The executive director of the International Bar Association defended the group's decision to go ahead with its annual conference in Dubai this week, after "Kafkaesque" indirect talks with security officials, nervous about human rights, resulted in the rewording of titles and descriptions of a handful of sessions at the event.
In a phone interview with The Globe and Mail on Thursday from Dubai, Mark Ellis said the conference and its speakers were not censored, despite the changes made to mollify security officials who, five weeks ago, had initially cancelled the event, fearing it could cause "instability" in the region.
He said he felt it was important for the IBA, with 45,000 lawyer members worldwide, to use its voice to promote dialogue in non-democratic countries, as it did with its 2007 annual conference, held in Singapore.
"It would be unfortunate if the IBA did not use its voice and its strength to engage in countries that are not perfect," Mr. Ellis said. "It would be easy for us to have an annual conference every year in Vienna or Prague or somewhere in the United States … But I think occasionally, as the global voice of the legal profession, we need to take on the challenge of bringing this type of conference into a country like the UAE."
Mr. Ellis said there was no sign over five years of preparation for the conference, which wraps up Nov. 4, that Dubai or United Arab Emirates officials were concerned about its content. Then, five weeks ago, all work on the conference suddenly ceased.
He flew to Dubai with other senior IBA officials to sort out the problem. He says he never met with the mysterious UAE security branch officials, clearly spooked by the Arab Spring demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, who decided to scrap the conference. But through an intermediary, a local lawyer, Mr. Ellis said he learned that they objected to the titles and descriptions of seven human-rights-related sessions.
"It had to do with their perception … that those seven sessions were targeting the UAE and the [Gulf Co-operation Council countries]" Mr. Ellis said. "I said first of all, I don't think they are, but if that's your perception how do I counter it? And the counter was trying to assure them, we are the International Bar Association. We look at these issues internationally."
He said in a matter of hours, he rewrote the material to appear more international in scope. But he said he made it clear he would not allow censorship of any session's content and told his hosts that human rights in the UAE and other countries in the region would be addressed at the conference. He also said he would not allow UAE security officials to change the wording he proposed.
Some of the changes were cosmetic. In one description, he deleted the phrase "death penalty" and used "capital punishment" instead. In another, he changed "extraterritorial jurisdiction" in human rights to say "universal jurisdiction."
However, Mr. Ellis did change the title of one session that security officials objected to, entitled "Women in Islam, Challenges and Opportunities," to "Women in Law, Challenges and Opportunities." Members of the women's committee then declared the new title too "dull," he said, and opted to scrap the session.
One member of the committee later decided to boycott the conference in protest, he said, a move that prompted the IBA to issue a statement about the controversy to delegates this week. Mr. Ellis acknowledged that perhaps he could have come up with a better title that would have passed muster, but said he was working under time pressure.
Mr. Ellis said the Arab Spring and the "heightened paranoia" it had prompted in local security officials wasn't the only factor. He said his contact in Dubai told him that ever since Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, bailed Dubai out of its recent financial crash, UAE security forces have had much more influence in Dubai.
Mr. Ellis, an international law expert and member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, said this did not bode well for a place that once held itself up as an open, tolerant business hub for the Middle East. And he said he felt for the lawyers and government officials in Dubai who had supported the conference.
"They now have to deal with an apparent shift here in Dubai and the UAE regarding what I consider to be a possible dark period coming up," he said.
Meanwhile, the Human Rights Institute, an independent entity of the IBA, joined other human rights groups to urge the UAE to release five jailed political activists facing long prison terms.
The activists, including a prominent blogger and an economics professor who has lectured at the Abu Dhabi branch of Paris' Sorbonne university, were charged with anti-state crimes after signing an Internet petition calling for constitutional changes and free elections.
Political activity is severely restricted in the UAE, an alliance of seven semiautonomous states, each ruled by a sheik who inherits the post. There are no official opposition groups in the country, and political parties are banned.
The UAE has not had street protests like those that erupted this year across the Middle East, including in neighbouring Bahrain. Authorities moved aggressively to keep demands for political change, inspired by the Arab Spring revolts, out of the Gulf federation that includes the glitzy city-state Dubai.
The five activists were arrested in April and charged with insulting the UAE's rulers and endangering the country's security.
With a file from Associated Press