The intention by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to access the human rights situation in the 192 UN member states via the Universal Periodic Review should in no way be viewed as a prelude to imposing punitive measures against countries with poor human rights records. Rather, the move seeks to promote human rights and provide technical support to countries willing to improve their human rights situation and stand up to the challenges that might arise on the way.
With 2010 just three months away, Egypt is expected to take major steps to develop the often stormy relationship between the government and NGOs, with suspicion and mistrust giving way to cooperation and mutual assistance for the sake of enhancing civil rights in Egyptian society.
Watani contacted a group of human rights activists to learn how they perceived the new development, as well as its impact on the future of human rights in Egypt.
No longer ignore
Said Abdel-Hafez, head of the Forum for Development and Human Rights Dialogue, believes this year has seen qualitative changes concerning the Egyptian government’s attitude towards the periodical reports submitted by human rights groups to the UNHRC. “The government can no longer afford to ignore the issue altogether or provide international organisations with fabricated reports alleging that the human rights situation here could not be better,” he says. Now that Egypt has become a member of the UNHRC, the Egyptian government has come under the spotlight and whatever moves it takes will be subject to scrutiny by the international community. “Thus the government took an unprecedented move when it invited representatives of civil society organisations to listen to their opinion before submitting its report to the UNHRC in November.”
Mofid Shehab, Minister of State for parliamentary and legal affairs, met the representatives of NGOs working in the field of human rights and promised better cooperation between the government and these groups. “In general, I expect from the government greater openness towards human rights groups,” Abdel-Hafez says.
Abide by its promises
According to Moataz al-Fegieri, executive director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, periodic review reports are of fundamental significance if the human rights situation in Egypt is to be properly discussed. “The Egyptian government sometimes expresses reservations over some reports complied by NGOs and submitted to the UNHRC,” he says. “But Egypt will not be subject to any punitive measures owing to human rights violation. Although a host of countries has poorer human rights records than Egypt’s, none of them suffered any sanctions, as this issue is a thorny one and has much to do with political considerations and international relations. Egypt has a strong standing in world politics as well as a lot of cards to play to prevent sanctions.”
Al-Fegieri concluded that the pledges on the part of the government to respect human rights should be used against the government itself. “NGOs and the media should exert massive pressure on the government to push it to abide by its promises”, he said.
In light of the Universal Periodic Review mechanism, Gamal Barakat, director of the complaints office of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) says, the UNHRC has allocated a session particularly for Egypt. The session, which will take place next February, will be used to investigate the human rights situation in the country. “Three reports will be submitted in this meeting: a report offered by the government after holding consultations with NGOs and the NCHR; a report by the UN Higher Commissioner on Human Rights (UNHCHR) showing to what extent Egypt abides by international conventions; and another report by UNHCHR representing a summary of the reports submitted by NGOs and the NCHR” he said.
A leading figure at the left-leaning Tagammu Party, Hamdi al-Assiuti, has expressed pessimism over the future of the human rights situation in Egypt. “The government is boasting about the constitutional articles protecting freedom of expression, but the deteriorating freedom of opinion and the attempts by Arab governments to control the material aired by satellite channels are all bad signs,” he told Watani. “The situations of Shi’ites, Copts and Baha’is are appalling, and tight restrictions are imposed on freedom of religious practice and worship. These restrictions are inconsistent with the Egyptian Constitution and legislation.”
Human rights lawyer and activist Mahmoud Qandil points out that the Egyptian government has offered the UNHRC international, regional and domestic guarantees. “International and regional guarantees imply that the government should spare no effort to help the UNHRC perform its role and enhance international cooperation in the field of human rights,” he says. “Domestic guarantees require boosting domestic freedoms, including those of the media and expression; protecting the independence of the judiciary; promoting the culture of human rights; and incorporating courses on human rights into school curricula.” For now, the debate shows no sign of easing off.