Egypt uneasy ahead of UN review of human rights record

Over the past few months, local media has insisted that Egypt is ready to respond to any questions regarding its human rights record ahead of the much-anticipated Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva.

On Wednesday, Egypt will be put in the hot seat as it undergoes a review of its human rights record as a UN member state.

Every four years, UN member states are given the opportunity to outline the actions they have taken to protect human rights and to fulfill their human rights obligations. Rights groups in the respective countries are allowed to submit reports and recommendations to be discussed during the session, along with a report authored by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

After this session, the UN presents its recommendations. Should the states accept them, they commit to ensuring their implementation throughout the four years until its next UPR.  

Egypt participated in a 2010 UPR session that resulted in 165 recommendations. The state accepted 119, rejected 21 and responded to the rest. So far, 125 countries have expressed interest in directing questions or recommendations at Egypt, compared to only 51 countries four years ago.

However, despite assertions that Egypt is well-equipped for the review, local media coverage also reflects a state of apprehension.

Hesham Badr, assistant foreign minister for international institutions and organizations, said that he expects “interventions based on false and politicized information, which will be rectified and responded to.”

No matter the accusations, “Egypt is confident in its ability to clarify the progress it achieved in human rights,” according to Mahmoud Fawzy, advisor to the transitional justice minister.

So far, 19 Egyptian NGOs have presented 100 recommendations to be reviewed on Wednesday. In a joint statement, the groups said the recommendations pertain to 12 human rights issues in particular “that suffer serious violations in terms of legislation and practice.”  

Several recommendations pertain to improving the state of human rights in Egypt generally, while others address specific rights to establish organizations, peaceful assembly and fair trials, as well as the rights of women, children, minorities and refugees.

The official government-prepared report presents the recommendations it has implemented from 2010 through June 2014. The report contends that Egypt successfully met 112 recommendations, and is still studying another 14.

The people’s demands in the January 25, 2011 and June 30, 2013 revolutions “superseded the demands put in place by the recommendations, and the reforms the former regime hoped to achieve every now and then and have extended to the core of human rights principles in freedom, justice, equality and human dignity,” the official report declared.

The document focused on different laws issued over the past four years, describing the 2014 Constitution in particular as “representing a victory for the revolution’s goals and principles, as well as a quantum leap toward improving human rights in Egypt, making respecting rights and freedoms and protecting them a part of the state’s political system.”

The report also pointed to completing the road map put in place after former President Mohamed Morsi was removed from power in 2013, which was “mainly concerned with the state of human rights and freedoms, and paving the way for transitional justice that cements the concepts of respecting and upholding these rights and freedoms in the framework of institutional reform and the principles of good governance.”

Divided into 13 sections, the report trumpets the state’s achievements in areas including Islamic bonds, international human, economic, social and cultural rights agreements, civil and political rights and empowering women.

It also heralds Egypt’s achievements in protecting the rights of children, people with special needs, refugees and immigrants; fighting torture and other forms of violence; stanching human trafficking; respecting human rights while combating terrorism, and cooperating with international human rights entities.

In stark contrast to the government’s glowing defense of its record, the 19 NGOs focused on what it described as the “absence of political will to improve the state of human rights,” which it considered the main impediment to improving the state of human rights and freedoms in Egypt.

“All consecutive governments since 2010 have violated rights such as the right to peaceful assembly, the right to form associations, freedom of opinion and expression, not to mention the sexual assaults on protesters. Meanwhile, they never achieved notable progress in improving conditions for the underprivileged and health, education and housing services,” their statement declared.

The NGOs’ report cited the repressive policies of the security forces, which have led to “blatant violations” that contributed to the killing of thousands of people. The statement also castigated the past four consecutive governments for failing to successfully halt terrorist acts against civilians and military personnel in Sinai and other parts of the country. 

Other major red flags include the absence of fair trials, and the lack of accountability for those responsible for subjecting Egyptians to a wide range of rights violations over the past three years. The NGOs also decried the increasing number of civilians being tried in military courts.

Serious violations of the right to peaceful assembly were a main focus of the second report — both through pieces of legislation like the contentious Protest Law, or violent state-sponsored crackdowns that led to the deaths of more than 2,000 people over the past three years. In addition, female protesters were especially subjected to a host of human rights violations, a problem that reached its pinnacle in recurrent incidents of mass rapes that security forces failed to prevent, while the survivors of such crimes have received neither justice nor compensation.

The NGOs’ report also referred to attempts to pressure victims of violence to retract their complaints, citing several cases documented by women’s rights groups.

Furthermore, the freedom of the press continues to be decimated in Egypt, the report claimed, saying that “the limited positive changes that the 2014 Constitution granted have not yet been translated into legislation.”

“The draft laws pertaining to these issues contradict with these constitutional guarantees,” the statement continued.

The report documents the continued referral of journalists and bloggers to military courts, the growing number of assaults on journalists and bloggers and the government’s crackdown on several newspapers and television channels.

The UPR session comes amid harsh local and international criticism aimed at the Egyptian government for the state of human rights in the country, criticisms that have contributed to this state of apprehension apparent in several media reports.

Mohamed Zarea, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), says he doesn’t know how the state will defend itself against the NGOs’ accusations.

“Human rights violations have become difficult to conceal and sugarcoat,” he warned.

Although public diplomacy delegation — which includes public figures and representatives of several organizations — will be present in Geneva, the government will still have a hard time explaining all of these problems away, Zarea contends.

“How can you justify mass death sentences? Or the detention of people for months without referral to trial?” he asks.

The official delegation will try to respond to these criticisms by saying that the lack of a seated Parliament over the past years has hindered the process of legislative reform, Zarea offers.

“There have always been those who have legislative authority,” he says, “and this authority has been used in a way that disregards the recommendations made in 2010, which the Egyptian government approved.”

Zarea cites legislation such as the controversial Protest Law and the Electoral Law as cases in point.

The “war on terrorism” pretext will also be heavily used to justify any repressive measures, he says.

“But the war on terrorism doesn’t justify the killing of peaceful protesters, or the continued detention for months pending trials,” Zarea argues.

While he recognizes the difficulty of justifying an “unjustifiable human rights state,” he expects that several countries will back the Egyptian government in Geneva, and may even “praise the measures it is taking to fight terrorism in the area.”

Another human rights activist, who preferred to remain anonymous, agrees. There are many indications that other countries may take a supportive role, he points out.

“The different messages that we received from the European Union say that their relationship with the Egyptian government is diverse, and that human rights is one of the issues pertaining to their relationship, but is not the only one,” he says.

Fearful of a repetition of Libya or Iraq, the EU prefers to support Egypt as a role model for stability in the region, the activist explains. Despite their recognition of the deteriorating state of human rights state in Egypt, they will not take any real steps to lobby for their improvement. Regional instability is thus playing to the Egyptian state’s advantage, he claims.

“There are rights groups that will not attend the UPR session to avoid any backlash,” he says, “and I am afraid that the session will not include any independent organizations.”

Egyptian NGOs are currently under threat in light of the amendments to Article 78 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes receiving foreign funds with the intention of harming the nation’s interests and imposes life imprisonment or a death sentence on violators.

Furthermore, the Social Solidarity Ministry has set a November 10 deadline for NGOs to register under Law 84 (2002). NGOs complained that the law violates their independence, and have objected to a new bill currently under review that would impose even further restrictions and punitive measures on NGOs. 

“This is unprecedented pressure. Five days after the UPR session, the NGOs are threatened with closure,” Zarea points out.

Local media coverage is either accusing the NGOs of setting a trap for the government in the Geneva meeting, or of engaging in an international conspiracy against the state, he says.

But “there is no trap set in Geneva. Egypt will regularly participate in the UPR sessions, and will offer recommendations and criticisms of human rights conditions in other countries, making it seem like there was a trap set as part of a defaming campaign,” Zarea asserts.

Many NGO workers interpret the recent legal actions and an ongoing campaign against NGOs as part of a strategy to shut down the public sphere.

“Civil society works primarily aboveground, in an open political environment that allows for communication with state institutions and the government,” Zarea says. “Closing down the public domain will prevent these organizations from operating, and will force everyone to work underground.”

“Civil society organizations do not work except in an open political sphere. Therefore, it won’t work underground,” he cautions. “Closing the public political sphere will work to the advantage of the radical voices over the voices of reform.”

“Recommendations on the state of human rights in Egypt may at least prevent the situation from further deteriorating,” he offers.

But Zarea adds that the opposite is also true — remaining silent on human rights violations may be a green light to continue committing them. 

Mostafa Mohie 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism