Activists allege 'heavy-handed' UAE restrictions at WTO talks


A coalition of civil society groups on Wednesday accused the Emirati hosts of a World Trade Organization meeting of "heavy-handed restrictions", saying some of its members have been detained at the talks.

Our World Is Not for Sale (OWINFS), representing more than a dozen civil society groups, said it has complained to the WTO following a series of incidents at the body's 13th ministerial conference in the United Arab Emirates capital Abu Dhabi.

The "detainment, confiscation of materials, and heavy-handed restrictions on lobbying by civil society organizations... is putting the safety of civil society participants at risk," the coalition said in a statement on Wednesday.

OWINFS facilitator Deborah James called the restrictions unprecedented.

"This is my 11th MC (ministerial conference) and I've never seen anything like this level of repression," she said.

UAE authorities did not respond to a request for comment.

In a statement to AFP, the WTO said that it "is firmly committed to its engagement with civil society organizations," and that director general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala met with members of the civil society advisory group on Tuesday.

She then met the conference's Emirati chair "to identify potential solutions to address issues raised".

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said her delegation was aware of the reports, telling reporters "we have raised those concerns with the WTO secretariat".

The OWINFS statement was released after a number of civil society organizers attending the WTO meeting were allegedly detained in separate incidents since Sunday.

They include a 24-year-old member of a Norwegian organization that works on fair and just trade who was allegedly held in a room for an hour on Tuesday for taking a picture inside the venue.

"I was taking a picture of a colleague inside the venue that showed a security person in the background," said the activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing security concerns.

"I was stopped and told it was illegal to take pictures of security personnel in the UAE," she said.

The activist claimed she repeatedly offered to delete the picture, but was not released until WTO organizers intervened.

"We are all very scared," she said.

The UAE bans unauthorized protests and limits forms of expression that it deems disruptive.

It allowed limited protests in designated areas at the COP28 climate talks in Dubai last year, but even then activists complained of severe restrictions.

OWINFS said the abuses at the WTO talks in Abu Dhabi went beyond detention.

Civil society members were barred from distributing informational flyers, holding signs, chanting about the negotiations and displaying banners.

In one instance, a civil society member was denied access to the venue for wearing the Palestinian keffiyeh headscarf, despite other participants being granted admission wearing their national dress, the group said.

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