The United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) 34th session will review the human rights records of three countries — Egypt, Iran and Iraq — that have been the focus of sustained international criticism.
In accordance with UNHRC’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, a three-country panel selected by the UPR Working Group — the UK, Senegal and Fiji — have received questions from other countries in the group. As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, this tripartite committee had submitted questions to Egypt in advance of the review session on Wednesday. After responding to the written questions Egypt will field questions posed orally by representatives of other member states. The members of the UPR Working Group have also received reports for the session prepared by the Egyptian government, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and special rapporteurs, and NGOs.
Some observers believe the process will be smoother for Egypt this time around. The Egyptian delegation will focus on progress achieved in economic, social and health rights which Egypt has prioritised over political and civil rights. Egypt voluntarily submitted a mid-term report a year ago covering its efforts to meet its international commitments on human rights and the 300 recommendations it received in its second UPR in 2014.
Many diplomats at the UN headquarters in Geneva believe Egypt will need to gird itself for some aggressive tactics by countries and rights organisations with anti-Egyptian agendas. Such parties will not miss the opportunity of this major periodic review to advance international pressure on Egypt.
The Egyptian delegation to Geneva is headed by Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Omar Marwan and includes Assistant Foreign Minister for Human Rights Ahmed Ihab Gamaleddin, Egypt’s Permanent Representative to the UN Alaa Youssef, the head of Egypt’s National Human Rights Council (NHRC) Mohamed Fayek, the chair of the National Council for People with Disabilities Ashraf Marei, head of the National Council for Women Maya Morsi and the Director of the General Prosecution’s Human Rights Department Hani Georgy.
The Egyptian government’s report to the UNHRC’s UPR (UPR) says that of the 300 recommendations received in 2014 Egypt accepted 224 in full and 23 in part. It rejected another 23 on the grounds that they conflict with the Egyptian constitution or universally accepted concepts of human rights. It took note of 29 that were already in effect and objected to one that it qualified as “inaccurate”.
Under Article 151 of the Egyptian constitution, legislative, executive and judicial authorities are bound by international treaties that acquire the force of law domestically when ratified. As the report observed, this gives anyone harmed through the non-application of the provisions of such treaties the right to legal redress. The 2014 constitution went further than previous constitutions in this regard and specifically addressed international human rights agreements. Article 93 states that Egypt “shall be bound by international human rights agreements, covenants and conventions” that entered into law after ratification. Accordingly, stakeholders have the right to appeal to the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) against any law they believe conflicts with the provisions of international human rights instruments to which Egypt is a state party. The SCC has ruled in two cases that Article 93 obliges the state to amend domestic laws that do not conform with the provisions of international human rights agreements. SCC rulings are final, and binding on all government authorities.
As the government’s report to the UPR points out, Egypt has followed through on the SCC’s rulings. Parliament has passed a number of laws since 2015 to bring domestic legislation in line with Egypt’s international and regional human rights commitments. Steps have been taken to strengthen the institutional infrastructure in support of human rights, and the law governing the establishment of the NHRC was amended to support the council’s autonomy and jurisdiction in accordance with the constitution. A special human rights department was established in the Prosecutor-General’s Office and charged with investigating human rights abuses. Two laws were passed to institutionalise the National Council of Women and the National Council for People with Disabilities. A Permanent Human Rights Committee was also created in parliament to monitor the implementation of obligations emanating from international agreements, to propose regulatory and legislative remedies and develop and follow through on the implementation of a national strategy for human rights.
Concerning civil and political rights, Egypt’s report to the UPR points out that Egypt held parliamentary elections four years ago as part of the process of reinforcing democracy. The elections brought 90 women, 39 people under the age of 35, eight people with disabilities and eight Egyptians living abroad into parliament. In addition, thanks to the liberalisation of laws governing the formation of political parties, Egypt now has 92 political parties of which 20 are represented in parliament.
The report stressed that Egypt accepted the 2014 UPR’s recommendations regarding freedom of the press out of its conviction that this freedom is a cornerstone of any democratic system. In line with this, parliament enacted a Media Syndicate Law to uphold journalistic freedoms and guarantee the rights of journalists in pursuit of their profession. Three additional laws were promulgated, creating the legal architecture that regulates the press and media, guarantees freedom of publication and distribution in print, audio-visual and electronic forms and prohibits censorship, suspension, confiscation or closure of newspapers or news outlets except in times of war and national emergency.
In implementing the recommendations from the last session Egypt has bolstered the right to peaceful assembly and the creation of associations. In 2017 the law governing public assemblies, parades and peaceful demonstrations was amended, giving the judiciary sole power to prevent, delay or change the course of any demonstration, stripping the Interior Ministry of its role in this regard.
In addition, a new law was promulgated to regulate the work of civil society organisations. Passed by parliament in July 2019 following lengthy consultations the law allows civil society organisations to be set up solely by notification. Organisations thus established are entitled to financial privileges, tax exemptions and the right to receive funding and grants after notifying the competent administrative authority. Non-objection by the competent administrative authority within 60 days is deemed approval. The new law abolishes custodial penalties and prohibits the dissolution of an organisation or its board of directors in the absence of a court ruling.
In its report to the UPR, the government has underscored its belief in the importance of the role civil society organisations play in development. There are now more than 57,000 registered civil society organisations. Since 2017 a representative of the Regional Federation of Civil Society Organisations has regularly been invited to attend governorate executive assembly sessions. The purpose is to promote closer communications with civil society and coordinate efforts to provide public services. The government has contributed a proposal to add to the local government bill currently under discussion in parliament which calls for the inclusion of a representative of the Regional Federation of Civil Society Organisations as a member of the executive assembly of each governorate.
On freedom of belief, the right to worship and non-discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation, the government report cites the law on the establishment and restoration of churches, promulgated in 2016 in order to uphold freedom of belief. The law governs the rules and procedures needed to obtain permits, to resolve existing administrative violations and to regularise the status of places of worship. Under the law all buildings used for Christian religious services at the time the law went into effect were regarded as licensed churches on condition that applicants could demonstrate ownership of the premises and that the buildings themselves were safe. By July 2019, 1,021 churches and their facilities were regularised under the new law.
The Egyptian government accords high priority to social welfare. The report draws attention to the government’s efforts to promote human rights in the framework of a range of housing, healthcare and social protection initiatives. It cited programmes such as Takafol and Karama that aim to provide an effective safety network for the neediest segments of the population, monthly social insurance programmes and increases in pensions, targeted food subsidy programmes and housing and urban development projects that aim to eradicate slums and provide safe, dignified and affordable housing. Housing projects not only target poor quarters in metropolitan areas but also Bedouin communities on the north coast and indigenous communities in Sinai, the Red Sea, the New Valley and Nubia. The document draws attention to the government’s ambitious scheme to build a million social housing units across the country and the LE150 billion that has been earmarked for this project.
With regard to healthcare, the comprehensive social health insurance act of 2018 was adopted in the framework of the national strategy to develop and upgrade all segments of the national healthcare system by 2030. In September 2018 the government launched the “100 Million Health” initiative that seeks to eliminate Hepatitis C and to detect non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. In February this year, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi launched an initiative to detect and treat free-of-charge anaemia, obesity and stunting among school children. The initiative aims to reach some 12 million children.
Prisons and detention centres were also covered by the report. Since 2017 committees of judges and members of the Prosecutor-General’s Office have undertaken 124 inspection tours of prisons. The NCHR Law upholds the NCHR’s right to visit prisons and all other detention facilities and penal institutions in order to ascertain that inmates are being treated properly and their rights are respected. After every visit, the NCHR prepares a report of observations and recommendations. Parliament’s Human Rights Committee also visits prisons on a routine basis. Since 2017, it has undertaken 12 inspection tours together with national human rights organisations. In response to recommendations from the Prosecutor-General’s Office, the Human Rights Committee and the NCHR, the government has drawn up a plan to develop and expand prison facilities in order to safeguard prisoners’ health and dignity.
The report also noted, in this regard, that the Interior Ministry has upgraded holding cells to safeguard the health of detainees and has expanded healthcare for inmates by providing a hospital at each prison.
Article 155 of the constitution grants the president the right to issue amnesties and pardons. As the report observes, President Al-Sisi has regularly availed himself of this right on national holidays and other occasions. Since 2015, some 56,000 prisoners have been released by presidential amnesty. In addition, penal codes governing the release of prisoners have been amended to allow for the release of a prisoner after serving only half a sentence exceeding six months instead of three-quarters. The Ministry of Social Solidarity is notified at least two months in advance of people to be released so that it can make the necessary arrangements for their assimilation and rehabilitation in the community. Prisoners are also released in the event of life-threatening or incapacitating illnesses. Since 2015, 60,876 prisoners have been released on health grounds.
Among the penal reforms cited in the report are initiatives promoting alternatives to precautionary detention, such as house arrest, reporting to a police station at regular times or restrictions against visiting certain places. Another important measure is the “Prisons without Debtors” initiative which, carried out in collaboration with civil society, aims to help pay the debts of prisoners in order to facilitate their release. Since 2015, 15,820 prisoners have been released through this or similar initiatives.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.