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Climate activists struggle to be heard at this year's U.N. climate talks

Demonstrators hold a sign reading "end fossil fuels" at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Peter Dejong
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AP
Demonstrators hold a sign reading "end fossil fuels" at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

They marched, held their fists in the air and raised posters and banners, some shouting against the burning of fossil fuels and others demanding a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.

"There is no climate justice without human rights," a crowd of several dozen shouted in a protest at this year's COP28 climate talks.

But their screams for justice may have been hard to hear, or even find, because they were happening behind tight security and within the confines of the annual United Nations climate conference being held in the United Arab Emirates.

Still, they were a startling sight to see. Protests are banned in the UAE, where public forms of dissent are seen as a threat to national security and destabilizing. But as host of the COP28 talks, the UAE has had to allow protests within the U.N.-designated zone of the conference.

Activists say restrictions and size of venue are "killing the movement"

Despite permission to protest, climate activists say their work has been curtailed by a slew of rules and restrictions at this year's COP28 in Dubai. U.N. guidelines have required that activists request advance permission for protests, and that they do not take their protests to the street– as has been a common sight at past COPs.

In the past, protesters have rallied against Saudi Arabia and other oil producing nations for blocking efforts to stop the phaseout of fossil fuels. They have called out the United States and other industrialized countries for failing to adequately fund climate projects in other, less wealthy parts of the world.

Tunisian climate activist Raouf Ben Mohamed says he and others were warned they can't call out countries by name nor rally outside the conference grounds.

FILE - People walk through the venue at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit near the Al Wasl Dome at Expo City, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool, File)
Rafiq Maqbool / AP
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AP
FILE - People walk through the venue at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit near the Al Wasl Dome at Expo City, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool, File)

"Okay, fine," Mohamed says. "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 that have no meanings."

Another struggle being heard this year is the sheer size of the conference venue, which was built to host the World's Fair two years ago. That's made it hard to see or stumble upon many of the smaller, quieter protests that have taken place over the course of the two-week-long climate conference.

"So with a bigger space with non-visibility, it's like they're killing the movement and I can't imagine COP without social movement," Mohamed adds.

Amnesty International Secretary General Agnès Callamard says this year's venue has not allowed for an organic connection with civil society or been conducive to people coming together. The human rights group routinely organizes demonstrations at U.N. climate meetings to draw attention to the connection between global warming and human rights, and to call for swifter action to reduce fossil fuel consumption.

"Amnesty International has not been allowed in the UAE forever, and we probably will not be allowed back," she says, adding that the conference being held in Dubai "kind of forced the UAE government to accept people like me and my colleagues."

"It's one thing to get us here. It's another thing to allow us to speak openly, including about political prisoners in the UAE," she says.

At this meeting in Dubai, around two dozen people on Saturday held photos of imprisoned Emirati and Egyptian pro-democracy activists and called for their release–an extremely rare action in the United Arab Emirates.

The UAE insists that its tolerance is what attracts tourists and business people from all over the world. Dubai is a major destination for visitors and international residents. The country even has a Ministry of Tolerance and Coexistence.

Islene Facanha, of Portugal, participates in a demonstration dressed with images of wildfires at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Peter Dejong / AP
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AP
Islene Facanha, of Portugal, participates in a demonstration dressed with images of wildfires at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Activists are getting creative in the face of restrictions

One way activists are getting around restrictions on demonstrations is with their clothing.

When she spoke to NPR, Callamard of Amnesty International wore 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. She says she put the shirt on only after getting past security for the zone where the official U.N. events are happening.

One protester donned a long, hooded garment with images of wildfires.

Other attendees are drawing attention to their causes by wearing Indigenous or regional clothing that draws attention to their connection to the land and their message to protect it. That includes Native Americans and representatives of Indigenous groups who protect and rely on tropical rainforests, which are crucial for preventing further warming.

And there are even more subtle ways to signal support for activist causes.

Many attendees wear pins that advertise climate activist groups. Some protesters this year switched the blue COP28 lanyard holding their name tag for one in the colors of the Palestinian flag, in support of Gaza.

Participants shout slogans during a demonstration demanding a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war.
Jewel Samad / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Participants shout slogans during a demonstration demanding a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war.

And, despite the restrictions, protesters managed to hold two visible rallies at COP28 demanding a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, which has been under relentless Israeli bombardment following a deadly attack two months ago on Israel by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups.

Asad Rehman, the director of the group War on Want, rallied those gathered at the demonstration. Some protesters wept as the names of some of the thousands of Palestinian children killed in Gaza were read into a microphone.

"Some ask us why do we care about the Palestinians. Why do climate justice groups mobilize?" Rehman told the crowd. "It's because we have seen the mask that has slipped... We have seen the powerful profiting from oppression but then say they don't have any money for climate finance, but billions for bombs and bullies against the people."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.
Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.