Human Rights Watch has expressed deep concern over the UAE hosting upcoming United Nations climate talks, saying the country's rights record and surveillance apparatus create a "chilling effect" for activists.
The United Arab Emirates has pledged to let climate activists "assemble peacefully" at the November 30-December 12 COP28 summit in Dubai, despite a ban on unauthorised protests in the Gulf state.
But the assurances have done little to assuage concerns from HRW, which warned of the country's "absolute zero tolerance policy on dissent".
"I think COP28 will be a COP unlike any year before... and not in a good way," Joey Shea, HRW's UAE researcher, told a virtual press briefing on Wednesday.
The Gulf state's "advanced surveillance apparatus", including facial recognition and artificial intelligence used "to monitor public spaces, individuals, (and) internet activity", are a specific cause for alarm, Shea said.
"We are deeply concerned about the impacts of these technologies on the ability of COP28 participants to safely, securely and freely participate in the conference itself."
In a statement to AFP, the UAE's COP28 team said the talks will "be a safe and welcoming space for all" adding that "participants can assemble peacefully and have their voices heard in designated areas".
The UAE has a track record of cracking down on dissent, with rights groups accusing the Gulf state of detaining critics for political reasons -- a charge it has denied.
Protests are rare in the wealthy monarchy, which requires official permission for demonstrations, and public discourse is limited.
The UAE ranked 145th out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index this year.
Large protests have been common at previous COPs, and limited rallies were allowed even at the last edition in Egypt, where authorities regularly crack down on demonstrations and detain activists.
Activists have told AFP that they are planning to hold demonstrations at COP28, albeit inside a UN-managed Blue Zone and not away from the official venues.
But HRW researcher Katharina Rall said that civil society groups "are very worried about the situation".
"People don't know if it's safe for them to travel, if it's safe for them to communicate while they're there and what they can say," she told the press conference.
"What's important to recognise here is that this environment creates a chilling effect that goes much beyond individual activists."
The COP28 team said it is working "to ensure the experience of all attendees is inclusive and positive".
"We invite all participants to make their voices heard in a positive and constructive manner," it said in an emailed statement to AFP.
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