Govt rights report fails to redraw bleak picture

Egypt pledged compliance with human rights treaties in a 24-page national report intended for the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is expected to consider the country’s dossier on 17 February 2010 ahead of issuing a periodic review of the state of human rights in the country.

The government report, published late December, presents executive and judicial measures, among others, taken by Egypt "to guarantee human rights and to ensure their full observance in society." Aware of reported violations and the country’s flawed human rights record, however, the report was cautious in how the government presented its case. In its introduction, it noted the government position that the advancement of human rights is a "cumulative process which yields results only gradually," and reiterated the statement twice on the same page, adding that there "will always be challenges to overcome and failings to remedy."

In presenting the legislative measures to be adopted, the first section of the two-part report noted the constitution’s guarantee that "sovereignty lies solely with the people," listing certain amendments including the 2005 article 76 amendment, which gives the public the right to elect a president by a majority vote instead of a referendum on one candidate.

The report failed to mention the more recent controversial amendment to the same article in 2007, however, which included the condition that any presidential candidate must have a total of 250 endorsements from the upper and lower houses of parliament. Analysts have said that only the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) can secure that number, making it difficult for smaller parties to field candidates or for independents to run. Also, in the run up to the upcoming 2011 elections, many have speculated that the amendment might have been made to pave the way for Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, to run uncontested, which would be considered another blow to human rights in Egypt.

In its 2009 report on Egypt, Amnesty International noted that the government has also renewed the state of emergency law, which has been in effect since 1981, and said that the country is waiting for the introduction of a replacement in the form of a new anti-terror law which, in the words of the organization, "was expected to equip the authorities with emergency-style powers similar to those which currently facilitate serious human rights violations." This was another issue that the government’s report failed to mention.

The second part of the government’s report lists rights that are reportedly implemented in Egypt and which are in line with international standards for the protection and promotion of human rights. These include the right not to be subjected to discrimination, civil and political rights, which include prohibition of torture — allegedly a common practice in Egypt’s detention centers and prisons, according to local human rights groups — freedom of opinion and expression, and freedom of religion and belief.

Despite assurances by the government to the Human Rights Council, minority groups in Egypt, such as Coptic Christians and adherents to the Bahai’ faith, continue to protest the discrimination they suffer in the public sector, universities and the work place, as well as their lack of freedom to build places of worship or, in the case of the Bahai’s, to have their religion officially recognized in legal documents.

"The gravest danger in the area of religion is the state’s utter failure to deter religious bigotry, expressed particularly in the growing harassment of Copts and, more recently, Bahai’s," stated a recent joint report issued in 2009 by a coalition of local human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) reviewing the performance of Egypt in the human rights sector over the past four years.

"The state apparatus also shows no interest in tackling the rising tide of sectarian tension and violence between Muslims and Christians, even as sectarian attacks become more frequent and more geographically widespread across the country," said the coalition’s report.

Although alleged torturers have been brought to court, Amnesty International, in its 2009 report, confirmed that torture and ill-treatment in police stations, prisons and state security detention centers are still rampant, noting that in some cases authorities "threaten victims with re-arrest or the arrest of relatives if they lodged complaints."

The claims of Egypt’s government report were refuted by many local and international rights groups. The Amnesty International report gave numerous examples of blocked websites of bloggers and others critical of the government. "The authorities used repressive laws to clamp down on criticism and dissent," read the organization’s report. "They prosecuted journalists for defamation and other offences, censored books and editions of foreign newspapers … Several foreign satellite television stations were ordered to close their offices in Cairo or had their transmission suspended in Egypt."

In the section relating to establishing associations and trade unions, the government’s report said that Egypt’s civil society is active with around 26,000 associations operating in various fields, and assured that the constitution guarantees the right to establish these entities. However, in its 2009 report, also presented to the UN’s Human Rights Council, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies said that there are substantial restrictions placed on civic organisations and NGO activity.

Providing an example of these restrictions, the institute said that the current law for civic societies "leaves abundant room for arbitrary intervention and confiscates the right of an NGO’s founders and members to determine its basic system; it also restricts the right of members and founders to choose their own optimal internal structures and their own representatives in the NGO’s leadership structure."

In its conclusion, the government report said that it firmly believes that "cooperation, positive interaction and a constructive spirit hold the key to any joint process aimed at improving human rights situations in the framework of development and social progress," adding that the measures the government is currently taking are only the beginning of "a continuous, institutional and collective effort to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in Egypt."

The statement is a far cry from that made by the local coalition of human rights NGOs, which in its report to the UN in the same year said that "in general systematic violations of human rights and a climate of impunity persist, as does the lack of political will to confront the situation" and that perhaps the only light in this bleak picture is represented by the several forms of "resistance, collective and individual, to [government] abuses and policies."

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