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Why protests at UN climate talks in UAE are not easy to find


And these conferences aren't just a place for world leaders to gather to address climate change. Climate activists often use them as an opportunity to gather in those same places to demand those leaders do more to address the climate crisis. But those demands are hard to hear this year because protests in Dubai face restrictions. Still, as NPR's Aya Batrawy reports, climate activists are finding ways to make their demands heard.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: The global climate talks this year are massive, not just because nearly 100,000 people are here but also because it's unfolding across an expansive pavement and pavilions originally built to host the World's Fair two years ago in Dubai.

AGNES CALLAMARD: It's extremely big. The geography of the meeting, to me, is not conducive to people coming together.

BATRAWY: That's Agnes Callamard. She's the secretary general of the human rights group Amnesty International. Callamard says the venue is not set up for spontaneous meetings or unplanned interactions.

CALLAMARD: Because it's not conducive, you know, maybe well representing not the culture of Emiratis but certainly the political culture of the elite and the repression over thought, over conscience that is so prevalent in the UAE.

BATRAWY: The United Arab Emirates, known for drawing tourists to Dubai, insists that its tolerance is in fact what brings people here from all over the world. But public dissent and protests aren't permitted. Callamard's wearing a T-shirt with the picture of imprisoned Emirati human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, who's serving a 10-year sentence for critical social media posts. Callamard says she put the shirt on only after getting past security for the U.N.-designated blue zone, where the official events are happening. Activists like Raouf Ibn Muhammad from Tunisia say they're facing a slew of restrictions trying to mobilize at this year's COP and have been warned against any street protests outside the site.

RAOUF IBN MUHAMMAD: We can't do nothing in the street. OK, fine. But even here, inside, we can't do anything. Like, if you want to do an action, you have to respect a lot of rules.

BATRAWY: He says protests aren't allowed to mention countries by name and tells me about other restrictions.

MUHAMMAD: You don't have the right to do a lot of noise. They will tell you where to stay and what time, and you can't decide. So - with a big space, with no visibility, so it's like they're killing the movement. And I can't imagine COP without social movements.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: When human rights are under attack, what do we do?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Stand up. Fight back.

BATRAWY: Still, protesters did manage to hold a visible rally demanding a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and read the names of some of the thousands of Palestinian children killed by Israeli bombardment following a deadly attack two months ago on Israel by armed Palestinian groups.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Mira Sameh Mahmoud Saidam (ph), 5 years old.

BATRAWY: Director of the civil society group War on Want Asad Rehman helped rally dozens at this COP protest, saying the world's powerful are profiting from oppression.

ASAD REHMAN: But then saying they don't have any money for climate finance but billions for bombs and bullets against the people.

BATRAWY: Protesters didn't wave the Palestinian flag, but many wore the checkered black-and-white scarf associated with the Palestinian cause. Many also changed the blue COP28 lanyard for one in the colors of the Palestinian flag and shouted.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: There is no climate justice.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Without human rights.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No climate justice.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Without human rights.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No climate justice.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Without human rights.

BATRAWY: To hear directly from the activists here, I headed to the civil society hub located near the edge of the conference grounds. This is where OPEC, the oil cartel that's led by Saudi Arabia and includes the UAE, has a pavilion on the ground floor. On the second floor is where I meet Ina-Maria Shikongo from Namibia. She says an approved protest calling for renewable energy in Africa, a sector the UAE has backed and is investing in, was abruptly canceled, and she's not sure why.

INA-MARIA SHIKONGO: This nonsense of trying to suppress our voices because we are against fossil fuels is pure colonialism, neocolonialism, and they need to stop it. Even if they come to our countries, they should know we are not afraid of them.

BATRAWY: The UAE is one of the world's largest oil and gas producers, and activists here say their presence in Dubai is to confront that very industry and the emissions causing global warming.

Aya Batrawy, NPR News, Dubai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.