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Activists criticise civil society 'restrictions' at WTO meeting in UAE

1 min

Civil society organisations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in the United Arab Emirates this week have criticized restrictions on their participation, including alleging that some of their members had been briefly detained at the talks.

UAE Minister of Foreign Trade Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi speaks during the opening ceremony of the WTO ministerial meeting in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, February 26, 2024. Reuters/Abdel Hadi Ramahi

Civil society organisations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in the United Arab Emirates this week have criticized restrictions on their participation, including alleging that some of their members had been briefly detained at the talks.

Our World Is Not For Sale (OWINFS), a network of civil society groups, said on Wednesday it had complained to WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala over several incidents of "detainment, confiscation of materials, and heavy-handed restrictions on lobbying by civil society" groups.

The WTO, in a statement, said the director-general had met with civil society representatives on Tuesday to discuss their concerns and had since spoken with the host chair of the talks to identify solutions.

The office of Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Trade Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, who is chairing the talks, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the complaints.

The UAE government media office did not respond either.

While past WTO talks have seen protests, there have been none so far at this year's event, which is being held in a country where the right to assembly is essentially banned.

Some civil society participants at the WTO talks have drawn comparisons to the United Nations COP28 climate conference held in Dubai last year. Limited protests were permitted at the COP28 site, but they were largely confined to a section of the site controlled by the U.N.

At least four activists were briefly detained at the WTO talks, which is been held in an exhibition centre in Abu Dhabi, said civil society sources, who declined to be named, fearing repercussions by authorities.

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai told reporters on Wednesday that she was aware of the allegations.

"We have raised those concerns with the WTO Secretariat," she said.

"There is an important, critically important, role for civil society. In fact, this is an area where the WTO needs to grow."

Officials from Norway and New Zealand told Reuters they had formally raised concerns about the matter with the WTO.

A civil society participant, who declined to be named, told Reuters of being detained more than an hour after filming a heated exchange between another civil society member and security at the conference centre hosting the talks.

"It was a really scary experience; they were pretty aggressive," said the participant who had been detained.

Civil society organisations allege that they are facing restrictions unlike at past WTO talks, including not being able to distribute statements, display banners or film.

"This is my 11th MC (ministerial conference) and I've never seen anything like this level of repression," said Deborah James, facilitator of the OWINFS network.

By Emma Farge, Rachna Uppal and Alexander Cornwell

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