Introduction in recent years, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has embarked on an ambitious journey towards UAE’s Sweeping legal reforms, aiming to enhance human rights protections within its borders. These sweeping reforms have garnered global attention and have been applauded as a significant step forward for the country. This blog post will explore the impact of the UAE’s legal reforms on human rights, highlighting both the progress made and the challenges that lie ahead.
Increased Protections for Women’s Rights
One of the most notable aspects of the UAE’s legal reforms has been the focus on enhancing women’s rights. The government has taken significant steps to improve gender equality, including the introduction of legislation that guarantees equal pay for equal work and protection against gender-based discrimination in the workplace. In November 2021, the UAE announced a series of legal changes that aimed to improve economic and social freedoms, such as decriminalizing alcohol consumption, allowing unmarried couples to cohabit, and granting equal rights to women in matters of inheritance. In March 2023, a new law came into effect that allowed women access to protection orders—that is, restraining orders—for the first time. This law also criminalized domestic violence, sexual harassment, and stalking. In December 2023, the UAE issued a decree that amended some provisions of the personal status law, such as allowing women to marry without the consent of a male guardian, granting women equal rights to divorce and custody of children, and abolishing the practice of requiring women to obey their husbands. Furthermore, efforts have been made to promote women’s empowerment and leadership roles in various sectors, such as politics, business, and education.
Reforming Criminal Justice System
The UAE has also made commendable progress in reforming its criminal justice system. The country has introduced laws to enhance due process, ensure fair trials, and prohibit torture and ill-treatment of prisoners. This was followed by the establishment of specialized courts, including the Federal Supreme Court, aimed at ensuring the independence and transparency of the judiciary. These reforms have contributed to a more rights-based approach to criminal justice and have strengthened human rights protections. The UAE recently passed a new Federal Law on Crimes and Punishments (Penal Code), which came into force in January 2022. The new law replaces the previous one. According to the national news agency, the new criminal code “provides greater protections for women and national legislation, strengthens standards of public safety, and relaxes restrictions on extramarital affairs. Freedoms such as freedom of expression, association, and assembly. For example, the new law punishes any speech that damages a state’s reputation, symbols, or leaders with up to 25 years in prison or a fine of up to $5 million. The new law also punishes: Life imprisonment or death for anyone who joins or supports a group or organization aimed at overthrowing or changing the country’s political system, that of the United Arab Emirates, or that of any other village. These laws are vague and broad and can be used to respond to any form of opposition or criticism of the government or its policies. In addition, they violate international human rights standards, which the UAE undertakes to uphold and protect. They are also at odds with other legislative reforms aimed at increasing economic and social freedoms in the country. It is necessary to review and further review these provisions to ensure that they comply with the principles of legality, necessity, and proportionality and respect the rights and freedoms of individuals.
Protecting Migrant Workers’ Rights
The UAE is home to a significant population of migrant workers, who have often been vulnerable to exploitation and abuse in the past. However, the recent legal reforms have sought to address these issues head-on. The introduction of the Wage Protection System has helped combat wage theft and guarantee timely payment of salaries. Additionally, measures have been taken to improve the living conditions and safety of workers, including the establishment of inspection teams to ensure compliance with labour laws. In June 2017, the UAE adopted a new bill to bring the country’s labour law into compliance with the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention, providing migrant domestic workers with the same labour protections as other workers in the UAE. The bill guarantees domestic workers the right to a written contract, a weekly rest day, annual leave, sick leave, overtime pay, health insurance, and end-of-service benefits. In March 2018, the UAE launched a new insurance scheme for domestic workers that covers their wages, medical expenses, and repatriation costs in case of work-related injuries, illnesses, or deaths. The scheme also covers the employer’s liability in cases of breach of contract or abuse of the worker. In July 2018, the UAE and the Philippines signed a bilateral agreement on the recruitment and employment of Filipino domestic workers in the UAE. The agreement stipulates that Filipino domestic workers should receive a minimum monthly wage of AED 1,500 (USD 408), have access to communication and complaint mechanisms, and be protected from illegal recruitment and human trafficking. In September 2018, the UAE and India signed a memorandum of understanding on labour cooperation that aims to ensure fair and transparent recruitment practices, protect the rights and welfare of Indian workers in the UAE, and facilitate the resolution of labour disputes. These are some of the amended laws and initiatives that have been implemented to protect the rights of migrant workers in Dubai and other emirates. However, some challenges and gaps remain, such as the kafala (sponsorship) system that gives employers excessive control over workers’ mobility and legal status, the lack of effective enforcement and monitoring mechanisms, and the limited access to justice and remedies for workers who face abuse or exploitation. Therefore, there is still a need for further reforms and improvements to ensure that migrant workers are treated with dignity and respect in the UAE.
Freedom of Expression and Freedom of the Press
The UAE has made strides towards fostering a more open and tolerant society by addressing restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The government has repealed laws that criminalized certain forms of peaceful expression, allowing for more open dialogue and debate. This shift has also been reflected in the media landscape, with the emergence of a more diverse and independent press. However, there is room for improvement in protecting the rights of those who express dissenting opinions or criticize the government, and continued efforts are required to strike a balance between freedom of expression and national security concerns.
The UAE’s sweeping legal reforms have made significant strides in enhancing human rights protections. The government’s commitment to addressing crucial issues such as women’s rights, criminal justice, migrant workers’ rights, and freedom of expression is commendable. These reforms demonstrate the UAE’s determination to create a society that respects and upholds human rights principles. However, it is important to acknowledge that challenges persist and there is still work to be done. Continued efforts and vigilance are required to ensure effective implementation, monitoring, and enforcement of these reforms. Civil society, international organizations, and UAE citizens themselves all have vital roles to play in holding the government accountable and driving progressive change. The UAE’s legal reforms provide hope for a more inclusive and rights-based society. By building on these achievements and addressing the remaining challenges, the UAE has the potential to become a shining example of human rights progress in the Middle East.
The UAE’s sweeping legal reforms represent a significant step forward in the pursuit of human rights and justice. BSB Legal is dedicated to supporting individuals and organizations in successfully navigating these changes, ensuring that they contribute to a fair and equitable society in the United Arab Emirates. With our expertise and commitment to human rights, BSB Legal is your trusted partner in this transformative legal landscape.