Egypt’s human rights record to be reviewed at UN
UN Human Rights Council - Photo courtesy of therepublicsquare
By NOURHAN MAGDI

CAIRO: The status of human rights in Egypt over the past four years will be discussed Wednesday at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. 

Protections for human rights have worsened in some areas since the country had its initial Universal Periodic Review (UPR)  by the council in 2010, a number of NGOs have claimed.

The Egyptian delegation, led by Minister of Transitional Justice Ibrahim el-Henedy, was scheduled to fly Sunday to Geneva and “is ready to respond on the status of freedoms in Egypt,” Assistant Foreign Minister Hisham Badr told Al-Masry Al-Youm Saturday.

Concerns of negative developments to the human rights arena in Egypt, following four years of turbulent political situation, are expected to top the questions directed to the Egyptian delegation.

However, some organizations believe that Egyptian commitment to the 2010 session’s recommendations were “less than what was aspired,” the head of the Arab Penal Reform Organization Mohamed Zarea told The Cairo Post.

“From violence in the streets to assaults on detainees in custody and death penalties and the use of live ammunition,” Zarea explained the deterioration of the Egyptian attention to the human rights file.

On the other hand, the national report submitted by the Egyptian government highlights the moves taken by Egypt to address human rights problems, and promotes the 2014 Constitution as a top achievement, describing it as a “qualitative transformation towards improving the human rights situation in Egypt,” according to a copy of the report made available on the website of the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights.

Zarea also praised the 2014 constitution, but added “a lot of laws have not been changed and a number of legislative reforms still needed to be executed.”

The UPR in Egyptian media

The UPR is a systematic United Nations mechanism that began in 2008, to evaluate the commitment of all member states to the development of their status on human rights.

“This is an international pressure mechanism aimed to improve the human rights situation in all member states, and not a scandal to the reviewed state as pictured by many local media outlets writing about the process,” said Mona Nader, the Media Coordinator of the Cairo Institute of Human Rights Studies.

Nader told The Cairo Post that there were “mistaken” expressions used to describe the UPR process during Egypt’s session in 2010, like: “attack on Egypt, a fight and an accusation.” She added that that this media coverage might be derived from repeated statements by the 2010 Egyptian delegation who kept saying “We are above suspicion,” upon their return to Egypt from the session.

Furthermore, she also noted that “there were technical problems in the 2010 media coverage which implied that many journalists were not really aware of the nature of the process.”

Some of the newspapers defined the recommendations submitted by member states as “orders to Egypt or threats to cut off the aid.” Nader said“Egypt is not a student, and the recommendations are only helping states improve their human rights situation,” adding “they [recommendations] are neither interference in the internal affairs of the country nor they are obligatory unless the country itself freely agrees to adopt them.”

Civil society had also faced criticism in the media coverage then after submitting reports on violations to human rights to be discussed during the session, “Some newspapers claimed secret meetings were held by civil organizations during the session to pressure on member states to criticize Egypt,” according to Nader. “This is not true, as everything going on in the session is available on the UN website. Besides, it is very normal to find civil society highlighting violations to human rights and sending recommendations to the government, because this is their role,” she continued.

Egypt since 2010

During the 2010 UPR session, Egypt accepted 119 recommendations out of a total of 165, and partially agreed to 25 others. In the national report, the government said it implemented a total 112 recommendations and is studying 14 others.

But that was before the tumult caused by the January 25 Revolution in 2011, which the national report addressed it as a “popular peaceful revolution against a ruling regime attributed to the creating of a political and financial corruption to the concept of the state.”

As successive governments with different political backgrounds assumed power in Egypt through the past years, the priority of human rights took a backseat due to what a Wednesday release by 19 Egyptian NGOs described as “lack of political will.”

“All successive governments since 2010 have violated various rights, including freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of association and freedom of expression,” read the NGOs’ release, which is part of the compiled NGOs report submitted to the U.N.

In the run-up preparations for the 2014 UPR, the government established a national committee in 2013 to draft the country’s second report and ensure the inclusion of NGOs in the drafting process.

However, the 19 NGOs in their release complained of “a lack of consultation” and said the government drafted the report on its own.

Zarea also denied regular cooperation between State and non-state organizations during the past four years.

In this context, the Independent Egyptian Organizations Forum invited the Egyptian government to a joint meeting “to discuss both the government report and independent reports on the state of human rights in Egypt before the UPR takes place,” added the Wednesday release.

Reported violations

In the past few years, human rights organizations have reported on high death tolls in protests and dispersals of sit-ins, and have claimed that the right to life has been frequently violated by security forces.

The government was not only criticized for the deaths of protesters, but also for its failure to prevent terrorist attacks, which have been targeting military and police forces in a prolonged fight since the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi.

Human rights activists have also raised concerns about new amendments to Egypt’s counter-terrorism laws, fearing that a broad definition of terrorism in the law has also raised concerns among “could be misused by police or encourage brutality.”

In terms of press freedom, journalists and media practitioners have frequently reported being targeted by security forces while doing their jobs.

And, concerning the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, a release last Wednesday noted “grave violations” under the 2013 Protest Law, under which many protesters, students and political activists have been sentenced to prison, the 19 NGOs said.

They added there is a complete absence of accountability for security agencies, which they said were responsible for “arbitrary detention, punishment by lengthy remand and the trying of civilians before military trials, including minors.”

Human rights organizations have also been highly critical of a new penal article that allows civilian to be tried before military courts. Following a militant attack in the Sinai that killed over 30 soldiers last Friday, a presidential decree was issued to increase the scope of military jurisdiction and allow the military to join the police in securing public installations. This would mean civilians arrested by the military in some instances would face military trials.

A newly announced NGO law also has civil society groups up in arms concerned over government interference in limiting the groups’ independence. It would allow the government to choose the boards and directors of NGOs and fire existing members. A registration deadline for NGOs under the new law could make “civil society as an extension of the government sector,” according to a previous interview by The Cairo Post.

Stalled recommendations

One of the recommendations that were submitted to Egypt in 2010 Egypt, however not yet implemented, is to start carrying out effective investigations into torture –based cases in order to punish the perpetrators. Accordingly, amendments to the definition of torture in the Egyptian penal code were requested in accordance with the U.N. convention.

“Until January 2014, no changes occurred to the legislative infrastructure related to the criminalization or toughening the penalty of torture,” read the NGOs report. Torture victims have been reported many times to have been in an uphill battle to prove their assault, when they victimized by security officers.

Although the national report has noted the establishment of human rights sector in the interior ministry, more complaints about detainees subjected to physical assaults in custody were still reported.

Advance questions by states have also focused on Egypt’s intentions to adopt certain rights’ conventions, as Belgium did when it asked “Does the Government of Egypt intend to ratify the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance?”

Enforced disappearance, although not publicly discussed on a wide scale, has recorded a rise especially after the third anniversary of the Jan. 25 revolution; many cases were reported few months ago to have allegedly disappeared and then re-appeared to be held over charges related to terrorism.

Egypt accepted 25 recommendations related to women’s rights in the 2010 UPR, according to the NGOs report, which noted that no action had been taken during the past four years to support gender equality or stop violence against women.

Also the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) along other stakeholders included recommendations to Egypt on different issues related to women rights; one of them to “ensure the prohibition of FGM, as well as the prosecution of the perpetrators.”

It was reported that a number of international and local NGOs are organizing conferences on the sidelines of the session, including the banned Brotherhood affiliated party Freedom and Justice Party.

In order for Egypt to make progress on its human rights file, Zarea said that during this year’s review, “Egypt has to take care to bring more reforms on the ground.”

“What the country mostly needs is to apply the amendments and recommendations it has accepted to legislations and laws, in order to match with the constitution,” he added.

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