If you ask any independent observer to single out states that work to sabotage the UN Human Rights Council to the core, Egypt will be at the top of the list.
This is not new information to those closely following international human rights mechanisms, nor is it something that the diplomats representing Egypt at the Council would anymore care to deny. In fact, their actions only prove that they take pride in actively working to bring the international human rights body down.
There are simple facts that need to be established on this matter. First, Egypt’s behavior did not change, nor did most of its representatives, as a result of the 2011 revolution. As early as February 2011, four days before the ousting of former President Hosni Mubarak, NGOs had to single out Egypt during the Council’s review as the state that “rejects all proposals put forward to improve the Council’s actions in situations of violations.” This has not changed. In fact, Egyptian officials have only become more aggressive and defensive to criticism as the country’s human rights record worsens.
Second, Egyptian diplomats would do anything, just about anything, to avoid scrutiny, from engaging in preemptive bilateral talks, to taking severely aggressive reactions to criticism, to constantly calling and mobilizing against the political body for being biased against Egypt and countries from the global South.
This has led Egypt to work vigilantly, within the different political blocs and independently, to weaken the language of several resolutions, under the pretext of possessing legal expertise in international law. Under the same pretext, Egyptian diplomats never fail to call out independent human rights experts, including the UN High Commissioner, whenever they see the latter as “overstepping” their mandate. This is in addition to Egypt’s constant attempts to stifle civil society space in the Council.
This antagonistic attitude of the Egyptian delegation usually happens when the Council addresses specific human rights concerns in any given country. In fact, if it was left to Egypt and states with similar records of human rights violations, the Council will cease to address country-specific human rights situations.
Civil war will be breaking out in Syria and conflict-torn Central African Republic and Israel will be shelling the Gaza Strip, and the world’s human rights body mandate will be limited to general thematic discussions limited to selected social and cultural rights.
An attempt to block country mandates on Sudan, Congo, Iran, the DPRK, and active engagement in watering down the first resolution on the human rights situation in Syria in 2011 are the highlights of the achievements of the Egyptian diplomacy at the UN body.
To take the last session of the Council as an example, Egyptian diplomats’ response to the High Commissioner’s reference to Egypt (when presenting an update on rights around the world), was to express grave concern that the council did not recognize the progress that Egypt made in terms of fulfilling some steps in the road map it had set to itself after July 3, 2014.
The High Commissioner’s update, which included at least a dozen other countries, and more than a dozen other thematic issues, covered Egypt in one sentence on the recent mass death penalties and arrests. Given the deteriorating human rights record in Egypt, one would assume that her sentence on Egypt was the least she could do.
Similarly, Egypt’s response to individual statements made by states addressing the human rights situation in the country was to express discontent over a “politicized move, which aims to mount pressures on the Egyptian government.” Egypt’s reply then went on to “clarify” that no individuals in Egypt are detained arbitrarily and that the judiciary is independent. Finally, Egypt stated its openness to provide its partners “through bilateral channels, with the correct information addressing their concerns. Until then [it] ask[ed] those partners to scrutinize their information before hurling undocumented criticism to others.” At no time did the statement admit to the dire human rights situation in the country, nor did it suggest ways of improving it.
Pulling out the politicization and partiality card whenever called out for criticism highly resembles the position of countries like Israel, which cut all ties with the Council in March 2013 on similar grounds, following a resolution mandating investigation into the human rights violations against Palestinians as a result of Israel’s illegal settlements expansion.
This is not to say that the Council’s work is free from political favoritism. In fact, double standards have plagued the 47 member-state council since its inception. One of the major criticisms expressed by civil society to the body has been that calls for change that swept the Arab region did not result in principle alterations in the political considerations of major players in the international arena.
However, long standing hostility and continuous attempts to weaken the Council and degrading it of any potential constructive role in promoting and protecting human rights in the world is not the answer, neither is recalling culture relativity as a pre-text for violating human rights.
Cultural relativity — in this context, at least — is a myth, especially so after Tunisia became the first Arab country to support a resolution addressing its internal human rights situation in March 2011, followed later on by Yemen and Libya. These states, to varying degrees, have utilized available international tools in attempt to improve their internal human rights records.
Egypt, however, offers nothing to foster multilateral cooperation in the field of human rights but rhetoric.
As one listens to Egypt’s diplomats roar nationalist and non-interventionist speeches, the reality is that the country naturally succumbs to international pressure. I recall, as an example, the famous foreign NGOs court proceedings and the turn of events thereafter, when the three-judge panel in the trial against the 43 foreign NGO staff members suddenly resigned from the case, a move followed immediately by lifting the travel ban against the foreign staff, who left the country and did not return, with no explanation given as to why and how.
As the human rights situation in the country reaches unprecedented levels of deterioration, Egypt needs to realize that the only way to avoid being called out at the UN bodies is to finally start improving the human rights situation on the ground. The defensive approach of reinterpreting international law and going after NGOs for being “foreign agents” tarnishing the image of the country abroad is no longer a valid means for maneuver.