On Friday, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva adopted recommendations on Egypt’s National Report to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) made by 133 members. Sixteen countries submitted written questions to the review team.
The Egyptian government welcomed the adoption of its report as a positive step towards supporting ongoing efforts to advance human rights. There was a sense among many observers that support from African, Arab, non-aligned and Islamic groups in the UN had lent weight to Egypt’s national report.
Egypt asked for a February deadline to submit final reposes to the recommendations. According to the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), this is consistent with how the UN mechanism works, encouraging consultative processes between the Egyptian government and relevant agencies in Egypt.
The UNHRC’s report on Egypt included recommendations urging the strengthening of freedom of opinion and expression, of access to information and the Internet, the press and civil society.
Following the review the head of the Egyptian delegation in Geneva, Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Omar Marwan, described the adoption of the report as “clear proof that Egypt has taken tangible steps towards improving human rights and has the political will to further develop human rights and cooperate with the UN’s mechanisms”.
He said international praise received during and after the review process confirmed that “[the information] we presented in Egypt’s National Report was a true expression of the reality of human rights in Egypt.
“On the basis of a clear and factual methodology, rooted in what we have done as opposed to what we will do, Egypt’s publication and documentation of the facts put paid to false claims that have been disseminated against Egypt, abroad and at home, regarding the state of human rights.”
Marwan stressed that the periodic review mechanism is a routine procedure that UN member states undergo every four years.
“No one should think Egypt was facing some kind of trial. This is a mechanism to which we, like all other nations, are committed.”
Marwan noted that Egypt received 72 more recommendations than it had in its last UPR because more countries participated in the interactive question and answer session. What mattered was that Egypt had carried out a large proportion of the recommendations offered by the international community four years ago, acting on 92 per cent of the recommendations the government pledged to meet during the 2014 session. He also noted that last year Egypt had, for the first time, voluntarily submitted a mid-term report to the UNHCR.
“This means that we are committed to interacting with the relevant international mechanisms and are fully cooperating with [them],” he said.
On the death during the trial of former president Mohamed Morsi and the statement by the UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard on Morsi’s demise, Marwan told the press the fact she had issued her statement only days before the review process was evidence of bias. Describing the statement as unfair and unprofessional, he said Callamard had requested information about Morsi from the Egyptian authorities and had given them 60 days to respond. “We were therefore surprised when she issued her statement three days later, without consultation or obtaining corrective information from Egypt. This is a violation of the UN rules” governing the work of international rapporteurs. He added that Egypt had submitted a formal complaint against the rapporteur to UN authorities.
He stressed that before the rapporteur’s inquiry Egypt had received no formal inquires on the state of the former president’s health, the medical services he received in prison or the circumstances surrounding his death.
Marwan also complained that some parties had issued false and misleading reports on the human rights situation in Egypt before and during the review process.
“Some parties are trying to reduce human rights to a handful of civil and political rights. They do not take into account the terrorism and other circumstances Egypt is facing, or appreciate the challenges involved in producing an objective, rather than arbitrary, evaluation. Human rights cannot be reduced to one or two rights. They are comprehensive and indivisible.”
According to Marwan, one reason why the Egyptian report received such support was that it drew attention to a number of crucial points, not least the new NGO law which cleared the way for regional and international NGOs to engage freely in civil society work and forge partnerships with local NGOs. He stressed that Egypt had not tried to prevent any rights advocacy organisations from attending the UPR sessions, pointing out that only the UN has the right to determine who can and cannot attend, he said.
Mohamed Fayek, head of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), said adoption of the Egyptian report meant the international community believed Egypt was moving in the right direction on human rights, that the state of human rights in Egypt is improving and the government is committed to fulfilling its international pledges. He expects Egypt will carefully study the recommendations it has received and, during the time it has given itself, consult with the relevant domestic agencies on the substance and the aims of the recommendations and the results of the UPR process.
According to Fayek, reviewers were particularly impressed by how the Egyptian government consulted with representatives of civil society before going to Geneva to present the National Report. Civil society thus became a partner in the report and assumed responsibility for defending it: Egyptian civil society representatives organised nine well-attended seminars to defend Egypt’s record. The fact the government had responded to some of civil society’s demands, as epitomised by the new NGO law, gave them further incentive, underscoring the government’s recognition of the importance of a robust and effective civil society to the processes of development.
Fayek noted that many problems were in the process of being solved. On torture he noted that 10 police officers have already been tried and the new legislation is being prepared to address the problem.
The next step, according to Hafez Abu Seada, head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), is for the government to assess how it can implement the large number of recommendations it has received. Towards this end, the government will need to draw up a strategy and introduce executive mechanisms to be applied by relevant government agencies. Abu Seada stressed the need for close coordination between these agencies and the National Councils for Human Rights, Women, Children, and Disabled Persons, and with Egyptian rights organisations in developing mechanisms capable of following through on the recommendations.
Abu Seada also addressed the question of enforced disappearance, the subject of recommendations submitted by a number of countries during the UPR. He said the EOHR, in preparing its report, had received 700 complaints of forced disappearance and submitted them to the Interior Ministry. According to the ministry, 600 of the cases actually involve detainees in pre-trial detention. Of the remaining cases, some had never been detained while others had joined terrorist groups in Egypt or abroad. Abu Seada said EOHR has called for changes to articles 280, 281 and 282 of the penal code to more clearly define the term enforced disappearance in Egyptian law.
The EOHR head lauded an important precedent set in Egypt’s National Report — the inclusion of information on investigations into police officers and other security personnel charged with committing acts of torture. Serious steps are being taken to bring to account law enforcement personnel, he said, though further measures were necessary to put an end to torture, foremost among them the need to act on the UNHRC’s recommendation to amend articles 126 and 129 of the Egyptian penal code in order to bring definitions of torture in line with the UN Convention Against Torture.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.