Pro-Palestinian activists bemoan tight restrictions on protest at Dubai’s COP28

Protest group leader complains of limited space for activities, ban on flags, certain slogans; ‘We couldn’t speak about apartheid or about occupation,’ other organizer says

File: Pro-Palestinian demonstrators call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war during the COP28 UN Climate Summit, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on December 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
File: Pro-Palestinian demonstrators call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war during the COP28 UN Climate Summit, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on December 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Pro-Palestinian activists at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai said on Friday they were facing unprecedented restrictions including prohibitions on flags, designated protest zones, and scrutiny of their slogans.

Although the summit is taking place in a “blue zone” under UN control — protest is de facto banned in the Gulf emirate — strict rules are in place, in particular when it comes to denouncing the Israel-Hamas war, the activists said during a meeting with journalists.

The war erupted after the devastating October 7 onslaught on Israel by Hamas-led terrorists who killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians slaughtered in their homes and at a music festival amid brutal atrocities, and took some 240 hostages. Israel then launched an offensive aimed at destroying the terror group’s military and government in the Gaza Strip, where it has ruled since 2007.

When asked for comment, the UN’s climate body, the UNFCC, said that “within the blue zone, space is available for participants to assemble peacefully and make their voices heard on climate-related issues.”

However, Asad Rehman, of the organization War on Want, said COP28 was “probably the most restrictive we’ve seen, way more restrictive than Egypt last year.”

He cited tightened rules such as bans on waving flags or explicitly targeting a country, including during press conferences.

Pro-Palestinian activists participate in a sit-in demonstration at the Expo City in Dubai on November 30, 2023, during the COP28 United Nations climate summit. (Karim Sahib/AFP)

Slogans, which must be declared in advance to the UNFCC, regarding calls for a ceasefire in Gaza have led to difficult discussions with officials, he said.

“We were told… we couldn’t speak about apartheid or about occupation,” said Tasneem Essop of Climate Action Network International.

She said the zones where protests are permitted are restricted and not very visible, while activists have been asked by security agents to refrain from displaying symbols of support for Palestinians, such as the keffiyeh.

The activists, who are planning a march on Saturday, said they had received assurances from the Emirati presidency of COP28 that the restrictions had not been imposed by the United Arab Emirates, which normalized its relations with Israel in 2020.

Sebastien Duyck, from the Center for International Environmental Law, said it was “simply unacceptable” for UN representatives to decide “what messages can be tolerated, and what messages are not appropriate.”

The UN climate body said it had received 167 “action submissions,” more than the 153 at COP27, and that it had permitted 14 demonstrations per day in the first week of the conference, a similar number to 2022.

“In a small number of specific cases the UNFCC secretariat are working directly with those requesting actions to ensure that the code of conduct can be adhered to,” it added.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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