A new era for human rights

Gamal Essam El-Din , Wednesday 6 Sep 2023

The National Council for Human Rights calls for meaningful reform to be implemented effectively.

The National Council for Human Rights
The National Council for Human Rights

 

On Sunday, the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) released its 16th annual report, covering 2020-2023. It is the first report to be issued by the council since a new 27-member board was selected by parliament in late 2021.

“We began our mission at the beginning of 2022 with a new sense of hope and optimism, especially after Egypt launched its first ever National Human Rights Strategy [NHRS] in the presence of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in September 2021,” said NCHR President Moushira Khattab. She added that the new sense of hope was reinforced when President Al-Sisi lifted the state of emergency and called for a national dialogue to determine Egypt’s priorities until 2023.

Equally important, said Khattab, was the decision to revive the Presidential Pardon Committee which has so far led to the release of almost 2,000 activists from jail. “These bold moves stand a solid guarantee for the right of freedom of expression,” Khattab continued.

The NCHR report covers the period from 2020 until mid-2023. It sheds light on the improvement in human rights in Egypt in the political, civilian, economic, social, and cultural spheres. The report also addresses the challenges facing the future of human rights in Egypt.

According to Khattab, the constitution makes human rights the foundation of the social contract between the state and its citizens and requires “state institutions and civil society organisations to observe human rights in all their dealings with the public”.

“A year has passed since the launch of the NSHR and during this period we have seen initiatives that offered a historic opportunity for Egypt to advance its human rights.”

“But,” Khattab cautioned, “respect of human rights is not measured by drafting strategies or signing and ratifying treaties, but by putting these rights into practice through effective implementation.”

Khattab argued that while the state is mainly responsible for fulfilling its obligations under human rights conventions “it also needs the involvement of all segments of society and to ensure the NCHR has the necessary powers to improve the human rights situation in Egypt.”

Each ministry should contain a unit responsible for human rights and parliamentary committees addressing specific human rights issues need to be created and empowered for “it is imperative to incorporate a human rights perspective within all government departments, in parliament and in the judiciary to effectively implement Egypt’s obligations under ratified international human rights treaties.”

“The NCHR also calls for the timeframe of the National Dialogue to be reviewed to ensure it issues recommendations that can be turned into policies and facts on the ground. The recommendations should be integrated into the state’s legislative agenda, public policy and the relevant practices and a mechanism developed to monitor and assess the implementation of policies.”

NCHR Deputy Chairman Mahmoud Karem said the “report offers an honest account of the situation of human rights in Egypt and is the result of an independent and realistic investigation into the conditions of human rights in Egypt”.  

According to the report, the NCHR received 9,521 complaints related to human rights, including 5,067 requests to include detainees’ names in presidential pardons and release lists. It called for a clear timetable for the review of detainees’ files and the release of eligible prisoners and stressed the need to expedite presidential pardon decisions and consider all pretrial detainees and those convicted in non-violent cases.

The NCHR also urged the authorities to continue rehabilitating detention centres attached to police stations and security directorates reserved for inmates serving short-term sentences.

NCHR Spokesperson Ezzat Ibrahim said the annual report presented an integrated picture of human rights in Egypt. In remarks to Egyptian state news agency MENA on Monday, Ibrahim said the report covers an important period which saw positive and negative developments, and identifies the measures needed to implement the NSHR.

He stressed that the report highlights how freedom of information is a cornerstone of freedom of expression and opinion, saying that the government must now “focus on the challenges facing journalism and the upholding of the Freedom of Information Act”.

The release of the NCHR report was welcomed in political and human rights circles. Tarek Radwan, head of parliament’s Human Rights Committee, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “when President Al-Sisi launched the NSHR in September 2021 it was a critical step in bolstering Egypt’s efforts to improve human rights and a strong response to sceptics and people who want to tarnish Egypt’s reputation.”

The report paints an objective picture of human rights in Egypt and “reacts to criticisms calmly and confidently… we need not be overly sensitive about them and while some false claims are unworthy of response, others the report refutes by presenting evidence.”

Essam Shiha, a member of the NCHR board, praised the report’s balance and its inclusion of recommendations to be implemented by state authorities.

“It calls for coordination between the council, prosecution-general and the Interior Ministry to investigate complaints of human rights violations,” said Shiha.

“It also addresses the death penalty in Egypt which can be applied in more than 100 types of crime. We need legislative amendments that limit the death penalty to a handful of the most serious crimes.”

Meanwhile, the National Dialogue’s Human Rights and Freedom Committee urged the government to abolish custodial sentences for journalists in publication cases and to protect freedom of expression and speech.

Press Syndicate Chair Khaled Al-Balshy urged the government to review all pretrial detention laws and show greater respect for freedom of expression.

“In recent years journalists have faced many restrictions which need to be reviewed because press freedom is essential to any democratic transition,” said Al-Balshy.

He called for the immediate release of journalists detained in publication cases, the lifting of restrictions on websites and changes to the press law to introduce greater freedoms.

“Press freedom is not a gift but a guarantee of greater freedoms, democracy and enlightenment,” said Al-Balshy, “and there can be no free press or society without the free functioning of political parties and unions.”

Khattab, who was present during the committee’s discussions said the NCHR report recommended that jail sentences in cases involving freedom of expression be abolished.

“There is an urgent need for legislation that guarantees free access to information to bolster diversity of opinion and a climate of pluralism,” she said.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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