Egypt’s constitution, voted into effect in January by a landslide vote, received praise in Geneva during the 20th session of the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UN UPR), however much concern was raised over the application of the provisions enshrined in the constitution.
Egypt’s delegation to the UN headquarters was headed by Minister of Transitional Justice Ibrahim El-Heneidi and included representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Social Solidarity, the Ministry of Interior, the general prosecutor’s office, and the National Council for Women.
El-Heneidi delivered the opening remarks to the UN Human Rights Council saying that he had arrived “from a new Egypt that is full of hope and determination”. He stated that, since Egypt’s first review in 2010, the “country has witnessed major unconventional political and social circumstances”.
Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in 2011 after decades of authoritarian rule. His successor, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, was ousted in July 2013. In this time Egypt has witnessed an upturn in demonstrations, violence and accusations of human rights abuses levelled at the Egyptian security forces by domestic and international rights groups.
El-Heneidi insisted that, since the overthrow of Morsi, “human rights and freedoms of citizens” has been “top of the priorities of the national government”. He pointed to the creation of his own ministry portfolio as a testament to that. He also discussed the steps taken by Egypt to address 119 of the 165 recommendations made four years ago.
The Egyptian delegation then listened to one minute speeches from 125 delegates regarding the human rights situation, some posing questions and recommendations for Egypt to address.
The delegations of Saudi Arabia and Russia, both closely allied with Egypt following Morsi’s ouster, recommended that Egypt “continue to fight terrorism”, with Saudi stressing its “unlimited support” for Egypt.
Many delegations, including Singapore, South Africa, and Israel, urged Egypt to ensure the rights of children and women in society and to develop the role of women in political life.
The delegations of the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, and Norway among others, called for the withdrawal or amendment of the controversial Protest Law and the NGO law. The delegations said these laws do not fall in line with the provisions for freedom of assembly and association enshrined in Egypt’s constitution.
Concerns for these two particular laws were highlighted by Germany’s ambassador to Egypt Hansjörg Haber during a meeting with journalists on Wednesday morning, which aimed to expand on Germany’s one minute speech at the UN UPR. Haber stated that Germany’s focus on the status of civil society organisations and the Protest Law came through coordination with other European Union states, with other nations addressing other issues of concern.
Haber stressed that Egypt’s constitution contains what would be expected when it comes to provisions to protect human rights, and that Germany has no issue with the constitution. However, he pointed out that the source of Germany’s concerns relate to the “implementation of the constitution” within the law. He pointed out that a strong civil society is a “stabilising element…especially in a post-conflict nation” and highlighted the need for the opening of “public space” as opposed to driving opinions underground, which he believed could lead to “radicalisation”.
The German ambassador said that his country is specifically concerned over the implementation of the NGO law of 2002, which requires the registration of civil society organisations by 10 November and Haber said it is not clear what will happen after this deadline expires. He said that rules regarding “foreign funding” of organisations are concerning and that Germany is particularly affected as one of its own groups is under threat, namely the Konrad Adenhauer Foundation, whose office has been closed down and whose staff face the threat of arrest.
In response to queries and concerns regarding the NGO law at the UN UPR, the Deputy Minister of Social Solidarity Hani Muhanna stressed that the right to association and assembly are protected in the constitution. He stated that a new law is being prepared but waiting “to build consensus” before sending it to parliament for consideration. The dates for Egypt’s parliamentary elections are yet to be officially announced. He highlighted that the ministry has “been listening to 800 NGOs, and listening carefully”.
Seven rights organisations announced the evening before the UN UPR that they would not participate in the UN UPR proceedings “in fear that their participation might result in reprisal or possible persecution”. The list included the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Arab Network for Human Rights, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
The deputy minister added: “We are carrying out a census of the NGOs acting in Egypt and will work with them individually to ensure the legality of their work”.
The German ambassador also called for the amendment of the Protest Law, which was issued by interim President Adly Mansour, expressing concern for the reported figure of at least 40,000 arrests under the law and the recent handing down of prison sentences to rights defender Yara Sallam and 22 others.
Regarding the Protest Law, Mohamed Khalaf, member of the prosecutor general’s office, stressed: “The people who were detained were arrested in keeping with the law and according to judicial decisions.” He added that the government is reviewing the law and is considering amendments in line with recommendations from the Supreme Constitutional Court. Khalaf stated that no people were held in “temporary custody without a legitimate warrant”.
Al Jazeera journalist Abdullah Elshamy was released from prison in June after spending 306 days in detention without charge.
Delegates also recommended Egypt to take measures to prevent torture and ill treatment in detention and to withdraw reservations expressed regarding the international convention against torture. The assistant minister of interior present at the UN UPR stressed: “Egyptian law criminalises torture”, adding that the ministry has adopted “a new list of standards to be enforced” in prisons.
Delegations from the US, Iceland and Austria made specific reference to the anticipated government report on the violent dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-ins on 14 August 2014. Hundreds were killed across the country, with the worst violence seen at the Rabaa Al-Adaweya sit-in. The delegates called for an investigation into claims of excessive force by security forces and for the findings to be made public.
Calls for Egypt to adopt a moratorium on the death penalty, made in reference to the mass death sentences handed down by the Minya Criminal Court earlier this year, were responded to by Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs for Human Rights Mahy Abdel Latif. She stressed that there is “no international consensus on the death penalty” adding it is restricted to the most serious crimes. She pointed out that “around 50 countries” still have death as a punishment within their criminal justice systems.
In his closing remarks El-Heneidi responded to some suggestions that Egypt’s judiciary is “politicised”. He stated that he is a former judge himself, adding: “I confirm that we have an independent judiciary.”
In the lead up to the UN UPR, the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party said it would provide information to “expose the atrocious reality of the military dictatorship ruling Egypt”. The submission had not been released at the time of writing, despite two separate requests by Daily News Egypt.
The group, which is now banned in Egypt, sent a delegation to Geneva and held a press conference after the conclusion of the UN UPR hearing. The group’s lawyers and representative Amr Darrag called for the Egyptian government to be held accountable in the International Criminal Court and to implement the “European arrest warrants scheme” when President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi travels to European capitals.
The foreign ministry said that the governments report would “illustrate acts of violence and terrorism carried out by elements of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt”.
Human Rights Watch called on the UNHRC to hold the Egyptian government accountable for what it sees as “the most dramatic reversal of human rights in Egypt’s modern history” under Al-Sisi.