Human rights hogwash

Hany Ghoraba
Thursday 31 May 2018

A recent report on Sinai by Human Rights Watch has once again drawn attention to the shoddy methods employed by this US-based NGO

“A government is guilty until proven innocent” seems to be the motto of the US-based non-profit organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW), which is headquartered in New York.

This motto has been born out in almost all the group’s reporting on Egypt over recent years.

In its latest series of negative reports on Egypt entitled “Army intensifies Sinai home demolitions” HRW said that “the destruction, much of which is likely unlawful, has extended well beyond two government-designated security buffer zones in the cities of Arish and Rafah.

The army also demolished several homes in Arish, in what appears to have been retaliation against terrorism suspects, political dissidents, and their relatives.”

This language, used by Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director, is not only presumptuous since it fails to provide any evidence of such destruction, but is also deeply misleading.

Moreover, Whitson fails to mention in her twisted report that the Egyptian army is already building a new town to accommodate the residents of Rafah and other towns who evacuated their homes on army orders as a precautionary measure during the fight against the Islamic State (IS)-affiliated terrorist group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis.

This report and similar ones accusing the army of causing a humanitarian crisis in Sinai have been officially denied by an Egyptian army spokesman who said they were devoid of truth.

He stressed that food and medical supplies had been secured by the army to reach North Sinai amidst the military operations.

Egypt has been on the HRW radar for the past few years, especially after the ousting of Muslim Brotherhood former president Mohamed Morsi in the 30 June Revolution.

Since that date, HRW has become reliant on supporters of the terrorist group for its reports and fabled tales of their torments under the new Egyptian government.

HRW has hardly ever recognised the damage that members of this terrorist organisation have done to the Egyptian state and people over recent years, when thousands of military personnel and civilians have perished.

They died as a result of the unprecedented wave of terrorist attacks orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates.

Nevertheless, these attacks hardly occupy the minds of this US-based NGO, and they are rarely mentioned in its reports.

In the case of the North Sinai governorate that the shoddy report of HRW covers, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis has turned the lives of North Sinai residents into a living hell, with indiscriminate attacks on civilians including Christian Copts and Muslim worshippers in mosques.

Coptic shop-owners and their families have been threatened and forced to flee their homes, seeking refuge in other cities after being threatened.

However, it has not only been the Copts who have been suffering, as on 24 November last year the most devastating attack in the history of Egypt took place in the town of Bir Al-Abd in Sinai, killing 305 worshippers in a mosque.

As a result of such attacks, the Egyptian state has been tasked with protecting the lives of innocent civilians, and drastic measures have been put in place including relocating citizens to new homes.

The Palestinian group Hamas, which has been running the Gaza Strip for over a decade, has dug thousands of tunnels across the Egyptian/Gazan border, and these have been a lifeline for terrorists in the region.

Accordingly, measures had to be taken to distance civilians from this dangerous border zone and relocate them to the town of New Rafah about five km from the border.

These evacuated residents were paid compensation, and they will be handed their new homes as soon the new town is up and running.

HRW’s reporting style using anonymous witnesses and unnamed sources cannot be perceived as constituting a reliable source of information.

For instance, the report cites the Facebook links of an anonymous group called “the People’s Committee of North Sinai”, which is obviously tied to terrorists in North Sinai as it speaks the same language in its communiqués.

The Egyptian government and army amidst the economic hardships that the country has been suffering from for the past seven years have undertaken the huge task of relocating the residents of the border town of Rafah to a location away from the reach of terrorists surfacing from Gaza through tunnels.

This relocation comes at a huge economic cost that the government could well do without, yet in order to protect Egyptian citizens and Egyptian borders from terrorist activities it has been willing to bear this cost.

HRW has also accused the Egyptian army of expanding the security perimeter it set for the evacuation from Rafah without announcing it in advance.

However, it ignored the fact that in any war or conflict armies may need to take the decision to expand a security perimeter to protect the lives of civilians and of course of soldiers.

Even if the army has chosen to expand the security perimeter in Rafah to curb the terrorist activities coming from Gaza into Egypt, it is the prerogative of the Egyptian army to do just that without having to clear it first with an organisation writing reports from a lofty perch in New York.

No government on the planet, democratic or not, can claim to have discovered a proven formula to tackle terrorism. But the goal of protecting the citizens of the state is paramount for all governments facing unprecedented challenges from terrorist activities.

Undoubtedly, this NGO is doing a disservice to the noble cause of human rights by publishing shoddy reports on a war in which it has decided to side with the aggressor, in other words the Muslim Brotherhood and its terrorist allies in Sinai.

It has simultaneously ignored the thousands of lives lost by Egyptian military personnel and police forces, as well as by innocent civilians, as a result of the actions of these groups.

HRW’s shoddy reporting uses unnamed witnesses and cites unverified sources of information from conflicting reports, being more befitting of a sensationalist tabloid newspaper than the reputable human rights organisation it claims to be. Such reports on the situation in Egypt also raise questions about the validity of the organisation’s reports on the human rights situation in other countries.

It may be time to revise HRW’s status as a credible source of human rights reporting worldwide.

The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: Human rights hogwash   

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