IBA Dubai slammed for erasing women’s issues from agenda

Lawyers attending last week’s International Bar Association (IBA) conference in Dubai have slammed the event after several discussion sessions were altered and one even ditched at the last minute.

Chris Carroll
Chris Carroll

Following intervention from the UAE security forces, which said material in several of the sessions was of an “inflammatory and dangerous nature”, conference titles had to be changed to reflect an “international community”.

The amended topics included the death penalty, migrant workers, human rights-related issues and women and Islam. The title of a session on the latter topic was changed from Women and Islam – challenges and opportunities to Women and the law – challenges and opportunities, but was later scrapped altogether.

Only one event aimed at addressing women in law took place, with no sessions covering lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGTB) issues, despite these being sanctioned at last year’s event in Vancouver.

An email circulated three days into the conference alerted the 5,000 delegates to the near cancellation of the event five weeks prior to its start, but assured those attending that the IBA’s organisers had “fought hard” to make sure the conference went ahead.

Managing director of alternative dispute resolution provider JAMS Lorraine Brennan said that many of her colleagues found the email “unsettling”, stressing that the IBA should have been more responsible and alerted those attending “weeks before the event”.

It has also emerged that the attendance of delegates from certain countries was a bone of contention for the UAE security forces, with rumours circulating that IBA members from Israel were at first refused entry to the emirate. The Arab Spring and a threat to the stability of the UAE were cited as the main reason for this. Israeli delegates were allowed to attend only after “certain terms” were met, according to one source who attended the event.

Travers Smith senior partner Chris Carroll told The Lawyer that the general mood at the conference was convivial, but he too criticised the IBA’s lack of transparency, adding that rumours of the purported ban on Israeli delegates and the change of session titles had been circulating a few days before the email was sent.

L&E Global executive director Stephan Swinkels, also a delegate at the conference, said that opinion on the handling and organisation of the event was twofold, with one camp arguing that the IBA should not have hosted the event in Dubai.

“Some lawyers criticised the IBA’s decision to hold the event in a country where not everyone was welcome and where not everyone had a chance to freely express themselves. It’s the IBA’s responsibility to make sure that every delegate has an opportunity to have their voice heard,” he explained.

“However, some thought it was a good idea and a positive move as it showed the UAE authorities that it’s possible to host an international conference without a need for it to be politicised. 

“Perhaps it served as an icebreaker for future events,” he added.

The much-anticipated closing event was also altered at the 11th hour with Dubai authorities citing a religious festival as the reason for the sudden ban on music and alcohol.

One commentator on The Lawyer’s IBA Blog wrote: “Shame on the IBA. Next time, stick to host nations that have freedom of speech, honour contracts (by serving booze) and have a functioning and independent judicial system.”

A spokesperson for the IBA was not available to comment.