A woman dressed as a dugong, a rare marine mammal, pleaded with passersby to end the burning of fossil fuels. Protesters wiped away tears as they recited the names of Palestinians killed by the Israeli bombing of Gaza.
And human rights activists staged a tense rally in support of political prisoners detained less than 100 miles away, meeting last-minute conditions that they not even display the detainees’ names on their signs, they said.
Tens of thousands of people from around the world have descended on the Gulf Arab city-state of Dubai for the annual United Nations climate change summit, 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 based on revenue from the fossil fuels that scientists say cause most of global warming, generated controversy in itself. But the weather and Human rights activists said COP28 was also testing the limits of a state that effectively bans most forms of political action, including protests, typically a essential part from the summit.
To host the event, which began late last month, the Emirates, one of the Middle East’s most powerful countries, complied with U.N. rules facilitating pre-approved protests within one part of the venue. That area, known as the “blue zone,” is walled and not subject to local laws.
Emirati officials also pledged to make COP28 one of the “more inclusive” editions of the summit expanding the participation of youth, women and indigenous peoples.
Some participants said they were glad that people from parts of the “global South”, who might have had difficulty obtaining 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 painted faces and feather 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 organize protests. They also said that protests were almost impossible outside the area, and that native Emiratis or foreign residents in Dubai fear they will not be able to join without risking repercussions.
In the Emirates, protests are effectively illegal, political parties and unions are banned, and press coverage is Highly restricted.
“The fact that these very limited and contained actions are happening in the blue zone is dangerous, because it creates the impression that this is a rights-tolerant COP when in reality it is not,” said Joey Shea, who investigates the Emirates for Human Rights. Look.
For attendees familiar with the local political climate, COP28 has created the strange impression of a spaceship landing in the desert, temporarily dumping rowdy passengers before preparing to absorb them and depart, said James Lynch, a British human rights researcher.
Mr Lynch was one of several people who were surprised to be able to attend COP28 after being entrance prohibited Dubai years ago. Using special visas for the summit, Human Rights Watch researchers arrived in Dubai for the first time since 2013, as did a New York University professor who was banned from entering the Emirates in 2015 after investigating exploitation. of migrant workers.
“It’s much more important that there are Emiratis who can speak freely here than me,” said Lynch, co-director of Fair Square, 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 widely repressed 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 for change. Then, in 2013, authorities carried out a mass trial for 94 people, accusing them of conspiring to overthrow the State. The repression resonated throughout Emirati society, driving even slightly dissident opinions underground.
For some Emiratis, the part of COP28 that has seemed most surreal is watching the pro-Palestinian protests. In a country where many citizens feel deeply for the Palestinian cause, the latest march of its kind It was in 2009said Mira Al Hussein, an Emirati researcher at the University of Edinburgh.
“It was really good to have a protest, if you could describe it as such, in solidarity with the Palestinians,” Hussein said. Still, she said, she was discouraged that many talented Emiratis “will not be able to shine, because activism has a negative connotation in our current political climate.”
Emirati officials sometimes argue that strict control is necessary to prevent extremism and maintain peace and security in a place where foreigners of diverse origins make up 90 percent of the population and which offers greater social freedoms than some neighboring states.
Home to many nationalities “representing diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds,” the country is “firm in its commitment to and respect for human rights,” the government said in a statement to the Times.
But Lynch said that over the years state control had become more subtle, with a reliance on sophisticated surveillance technology and digital monitoring masking “the heavy hand of repression.”
In a human rights debate on Wednesday, Hamad Al Shamsi, an exiled Emirati dissident who was sentenced in absentia during the mass trial (and subsequently designated terrorist by the Emirates – joined via a shaky video connection, saying that many of those convicted in the trial remain in detention after serving their sentences.
The government declined to comment on “individual cases.”
“Actually, it saddens me that I cannot participate in an event that takes place in my own country,” Al Shamsi said.
On Saturday, Activists organized a small demonstration to highlight the cases of the Emirati prisoners. They said they had delayed the event and made concessions to get it approved. But minutes before the protest began, U.N. officials told them they had to fold signs showing a detainee’s face so that his name and details about his case were not visible, Shea said.
The United Nations told activists it feared for the “security of the event” if they did not comply, Shea said, calling the incident “shocking.”
“Our experience at this COP, in this blue zone, has been much more difficult and restrictive than at 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 report “occupation,” a reference to Israel’s control over the Palestinians.
In another action related to the war between Israel and Hamas, activists unfurled a banner last weekend calling for a ceasefire and said U.N. officials told them they could lose their accreditation if they did so again. UN rules prohibit singling out countries by name or flag, but it was unclear why calling for a ceasefire would be a violation, and at a protest involving hundreds of people on Saturday, a banner read “CEASE FIRE.” NOW”.
Participating in these types of protests “feels really powerful, especially when we are connected to other activists who are from here and can’t do anything,” said an indigenous delegate from Brazil, giving only her first name, Camilla, for fear of repercussions. .
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is convening the summit, said there was room for people to “come together peacefully and make their voices heard on climate-related issues.” The United Nations received 167 requests for political actions in the blue zone, and 88 of them occurred in the first week, a similar rate to last year’s summit, the organization said.
“As part of our commitment to achieving an inclusive COP, COP28 has dedicated spaces and platforms so that all voices are heard,” the Emirati COP28 presidency said in a statement.
But Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at the Climate Action Network, said holding the summit in politically restrictive countries for three consecutive years (COP27 was in Egypt and next year’s is expected to be in Azerbaijan) has raised questions. on paper The United Nations should act as “custodians of our rights and freedoms.”
The summit should be held in a place “where civil society can participate freely,” he said.
Regional politics still seeped into the summit, as Israel reduced a planned delegation from 1,000 people to 30 after going to war with Hamas, the armed group that rules Gaza and that launched the October 7 attacks on Israel. A notable proportion of the protests at COP28 condemned the war.
After one last Sunday, Selma Bichbich, 22, an Algerian climate activist, said watching the destruction of Gaza unfold had filled her with anger.
“What do you expect, honestly, to just tolerate everything and address the climate?” she asked, sobbing openly. “Do you think the weather will distract us?”
Somini Sengupta and Jenny Gross contributed reports.