The International Bar Association says its annual conference in Dubai, now under way, was nearly cancelled by local security officials five weeks ago over concern "its content might precipitate instability in the region."
The government of the United Arab Emirates and others in the region have been on edge since the Arab Spring revolutions sparked mass demonstrations and saw armed rebellions overthrow dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and most recently Libya.
The conference started on Sunday after talks with officials resulted in the rewording of titles and descriptions of several conference sessions and the cancellation of one event on "women and Islam."
In an e-mail sent to delegates Wednesday and obtained by The Globe and Mail, the IBA – which has 45,000 member lawyers worldwide – said that five weeks ago, nervous security officials with the United Arab Emirates abruptly demanded that the event be cancelled.
The group's annual conference, held last year in Vancouver, usually attracts 5,000 lawyers from all over the world and features speakers and discussions among delegates on a wide rage of topics in international and cross-border law, including human rights.
Speakers at this year's event include Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who is now seeking the Egyptian presidency.
The IBA e-mail says negotiations with UAE officials allowed the conference to go ahead, as long as organizers changed the titles and descriptions of seven sessions. The blurbs describing those sessions "now focus more on standards of international law, in an effort to clarify any misconception that they were particularly targeting [Persian Gulf]countries," the IBA said.
The organization says no sessions were censored, and says no requests were made by either UAE or IBA officials for any changes to speakers' lists.
"We made it clear to the authorities that we expect that discussions in these sessions will include regional issues and we insisted that the rights of speakers and delegates in those sessions are protected to enable them to speak freely on any aspects of those issues on which they wish to engage," the IBA e-mail said. "We received no further comments and to date, this has been the case."
The IBA decided to cancel one planned session, but said it made the decision to do so on its own. The e-mail says the IBA believed that a new title for a planned session, on women and Islam, might not "attract sufficient attendance."
The IBA defended its moves to mollify UAE authorities and save the conference, which runs until Friday, saying that going ahead created a space to discuss human rights in the region.
"We believe this philosophy of engagement and inclusion, which has always been a core part of the IBA's approach, has been more than justified by the remarkable success and active dialogue which we can all see at this conference," the e-mail reads.