National human rights institutions (NHRIs) have a key role to play in addressing complaints and grievances about possible human rights violations. The flexibility, accessibility, and nature of these institutions mean that they are neither part of the government or judiciary nor civil society organisations without sufficient influence. Those who believe that their human rights have been violated, especially members of vulnerable and marginalised groups, therefore naturally see NHRIs as their first port of call in order to regain them.
Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), a NHRI, was established in accordance with the UN Paris Principles on Human Rights some 20 years ago and has the legal status of an independent institution. It is classified as a Category A institution by the Global Alliance of Human Rights Institutions, and over the two decades of its existence most of its presidents and board members have been figures who have enjoyed wide international and national respect and appreciation.
The new board of the NCHR started to perform its duties at the beginning of this year, having been selected through unprecedented procedures that began with nominations from academic institutions, civil society organisations, and unions and syndicates. Parliament then voted on the members of the board from these nominations, and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi confirmed the parliamentary decision through a special declaration.
Upgrading the NCHR complaints system has been among the most important topics that the new board has been working on. The council already has a complaints system that has been well invested in over recent years, and its complaints committee already has trained researchers and equipment, so the task of the new board in building on this capacity was straightforward. It has involved capitalising on the existing system in order to make it more dynamic, scalable, and fully modernised, with a view to keeping up with new technology and current social, political, and economic conditions, as well as being able to deal appropriately with any possible violations of human rights.
The current board of the NCHR has also been fortunate to begin its work within a strategic framework underwritten by the state that reflects its commitment to improving human rights. This framework is Egypt’s National Human Rights Strategy (NHRS), which sets the goals that the government seeks to achieve by 2026. Within this framework, the NCHR is keen to carry out its role as observer, evaluator, policy adviser, and reformer in the process of upgrading the complaints system on human rights. Its complaints system has been re-engineered in order to be able to receive and monitor all violations of human rights, especially those conflicting with the goals and objectives of the NHRS.
This upgrading has had three main elements, the first being the restructuring of the work of the complaints system in order fully to reflect the goals and expected results of the NHRS, giving special importance to issues that are directly related to the expected results stipulated in it. These include receiving complaints related to torture and the violation of bodily integrity and making the complaints mechanism fully accessible to the residents of social care homes, shelters, and psychiatric clinics through the activation of mobile complaints units. They also include receiving complaints related to pre-trial detention, to discrimination, especially in access to economic and social services, and to discrimination and violence against women, the elderly, and people with disabilities.
The second element is the coordination and referral mechanism of the NCHR complaints system to other national ones. These include NGOs working on relief work, and other stakeholders in the case of complaints that do not involve explicit violations of human rights, including medical relief that does not involve discrimination and complaints of the inability to access work, financial support, or basic food needs.
The third element is the digitisation of the complaints system and the bringing together of various databases in a way that contributes to the standardisation of the complaints mechanisms, bringing them closer to the relevant international standards, enhancing the ability of the NCHR to adopt reforms at the level of public policies and legislation in an evidence-based manner, and integrating the outcomes of the complaints system into planning the activities of the council and its permanent committees.
The NCHR and its complaints system are well aware of their position in a stakeholder framework and understand that achieving continuous and sustainable improvements in the human rights situation, helping victims to access mechanisms of redress and reparation, as well as persuading the executive and legislative branches to adopt required and necessary reforms, depends on institutional work, dialogue, and good communication with all stakeholders in the government, civil society, and all those related to complaints received or monitored by the council. It is keen to put as great a distance as possible between it and media sensationalism or the use of a “naming and shaming” strategy.
While there is still some way to go, and the current board of the NCHR is still in an early period, the upgraded system of complaints has already contributed to moving “stagnant waters” and helped hundreds of victims of human rights violations to access mechanisms of redress as well as support the executive bodies in addressing some negative economic and social conditions. The council has also played a key role in the framework of the presidential amnesty initiative to encourage the public prosecution authorities and the Ministry of Interior to use their constitutional and legal authority to release more than 300 prisoners and detainees.
These detainees had been awaiting or under trial or incarcerated for violating the law while engaging in politics, using social media, or violating the rules of peaceful assembly, but they had not engaged in violence, murder, or terrorism.
The NCHR complaints system is contributing on a daily basis and in coordination with the Ministry of Interior to the improvement of the conditions of prisoners by empowering them to access healthcare and benefit from the legal texts that allow their release for various reasons. It has recently started to activate the referral system in cooperation with various NGOs in order to ensure that complainants have access to their rights, especially their economic and social rights, with all this reflecting positively on the success of the NHRS.
* The writer is a NCHR board member and head of its complaints and monitoring committee.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.