Journey to human rights

Laila Takla
Tuesday 22 Mar 2022

The establishment of Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights was a watershed moment in the protection of human rights in the country, writes Laila Takla

The setting up of Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) was a long journey and one worthy of being told. 

Throughout its history, Egypt has always been keen to achieve justice and equality and provide a better life for its citizens. It has included guarantees of human rights in its constitutions and ratified all international treaties in this field.

In the early 1990s, the ministries of justice and foreign affairs set up human rights bureaus and Cairo’s Police Academy introduced an integrated centre for human rights. There was also the establishment of a human rights administration. 

Egypt was a driving force behind the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s (IPU) call to the world’s legislatures to set up human rights committees. The international community called on governments to establish national councils for human rights, and the UN established a board of trustees for the Voluntary Fund for Technical Cooperation in the Field of Human Rights to help this to come about. 

The aim of the Fund was to provide assistance in implementing the provisions of international conventions, creating infrastructure for human rights, and contributing to the setting up of national councils and activating their role.

When it was set up, Egypt’s NCHR sought not to stick to the Western pattern of simply evaluating the situation regarding human rights, but instead also to take into account the circumstances and the culture of the country as a whole. No country in the world has ever been entirely free of human rights violations.

Several countries established national councils with the assistance of the fund in the 1990s, though Egypt was not among them. At that time, some human rights groups in Egypt sent complaints to Mary Robinson, the then UN high commissioner for human rights, and these were passed to me for consultation as chair of the board of trustees. Some of the complaints were justified, while others were exaggerated or baseless. The justification that the groups used for sending the complaints was there was no national council for human rights in Egypt at the time to which they could turn.

In 2000, the UN decided to focus in its report on human development on the issue of human rights. Among the criteria for evaluating the availability of human rights in a given country was the existence of a national council.

Various experts and consultants were asked to cooperate in preparing the human development reports with a focus on the issue of human rights. Among them were two Egyptian nationals, myself and Mohamed Fayek. Egypt came out well in many areas, but it was a matter for regret that it was not one of the countries in which a human rights council was established. 

We tried to save the day by pointing to the efforts made in training judges and the setting up of the human rights centre at the Police Academy, which trained great numbers of Arab and African police officers. We pointed, too, to the setting up of the National Council for Women and the National Council for Childhood. 

The real beginning of the journey towards establishing the NCHR was in 1999, however, through an initiative of ambassador Hani Khallaf. He held meetings attended by the public prosecutor and some of the parties concerned with human rights in Egypt, including Mohamed Fayek, Hafez Abu-Seada, and Baheyeddin Hassan. The late Mohamed Fathi Naguib was one of the main figures involved in calling for the establishment of the new council. 

In 2003, Law 94 established the NCHR composed of a president and a vice-president and 25 members known for their expertise and contributions to human rights. The council was to report to the Shura Council, the then upper house of Egypt’s parliament, with a view to developing human rights, entrenching human rights values, and promoting the awareness of them in Egypt. 

The council is an independent entity, and its activities include drawing up national plans for the promotion and protection of human rights in Egypt and their implementation mechanisms, replying to questions presented to it, receiving complaints and referring them to the concerned authorities and following them up as need be, ensuring the implementation of international treaties and conventions on human rights, and working to spread the human rights culture and raising people’s awareness of them through institutions and bodies concerned with education, the media, and cultural development.

Former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros Ghali presided over the council, and it entered into a kind of golden age during which it received many foreign delegations and delegations from international organisations. It participated in the international arena effectively and competently. A number of citizens acquired expertise in the field of human rights through working with the council, among them ambassador Mahmoud Karem, who became a well-known international expert in the field. 

Egypt’s record in human rights is not bad. A previous article in Al-Ahram Weekly pointed to the extent of Egypt’s commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here, the emphasis should be on pointing to the prerequisites for the NCHR’s role and success. 

First, the various national councils for human rights were established due to an international decision and aim at ensuring what is stated in international conventions in the framework of national laws. Thus, the follow up on implementation is not the responsibility of the government of any country, society, or organisation, but is the responsibility of the UN Human Rights Council.

Second, the national councils monitor the provision of and respect for human rights regarding the relationship between the government and its citizens. In other words, these things are based mainly on the government’s performance and not in disputes between individuals or principles mentioned in religious beliefs unless stated by law.

Third, the government has to provide the bodies and institutions that protect human rights and has to ban the establishment of organisations promoting racism, discrimination, or hate. Egypt prevents the establishment of such organisations, while some other countries proclaiming themselves to be protectors of human rights nevertheless allow organisations calling for discrimination on grounds of colour or ethnicity.

Fourth, the NCHR’s role in responding to accusations directed against Egypt in the international arena should not be about defending or accusing other countries or pointing to violations committed in them that exceed what occurs in our own country. 

Fifth, more efforts should be made in emphasising the many achievements that have taken place. This could correct many false impressions. One major development has been on periods spent in preventative detention and where these are spent. Older prisons have been demolished and replaced with rehabilitation centres. The rights of minorities, women, children, and other groups have been protected, along with many other achievements.

Lastly, the present composition of the council comprises figures who are capable of reducing violations and following up on accusations regarding violations of human rights.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

Short link: