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INTERVIEW: Constructive dialogue on human rights

The foreign minister’s assistant for human rights and international humanitarian and social affairs, Ahmed Ihab Gamaleddin underlines that Egypt is open to “constructive dialogue” on human rights, writes Bassem Aly

Bassem Aly , Thursday 7 Nov 2019
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Egypt has recently submitted its third periodic report to the third cycle of the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR). A high-level government delegation is scheduled to take part in the upcoming council meeting on 13 November in Geneva, with the aim of “launching an interactive dialogue on the content of the report, which outlines Egypt’s various efforts over the past five years to fulfil human-rights obligations under international agreements,” according to a statement from the Foreign Ministry.  

Al-Ahram Weekly spoke to Ahmed Ihab Gamaleddin, the foreign minister’s assistant for human rights and international humanitarian and social affairs, to sound out his views.

 

Egypt’s report to the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) will be discussed on 13 November. How does this mechanism operate? 

An official delegation chaired by Omar Marwan, the minister for parliamentary affairs, will be presenting the Egyptian national report on 13 November before the UPR Working Group of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The UPR is an important mechanism in the UN human-rights system, the core tenets of which, as per its agreed principles, are universality, objectivity, and non-selectivity in the consideration of human-rights issues, avoiding any double standards and politicisation. 

It is also based on the principles of cooperation and genuine dialogue and aimed at strengthening the capacity of states to comply with their human-rights obligations. All states are examined and present objective and reliable information regarding their achievements and challenges to the Human Rights Council and have a dialogue with other states in this regard. The UPR review represents an opportunity to showcase the universality of human rights and equal treatment with respect to all states.

 

What is the role of the UPR Working Group?

The review is conducted by the UPR Working Group, which consists of the 47 members of the UN Human Rights Council, but any UN member state can take part in the discussion with the reviewed states. The documents on which the reviews are based are the national report of the state under review, information contained in the reports of UN entities, and information from other stakeholders, including national human-rights institutions and non-governmental organisations. The reviews take place through an interactive discussion between the state under review and other UN member states. During this discussion any UN member state can pose questions, make comments, and/or make recommendations to the state under review.

 

How was Egypt’s report to the UPR prepared, and what were the entities involved?

This is the third time Egypt has been reviewed under the UPR mechanism, the first two times were in 2010 and 2014. The Egyptian national report is the product of collective national efforts in which all government ministries have participated. The report was discussed at frequent intervals with representatives of civil society and the National Council for Human Rights, before being forwarded last August to the UN Secretariat. Since then, a series of additional consultations were held with the National Council for Human Rights and civil society in order to listen to their findings, recommendations and observations that had been separately submitted to the UPR process. Such wide-ranging consultations are a reflection of the partnerships and positive engagement that exist between the government and the various national stakeholders. 

 

What are the key messages that Egypt seeks to convey to the UN Human Rights Council in the context of the UPR review process?

The key message is that we are dedicated to building on what we have achieved during the past four years, against all the odds and despite a turbulent regional context and the threats of terrorism, and that we are indeed on the right track and are determined to move forward. 

Through our report and our constructive engagement with all our partners, we affirm that we are part of the international drive to improve human rights globally and that we share in the ownership of its principles and instruments. Egypt participated in their elaboration and is therefore keen on their full implementation on the ground. We realise that work in the area of human rights is by definition a work in progress that cannot be realised fully in an instantaneous manner. On the contrary, it is an incremental exercise and requires perseverance and constant work involving enhancing the work of current institutional arrangements as well as creating new ones, issuing laws and policies, strengthening redress mechanisms, engaging in capacity building and training, and above all creating a culture of human rights in society as well as mainstreaming human-rights principles in education. 

Like in all other countries, we in Egypt are striving to build on our achievements and to address any shortcomings in a spirit of openness and a commitment to realising needed improvements.

 

What are the main challenges Egypt has been facing in its efforts to promote and protect human rights?

Understanding the context is the starting point for recognising the nature and scope of the current challenges and for choosing the appropriate means to address them. Egypt belongs to a region suffering from chronic insecurity, political instability, the rise of extremism, and persistent susceptibility to armed conflicts. Civil wars, revolutions, and terrorism in the region have created fertile ground for further violence. 

The challenge of balancing national-security concerns with the protection of human rights, though not peculiar to our region, is particularly compounded by the scale and gravity of the security threats that we are facing. Moreover, the Egyptian economy was negatively impacted by political and security instability following the January 2011 Revolution, which caused macroeconomic indicators to decline and negatively impacted the realisation of economic and social rights. 

Since 2014, our national efforts have focused on initiating an ambitious economic reform programme in order to create a favourable environment for economic growth and sustainable development. The programme has indeed improved our macroeconomic indicators. The government was also keen to exert intensive efforts to establish a robust social-protection network for vulnerable segments impacted by the economic reform measures.

 

Could you shed light on the achievements included in the Egyptian human-rights report?

The report touches on what we have accomplished in both civil and political rights as well as economic, cultural and social rights. It is divided into 14 sections in which we have attempted to present what we have done. Egypt has succeeded in checking terrorism, jump starting its economy, and realising a high rate of economic growth, in addition to major investments in social services, infrastructure, as well as ambitious mega-projects.  

Human rights represent an important component of our national development strategy called Vision 2030. It transcends our previous efforts and encompasses all spheres of life, including health, housing, food, education, water, the environment, social protection, religious freedoms, fighting corruption, and the various other civil and political rights.

 

Egypt’s report to the UPR sheds light on upgrading the country’s institutional arrangements on the promotion and protection of human rights. Could you highlight the efforts that are being undertaken in this regard? 

Over the years, we have created departments of human rights in all government ministries, in the prosecutor-general’s office, and human-rights offices in all the governorates. We have also created a National Council for Human Rights, which has the status of “A” in the global network of National Human Rights Institutions, in addition to a Committee for Human Rights in the parliament and National Councils for Women, Childhood and Motherhood, and Persons with Disabilities. 

At the end of November, a new Supreme Standing Committee for Human Rights will start its operations, chaired by the minister of foreign affairs and with the membership of all government stakeholders. This new committee will have a dedicated technical secretariat with sufficient expertise in international human-rights law and will work proactively on all aspects of human rights, including inter alia elaborating a national human-rights strategy and following up its implementation, preparing the national reports to human-rights treaty bodies, engaging in building capacities and training in human rights, responding to the national, regional and international human-rights mechanisms, proposing legislative amendments and policy changes, and mainstreaming a human-rights culture in the society and education. 

In addition, we will be launching a major capacity-building project with the United Nations with the support of our international development partners.

 

Do you expect criticisms from certain countries during the UPR session in Geneva, and how will you respond to them?

The Egyptian delegation will be open to constructive dialogue with all other countries and will provide reliable and objective answers to any questions. Like others, Egypt has some way to go to address shortcomings here and there, and sometimes individual mistakes could take place, but we have the strong determination to address these. Do not forget that after all we are a developing country with a population of one hundred million, a large percentage of which suffers from poverty, illiteracy and economic hardships. This should always be taken into consideration because you cannot judge all countries by the same yardstick as objective conditions do vary. 

In addition, it is also true that all societies in the world are striving to deal with their own shortcomings in terms of policies, laws and implementation and to fully realise the rights of their citizens, guard against violations, and provide self-correcting mechanisms. Therefore, human rights are an area where no country can claim the moral authority to give lessons to others. What is certain is that the Egyptian government has the strong political will to build on achievements and address any challenges and provide the mechanisms to correct any individual mistakes. In fact, it is determined to exercise its responsibilities towards its people, to fulfil their aspirations, and above all to realise their rights for a better future, through comprehensive reform anchored in the promotion and protection of human rights. 

We do this not as a result of outside pressure, but because this is the right thing to do, and because this is what the Egyptian people deserve. In addition, we have our own independent National Human Rights Council and a vibrant civil society that are invaluable partners for the government in this journey. The government takes their observations and recommendations very seriously. 

 

How do you respond to those who may attack the Egyptian human-rights record?

Let me start by saying that like everybody else we in Egypt are constantly striving to upgrade our level of the implementation of human rights. This is a continuous process not a single event, and its speed must reflect the particularities and special circumstances of each country. In addition, let it be clear that no country is perfect, and what counts in the end is the will to move in the right direction.  

Egyptian efforts occur against a background of the lingering impact of the turmoil that the country has witnessed post-January 2011 and the new realities which have ensued. This has been compounded by the fact that we live in a turbulent region, which has more than its share of instability. Furthermore, we face the grim daily reality of terrorism, threatening our citizens and all their human rights, starting from the most basic right to life. Nevertheless, these challenges and dangers notwithstanding, Egypt is persevering in its efforts to move forward to fulfil its obligations to protecting its citizens from terrorism and realising the delicate balance between combating terrorism and protecting rights and liberties. 

We want to create a modern state in which everyone, man or women, Muslim or Christian, young or old, all across Egypt, enjoys equal rights. We are in a race against time to strengthen and modernise our institutions to enable them to implement our comprehensive national development strategy, of which human rights is an integral part, and we welcome international cooperation and are open to constructive dialogue with willing partners.

 

What are the next steps in the implementation of the new NGO Law 149, and when do you expect its executive decree to be issued?

Law 149 was drafted and issued in response to the demands of civil society expressed during the last Youth Forum in Sharm El-Sheikh in November 2018, on the basis of which President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi requested the government to prepare new legislation that would be balanced and in line with international norms. A drafting committee chaired by the minister of social solidarity was formed that organised six hearings with 1,300 Egyptian and foreign civil-society organisations during which they expressed their criticisms of the previous Law 170 and their recommendations for its improvement. These views were compiled and put before the drafting committee which took them into consideration. I can even venture to say that the majority of these recommendations were included in the new law. 

At present, the elaboration of the executive decree is underway, and the views of civil society on it will be sought. In fact, the spirit of openness and constructive dialogue that characterised the elaboration of Law 149 will be the norm in the future.

 

What steps will be taken as follow-up to the UPR?

After the UPR is completed and its report adopted during the next session of the UN Human Rights Council next March, Egypt will embark on the implementation of the recommendations it has accepted during the exercise. The government will disseminate those recommendations as widely as possible, and meetings will be held with the National Council for Human Rights and Egyptian civil society to chart a path towards the implementation of these recommendations. 

I want to reiterate in this regard that the Egyptian government is working on a major qualitative upgrade of its human-rights system with the beginning of the new Supreme Standing Committee on Human Rights and its comprehensive mandate.

 

What were the lessons learned from the preparation of the national report exercise?

 Let me emphasise that the process of developing the report has allowed the Egyptian government to review and take stock of its efforts over the past four years towards the promotion and protection of political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights. We regard all categories of rights as interdependent and mutually reinforcing. 

 

The exercise has helped us identify key achievements realised during the past four years, as well as challenges that we need to address and to chart our aspirations and future goals in the coming four years. These are indeed very ambitious and reflect a decisive political will at the highest level to attain the highest possible level of achievements that responds to the expectations of the Egyptian people, putting into effect the rights and liberties enshrined in the Egyptian constitution and the international obligations included in the human-rights conventions to which we are party.


Key points in Egypt’s human-rights report

EGYPT’S human-rights report was prepared after a series of intensive consultations with various national stakeholders, especially the National Human Rights Council, civil society, and public figures. These consultations adopted a constructive and participatory approach, and the preparation of the report has allowed Egypt to review all its efforts towards the promotion and protection of political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights. 

It has also helped Egypt identify key achievements, as well as challenges, facing the full realisation of a vast array of rights and freedoms, among them: 

Freedom of the media: A Media Syndicate law has been enacted stipulating the independence of the media. 

Three other laws have also been issued to govern the media and the press, stipulating that newspapers may be issued by notification and that they shall not be censored, confiscated, suspended, or shut down except at times of war or public mobilisation. 

The law also guarantees that journalists and media personalities will not be prosecuted for their personal opinions. Furthermore, publication offences are no longer punishable by sentences entailing the deprivation of liberty, except crimes involving the instigation of violence, discrimination, or defamation. The law also stipulates that the Supreme Council for Media and Press Regulation shall be independent and that no authority may interfere in its affairs.

 

Civil society: A new law regulating the work of civil-society organisations was issued in July 2019 following a series of intensive community dialogues.

 Under this law, which avoids the shortcomings of the previous one, civil-society organisations may be founded and may acquire legal personality by notification. The non-objection of the competent administrative authority within 60 working days is deemed to be the approval of the same. Unlike the previous law, the new law repeals any sentences entailing the deprivation of liberty, prohibits the dissolution of civil-society organisations except by a court ruling, and establishes a fund to provide technical, financial, and administrative support for such organisations and associations in order to improve their performance.

 

Combating torture: During the period from January 2014 to April 2019, and as proof of the government’s seriousness in combating torture, investigations and trials involving police officers were conducted on 30 alleged cases of torture, 66 alleged cases of cruelty, and 215 alleged cases of ill-treatment. These investigations and trials led to 70 criminal convictions and 156 dismissed cases, while 85 cases are still ongoing. Additionally, 344 disciplinary trials were held, leading to 207 convictions.

In order to fulfil its constitutional commitments, the government has recently proposed amendments to the Criminal Procedures Code, which would expand the rights and jurisdictions of defence attorneys during evidence collection, preliminary investigation, and criminal trials. The amendments also set a time limit on travel bans and introduce a new system to regulate witness and victim protection.

Economic and social rights: The government has released its Sustainable Development Strategy (Egypt Vision 2030), which aims to provide a decent life for all Egyptian citizens without any discrimination. 

The strategy, which involves the participation of international development partners, was developed through a wide-scale social engagement process that considered the perspectives of civil-society organisations and the private sector.

 

Empowerment of women: The Egyptian constitution ensures gender-equality in rights, freedoms, public duties, and opportunities without discrimination in 22 articles, especially articles 11 and 53. Under the constitutional amendments of April 2019, a 25 per cent quota of parliamentary and municipality seats were granted to women.

 

Respecting human rights while combating terrorism: In view of the importance of combating terrorism to ensure citizen safety and human rights, as well as the necessity of respecting human rights in this context, the Egyptian law defines terrorist organisations and terrorist acts. 

Two lists have been established, one for terrorist organisations and the other for terrorists. The public prosecutor has been given the mandate of filing requests to add names to these lists based on investigations and supporting documents. This mandate also includes crossing names off these lists. The law stipulates that an entity may be added to the list of terrorist organisations for up to five years. In case no final verdict confirming that the listed entity fits the legal definition of a terrorist organisations within the allowed period, the Prosecutor-General’s Office is required to resubmit a request to the competent judicial district, which shall in turn decide whether to keep the entity on the list.

The anti-terrorism law, which safeguards all legally and constitutionally inviolable human rights without disruption to any of them, has also been issued. Under this law, the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code shall apply to terrorism charges. Suspects are also granted the right to appeal to a competent court against their pre-trial detention or the extension of their detention period without paying any fees. Except by a substantiated judicial order, the law prohibits searching suspects, monitoring and recording conversations and messages, or recording and videotaping private interactions or activities on Websites and social-media networks. It also requires the police to inform all detainees of why they are arrested and to enable them to contact their families, seek legal assistance, and keep a verbatim record of their testimony. 

CONCLUSIONS: Over the past few years, the Egyptian government has taken accelerated strides towards promoting and protecting all basic human rights and freedoms. 

 

Though its ambitions have not always been fully realised, it has been diligently striving towards meeting them, despite limited resources, security, economic, and social challenges, especially the menace of terrorism, rapid population growth, and the influx of immigrants and refugees as a result of unrest and economic crises in neighbouring countries.

 

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

 

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