International Bar Association organizers compromised with the United Arab Emirates after the country’s security branch threatened to cancel the IBA’s annual conference in Dubai earlier this month because “its content might precipitate instability in the region.”
An internal memo sent to IBA members during the conference after news of the threat leaked into the public domain indicates that organizers “retitled” seven sessions in order to satisfy the UAE.
According to the memo, “The session descriptions now focus more on standards of international law, in an effort to clarify any misconception that they were particularly targeting the [Gulf Co-operation Council] countries.”
The IBA says it didn’t take much to address the concerns. “We changed the name of the death penalty session to capital punishment and the name of the extra-territorial jurisdiction session to universal jurisdiction, and in these cases that’s all it took to satisfy the security branch,” says Mark Ellis, the London, England-based executive director of the IBA.
Organizers, however, cancelled one of the sessions on women and Islam.
The memo insists “this action was taken by the [IBA] committee officers and not by the authorities, as they felt that, even though the speakers remained the same, the new session title might not attract sufficient attendance.”
The committee took this action upon learning that the session’s title would refer to women and the law instead.
“The committee felt that the new name was a poor substitute for the original,” says Ellis. “They believed that the session would be perceived as so weak that no one would show up.”
The changes have prompted concerns about censorship. But Ellis says authorities were quite serious about their concerns. “They calculated very early on what the damages might be and were prepared to pay them rather than chance what they perceived as a security risk,” he notes.
Because the threat of cancellation came only five weeks before the conference was to begin, the IBA found itself in a difficult position.
“The IBA is a complex organization which brings together experts in all aspects of international and cross-border law in both the commercial and human rights arenas to pursue discussions and make progress in their specialties,” says Ellis.
“We did not want to jeopardize the holding of the conference as we felt it was necessary to pursue these important agendas yet also did not want to compromise on fundamental elements such as freedom of association and freedom of speech.”
At the same time, Ellis set down red-line terms that weren’t negotiable. “We would not accept any conditions that would preclude us from discussing conference issues locally or regionally, that targeted speakers or that required cancelling sessions or altering their content,” he says.
Ellis says the IBA reduced its red-line terms to a written communication but he refused to share the document with Law Times.
However, he insists that the conference featured free and open discussions that even included a discussion of the so-called UAE Five controversy by a panel that had Israeli and Jordanian members.
The controversy centres around blogger and political commentator Ahmed Mansoor, lecturer Nasser bin Ghaith, and online activists Fahad Salim Dalk, Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, and Hassan Ali al-Khamis. They’ve all been in jail in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi since April.
In June, authorities charged them under Article 176 of the penal code that makes it a crime to publicly insult the country’s top officials and is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. None of the men is known to have advocated any violence or a change of government.
The IBA also arranged for the attendance of Israeli delegates. “What the IBA and Mark Ellis did is unprecedented in arranging for our attendance despite the absence of a diplomatic relationship between Israel and the UAE and despite the controversy over an Israeli hit squad’s alleged assassination of a Hamas leader in Dubai in 2010,” says Rachel Levitan of Levitan Sharon & Co., one of the delegates from the Israel Bar Association who attended the conference.
Indeed, the Israelis became the guests of the Dubai government. It even picked up their expenses during the conference.
“For security reasons, they put all of us in a five-star hotel and picked up the bill,” says another Israeli delegate, Eytan Epstein of Epstein Chomsky Osnat & Co.
Although outgoing calls to Israel aren’t possible from Dubai, communications from Israel arrived without interference. “We had a security squad of about 30 people around the clock who were with us constantly, taking us everywhere, including on any tours we wanted to go on,” says Epstein.
“The only issue was that we had to move with the security people and couldn’t go anywhere alone, but under the circumstances we both understood and welcomed the arrangements, especially because everyone was so friendly and accommodating.”
Whether Israel would reciprocate in similar circumstances wasn’t as clear. “I’m not at all sure that we would behave as well if the IBA had a conference in Israel at which Iranians and Syrians, among others, were delegates,” says one Israeli source.