of migrant workers.

“It’s way more important that there are Emiratis who can speak freely here than me,” said Mr. Lynch, co-director of FairSquare, which investigates rights abuses. “That’s the tragedy.”

Political freedoms have been limited in the Emirates since the nation’s founding in the 1970s. But the government cracked down broadly on 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 had advocated change. Then, in 2013, the authorities held a mass trial for 94 people, accusing them of conspiring to overthrow the state. The crackdown reverberated through Emirati society, pushing even mildly dissenting opinions underground.

For some Emiratis, the part of COP28 that has felt most surreal is watching pro-Palestinian rallies. In a country where many citizens feel deeply for the Palestinian cause, the last such march was in 2009, said Mira Al Hussein, an Emirati research fellow at the University of Edinburgh.

“It felt really good to have a protest, if one could describe it as such, in solidarity with Palestinians,” Ms. Hussein said. Still, she said, she was disheartened that many talented Emiratis “will not get to shine, because activism has a negative connotation in our current political climate.”

Emirati officials sometimes argue that a tight grip is necessary to prevent extremism and maintain peace and safety in a place where foreigners from varying backgrounds make up 90 percent of the population and that provides greater social freedoms than some neighboring states.

Home to many nationalities “representing diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds,” the country is “steadfast 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 the state’s control had grown subtler, with a reliance on sophisticated surveillance technology and digital monitoring that mask “the heavy hand of repression.”

In a discussion about human rights on Wednesday, Hamad Al Shamsi, an exiled Emirati dissident who was sentenced in absentia during the mass trial — and later designated a terrorist by the Emirates — joined via a shaky video connection, saying that many of those convicted in the trial remain in detention after completing their sentences.

The government declined to comment on “individual cases.”

“It actually saddens me that I am unable to participate in an event that takes place in my own country,” Mr. Al Shamsi said.

On Saturday, activists staged a small demonstration to highlight the Emirati prisoners’ cases. They had delayed the event and made concessions to get it approved, they said. But minutes before the protest began, U.N. officials told them they must fold over posters that showed a detainee’s face so that his name and details about his case were not visible, Ms. Shea said.

The United Nations told the 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 way more difficult and restrictive than any other time,” said Tasneem Essop, executive director of Climate Action Network International, an advocacy organization.

One of the issues, Ms. Essop and other activists said, was whether they can denounce “occupation,” — a reference to Israel’s control over Palestinians.

In another action related to the Israel-Hamas war, activists unfurled a banner last weekend calling for a cease-fire and said U.N. officials told them they might lose their accreditation if they did it again. U.N. rules prohibit singling out countries by name or flag, but it was unclear why calling for a cease-fire would be a violation, and in a protest that involved hundreds on Saturday, a banner read “CEASEFIRE NOW.”

Participating in such protests “feels really, really powerful, especially when we are connected to other activists that are from here and cannot do anything,” said an Indigenous delegate from Brazil, giving only her first name, Camilla, because of fears of repercussions.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which convenes 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 those occurred in the first week, a similar rate to last year’s summit, the organization said.

“As part of our commitment to delivering an inclusive COP, COP28 has dedicated spaces and platforms for all voices to be heard,” the Emirati COP28 presidency said in a statement.

But Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network, said that holding the summit in politically restrictive countries for three years in a row — COP27 was in Egypt and next year’s is expected to be in Azerbaijan — has raised questions about the role the United Nations should play as a “custodian of our rights and freedoms.”

The summit should be held in a place “where civil society can freely participate,” he said.

Regional politics still seeped into the summit, as Israel scaled back a planned delegation of 1,000 people to 30 after going to war with Hamas, the armed group that runs Gaza and which launched the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. A notable proportion of protests at COP28 condemned the war.

After one last Sunday, Selma Bichbich, 22, an Algerian climate activist, said that watching the destruction of Gaza unfold had filled her with anger.

“What do you expect, honestly, just to tolerate everything and address climate?” she asked, openly sobbing. “You think climate will distract us?”

Somini Sengupta and Jenny Gross contributed reporting.

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