UN review points at Egypt's NGO and protest laws

Ahram Online , Wednesday 5 Nov 2014

Egypt defended its human rights records at the UNPR event in Geneva, despite widespread calls for it to amend laws for NGOs and protests, among others

A UNHRC session in progress (Photo: Reuters)

Two controversial laws, one regulating NGOs and another putting restrictions on protesting , took centre stage at the UN Human Rights Council's regular four-year review of Egypt's human rights conditions on Wednesday in Geneva.

Nearly 125 member countries had recommendations as well as concerns on Egypt's human rights records during the review, which an official Egyptian delegation addressed.

Several countries, mostly from Europe, called for Egypt to draft a new NGO law that complies with international standards and treaties.

Among the countries with concerns and recommendations about the NGO law and protest law were the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Austria, France, Italy, Romania, Turkey, Norway, the Netherlands and Germany.

Several countries also brought up the rights of Egyptian detainees and the security crackdown following the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.

"We are deeply concerned with steps taken by Egypt that have resulted in violations of freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association, deprived thousands of Egyptians of fair trial guarantees and undermined civil society's role in the country," US ambassador Keith Harper told the UNHCR.

In response to the criticism, Hisham Badr, aide to Egypt's foreign affairs minister, said that the right to assembly was protected in Egypt's constitution.

He added that the new NGO draft law has not been finalised and that discussions are taking place with local groups to build consensus before it is sent to Egypt's next parliament, expected to be voted in at the end of the year.

"Egypt urges for the remarks (at the review) to be based on correct and accurate information, because some of them appear to be dealing with conditions in a country other than the Egypt in which we live," Badr said.

Regarding detainees, Mohamed Khalaf, representing Egypt's general prosecution in the delegation, denied that there are any political detainees in Egyptian prisons, or persons being detained without trial.

"There is no prisoner in Egypt who is detained because of expression-related charges. All of those arrested are being detained for breaking other criminal laws," said Khalaf.

Women's rights

Women's rights and measures against sexual harassment were brought up as well by several countries in Africa, South America, Asia and Europe.

Some of the delegations in their one minute speeches, including Singapore, Iran and Ethiopia, addressed their countries' concerns about violence against women and encouraged Egypt to give more attention to policies that help women's empowerment as well as fighting sexual harassment and violence against women and children.

The head of Egypt's National Council for Woman, Mervat El-Tallawy, insisted there have been recent achievements in the country with regards to women's rights, including articles in the newly-ratified constitution that allocate 25 percent of seats in local municipalities to women as well as a number of seats in the upcoming parliament.

The former minister and ambassador blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for spreading a false concept about women and their rights in Egyptian society.

She also referred to a recently passed anti-sexual harassment law, as well as a visit President Abdel El-Fattah El-Sisi paid to a woman who was sexually assaulted during celebrations this summer to mark his inauguration.

Rabaa, death sentences

Austria and Iceland brought up the violent dispersal of the two pro-Morsi Rabaa Al-Adaweya and Nahda sit-ins in August 2013, raising concerns about the excessive use of force.

For its part, Iceland demanded an investigation over the Rabaa dispersal, where hundreds of Morsi supporters died.

Several countries like Germany, Hungary, France, Switzerland and Uruguay recommended that Egypt abolish the death sentence from its penal code.

Several mass death sentences - most of which were overturned - were handed out this summer to pro-Morsi demonstrators on charges of attacking police stations in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Minya after Morsi's ouster in 2013, the largest death sentence ever in Egyptian history. The rulings drew widespread criticism.

Mahi Hassan, Egypt's minister of foreign affairs for human rights, said the death penalty is not banned by law in Egypt and that there are limitations on the use of the penalty.

Arab countries in the council did not have many recommendations or concerns regarding Egypt's human rights records, including Qatar, whose relations with Cairo have soured since Morsi's ouster over the Gulf state's perceived support of the Muslim Brotherhood and criticism of Egypt's current authorities.

China, Greece and Israel spoke about the issue of illegal immigration in their recommendations.

Egyptian officials said the army's current campaign in the Sinai – site of a militant insurgency since Morsi's ouster – has helped in lowering the human trafficking business in the border peninsula.

'Victory for human rights'

Ibrahim El-Heneidy, Egypt's minister of transitional justice, addressed the council at the beginning of the review, where he described how Egyptians launched two revolutions for the sake of their freedoms and rights. The minister also recounted how Egyptians revolted against Morsi due to his authoritarian practices.

"Human rights and citizens' freedoms are priorities of the national government that led the political roadmap after the 30 June revolution, and the best evidence for this is how I stand here among you as the minister of the transitional justice and parliament, a ministry that was founded by the government after 30 June as a sign of understanding of the reasons behind the revolution," he said in his opening speech.

Calling the 2014 constitution a victory for human rights and freedoms, the minister spoke about new draft laws that are being prepared to govern the building and repairing of churches – long a contentious point for the country's Christians – as well as genocide and crimes against humanity.

He also mentioned the achievements Egypt had made in the past four years regarding women's rights, freedom of speech and religious tolerance.

At the end of the session, El-Heneidy said that the recommendations of the member countries will be taken into consideration. In a public statement after the meeting, he said he was very satisfied with the review, which he insisted Egypt had "passed" with great success, "even if this test tackled a very exceptional period in Egypt's history."

On Friday the UNHCR will publish suggestions as to how Egypt can improve its human rights condition.

Egypt has drawn the attention of international rights group and governments in the last year over its alleged human rights abuses. For its part, Cairo has defended stricter measures in the name of an ongoing Islamist militancy that has killed hundreds of police and army personnel, as well as citizens.

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