Ensuring progress continues: the UAE and the freedom of the judiciary

The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law index, which analyses good governance, has the United Arab Emirates as one of the higher placed countries in the Middle East. This index analyses much more than simple judicial independence, and some key countries such as Saudi Arabia are not even listed in the index. This due to a refusal by the country concerned to allow the organisation to analyse their institutions, rather than an intentional oversight. The UAE however, despite its young age, has made tangible progress in improving judicial independence and the rule of law in the country.

The UAE is an absolute monarchy, and those within the royal family can appear to act with impunity. Naturally, as long as the monarchy rule with no checks on their power, one cannot point to the UAE as a champion of judicial independence. However, the Royal Family administers justice privately in regard to its own in the UAE and has often done so ruthlessly. Being a UAE royal may mean you can ignore parking tickets and speeding fines but you are unlikely to emerge unscathed if you commit a major crime.

The UAE is placed high on the index for a reason. The ruler of the UAE has taken steps recently that have granted the judiciary near-complete independence regarding all matters. In 2016, he issued a law stating that judges must hold all to the same standard of litigation and are now completely independent. Whilst the success of such a new law is difficult to quantify, early indications are positive.

The country also appears to be progressing in another area of concern: the rights of foreigners. The government has had to hire multiple foreign judges to handle the work of the country’s courts. According to the Special Rapporteur on the independence of Judges and Lawyers’ report on the UAE, in 2015, these individuals are not given the same guarantees as national judges, leaving them more susceptible to outside pressures. Furthermore, in the Special Rapporteur’s report, they mentioned that foreigners did not have faith in the court system. This often led to unwillingness to report crimes; for fear that the case would be mishandled. This is cause for concern. However, the creation of a new prosecution unit for domestic workers is encouraging. This new unit highlights a willingness from the government to protect the most vulnerable within their society. This improved with the introduction of one day courts for misdemeanors in January of this year, reducing legal costs, as well as the decision to have the government pay the legal fees of low-income individuals two years ago.

The major concern within the judicial system remains the power of the state to influence and manipulate court processes involving matters of ‘state security’. This problem is certainly not unique to the UAE or the Middle East in general. However, it is vital to improve upon the transparency of these court proceedings. The Special Rapporteur, in their report, claimed that, during arrests regarding ‘state security’, warrants were not issued, lawyers were not permitted to meet their clients and individuals were left incommunicado for weeks or even months.

Once these cases eventually reach court, they are often taken privately. There are sensitive issues that require secrecy, especially regarding state security. However, it is vitally important that, once the case has gone to court, that these hearings are public, even if some evidence is only circulated privately. Without such publicity, the reputation of the court process is damaged. People will assume foul-play if they are not aware of the charges.

Torture appears to have been used for some of these cases as well. The United Arab Emirates is making tangible progress in regard to its judicial system. However, forced confessions under duress are not legitimate. If someone has committed acts against the state, the state must prove this with hard evidence, and never utilise torture.

The United Arab Emirates appears to be genuinely concerned with improving its judicial process and practices. They are clearly tackling the problems concerning differing treatment between nationals and foreigners as well as improving judicial independence. This is to be praised. At the same time, it is important that they recognise the need for transparency in all of their cases, including ones concerning state security. Without this, they risk losing the progress they have made.