United Nations reviews Egypt’s human rights failures

Amelia Cooper reports from Geneva

The deteriorating human rights situation in Egypt was placed under the spotlight at the 28 Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, as the country was subjected to the Universal Periodic Review, a peer-assessment process during which states and civil society organisations provide information and analyze the overall human rights performance of a given country. States and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) are able to make recommendations to the country: Egypt accepted 224 of these recommendations, noted 53 and provided additional information to qualify the rejection of the remaining 23. Its success in implementing the recommendations will be reviewed in 2017.

Egypt’s acceptance of the vast majority of their received recommendations should herald a new dawn of human rights  in the country. However, the contrast between the promises made at the UN by the al-Sisi government and the reality on the ground, suggests scepticism is a wiser position.

The shrinking space for civil society, sanctioned by the anti-protest law and the ban on foreign funding for NGOs was widely criticised, as was the use of excessive force by the Egyptian police. While Egyptian Ambassador Hisham Badr stated that civil society was a natural partner for the government, and assured the forum that the right to protest is enshrined in Article 73 of the Constitution, his empty platitudes were soon discredited. Firstly, the absence of independent Egyptian human rights organizations from the UPR process, for fear of reprisals on their return, spoke volumes about the situation for activists.

Secondly, the stories of activists and protestors such as Yara Sallam, Sana Seif, Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Maher, arbitrarily imprisoned under the Protest Law, were raised by a number of NGOs, providing a human face to the widespread repression of Egyptian civil society. Thirdly, Article 19 noted the deaths of at least 20 people, including Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, during protests on the anniversary of the revolution in January 2015, as evidence of the continued use of brutal force by the police forces.

Entwined with assaults on civil society and protestors is the Egyptian government’s failure to protect freedom of expression. The Egyptian government delegation’s baseless claim that ‘no one is detained for his or her opinion or for exercising the right to freedom of expression’ is an insult to the 41,000+ individuals who have been arrested since July 2013 on spurious charges, and convicted in trials ‘marred by irregularities and violations of due process’ according to international human rights group FIDH. Further criticism of mass trials, the use of torture and the overuse of the death penalty was met with deflections and vague appeals to ‘cultural, political and legal specificities’.

As ever, the Egyptian government delegation made many promises; however, their authenticity is doubtful. Egypt is undergoing one of the most extreme clampdowns on fundamental freedoms that this world has ever seen, and the international community should not applaud the centralization of human rights in the new Constitution and turn a blind eye to the real, daily abuses suffered by citizens. While some criticisms and recommendations made during the UPR process recognized the myriad violations of human rights, condemnation cannot remain within the UN. The UN’s member states should call clearly for an end to the crackdown: failure to do so is an insult to the innocent citizens and civil society actors who bear the brunt of this repression.

Further Information

Watch the UPR adoption here, and read the full report (A/HRC/28/16) here

Statements made by NGOs (videos and transcripts):

Videos of all are included in the recorded UPR Adoption.
Human Rights Watch
Article 19
Federation Internationale des Droits de l’Homme
International Service for Human Rights
East & Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies