Friday, May 18, 2007

Egypt & Human Rights: Is the Fox Guarding the Henhouse?

Yesterday, the General Assembly of the United Nations announced the election of 14 countries to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Among these nations Egypt was elected with 168 votes. According to the sixty-first General Assembly Plenary, 97th Meeting public information release: out of the 192 member nations of the General Assembly, a minimum of 97 votes are required for providing a "majority" vote necessary for election to the Council.

As this blog has been illustrating since it was introduced approximately a year ago, Egypt has clearly shown its violation of the human and civil rights of its Baha'i religious minority by depriving this group of its citizens of their identity documents necessary for their essential needs of daily living, thus grossly violating their citizenship rights.

Just a few days before that vote, 19 Egyptian Human Rights NGOs have written a letter to the United Nations protesting the inclusion of Egypt in the upcoming vote for the UN's Human Rights Council. It is interesting though to note that this has been entirely ignored by the voting nations, and Egypt got elected to the Council by many more votes than the required minimum for a majority vote. The full text of this letter can be seen at this link in English & (Arabic) and is quoted below:

19 Egyptian Human Rights NGOs Appeal to the United Nations: Egypt is Not Fit for Membership of the UN Human Rights Council

The undersigned NGOs would like to express their surprise that the Egyptian government is applying for membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council and their amazement at the falsifications of the government’s true stance on human rights included in such application. This is especially true in the light of the infringement the Egyptian government in the last few years on legislative and constitutional safeguards of human rights, as well as their practices that fly in the face of the most basic human rights principles and values.

The undersigned call on the Member States of the UN General Assembly to uphold their commitments expressed upon the establishment of the Human Rights Council, which require that they take into consideration the human rights record of the nominated states when electing its members.

The undersigned assure that the credibility and competence of the Council depend on electing members with a sense of responsibility towards the international human rights standards and commitments. Incorporating states that are known for their severe hostility towards human rights, their blatant flouting of international standards and non cooperation with the UNHR treaty bodies and its special Rapporteurs would undermine the credibility of the Council. It would hamper its role in improving human rights conditions, not only in the Arab region but also worldwide.

The undersigned would like to point out the reports by local NGOs in Egypt, as well as those by regional and international organisations, by United Nations committees and UN human rights rapporteurs. All such reports place Egypt among the worst states for disregarding human rights. The Egyptian government’s record is full of serious human rights violations that have been practiced widely for long years. Moreover, Egypt is internationally recognised as a “not free state” and is deemed to “have a not free press.”

Despite the Egyptian government’s effort in the last few years to improve their image before the world, hard facts belie these efforts; they even indicate more deterioration in the last two years. It suffices here to point out the following:

First: the persistence of brutal torture in the various places of detention, and the impunity of perpetrators of torture especially in political cases. Both local and international organisations (including the United Nations CAT) have previously reaffirmed that torture in Egypt has become a systematic and routine practice.

Second: the persistence of arbitrary detention, given the continued state of emergency since 1981. The numbers of detainees are considered to be in the thousands, some of them have been detained (without being charged or tried) for more than ten years.

Third: trying civilians before military courts and denying them their right to be brought before a competent judge. This included referring a member of parliament of the opposition to military trial and sentencing him for one year in prison because of his expressed opinions.

Fourth: harassing non-governmental organisations and restricting their activities. The latest of such instances took place a few days ago when the offices of the Centre for Trade Union and Worker Services were shut down. Previously, the office of the El-Nadim Centre for the Psychological Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and Violence were broken into and searched. This is in addition to the daily and heavy-handed interventions by the government in the affairs of NGOs. Such interventions include vetoing nominees to their boards of directors, denying them permission to receive foreign grants or accept local donations, and refusing to register new NGOs. Lately the Ministry made public their intention to make yet more restrictive amendments to the authoritarian Law on Associations currently in force.

Fifth: widening the scope of criminalisation in cases involving opinion and publication, and upholding the custodial penalties in such cases. This has led lately to issuing a prison sentence against an Egyptian producer at Al-Jazeera channel who made a documentary exposing torture in Egypt. Also, an Egyptian blogger was sentenced to four years in prison under the charge of derision of religion and insulting the President, in the context of a wider harassment of bloggers carried out by the security services. This is in addition to a number of newspaper editors who currently stand before court for their alleged insult of the President.

Sixth: the continued rigging of elections and doctoring the returns of representative elections and popular referendums, as well as punishing judges who exposed the rigging. Moreover, the constitutional amendments passed by the government last month will enable more of the same manipulation of the will of the electorate.

Seventh: suppressing the right to peaceful demonstration and assembly, which was epitomised in the savage massacre of the Sudanese refugees who had organised a sit-in in one of the squares of Cairo in December 2005. The attack on the refugees claimed the lives of around thirty of them. The United Nations has recently called for an inquiry into this massacre, and the government refused. There is also the example of the physical assault and blatant sexual harassment used against female demonstrators and journalists who were protesting against the amendments of the constitution in 25 May 2005. These events, documented by human rights NGOs, constitute the basis of a case that is currently being examined by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Eighth: amending the constitution last March in a way as to allow the security services to free their hands from the constitutional guarantees that protect the rights to freedom and security of person, prohibit breaking into and searching homes without a judicial warrant, protect the right to privacy, and prohibit surveillance of mail and tapping phone calls. In this way the new amendments entrench the foundations of the police state.

Ninth: increasing pressures on the freedom of belief, and the rise in discriminatory practices based on religion that are sometimes based on constitutional or legislative provisions or court rulings.

Tenth: increasing pressures on the independence of the judiciary and widening the scope of exceptional courts, especially military courts, which are accountable to the executive.

Finally, the undersigned NGOs realise that the chances of making an objective choice for the membership of the UN Human Rights Council from among the Arab countries are almost nonexistent, given that most of the governments of those countries, perhaps with the exception of Morocco, Lebanon and Mauritania, are considered among the worst in the world in their disregard of human rights standards.

Despite the difficulties that this will involve for the UN General Assembly, we believe that voting for the Egyptian government would imply an encouragement for it and similar governments to persist in their practices against human rights.

1. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
2. The Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners
3. Arab Penal Reform Organization
4. Hisham Moubarak Law Center
5. Association for Human Rights Legal Aid
6. the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
7. The Egyptian Association For Community Participation Enhancement
8. The New Woman Association
9. The Center for Trade Union and Workers' Services
10. Al-Nadim Centre for Psychological Therapy and Rehabilitation of the Victims of Violence
11. Egyptian Organization Against Torture
12. Habi Center for Environmental Rights
13. The Arab program for Human Rights Activists
14. Land Center for Human Rights
15. Shumuu For Human Rights and Care of disabled and Community Development
16. Andalus Institue for Tolerance and Anti Violence Studies
17. Egyptian Association for Supporting Democratic Development
18. The Center for Alternative Development Studies
19. the Group for Democratic Development


  1. A fox in the hen house is indeed the perfect description of this development!

    On the other hand, perhaps the Egyptian representative(s) will see the injustices in other countries and work towards avoiding the same injustices in Egypt! If so, something good might come out of this situation!

  2. It could be an opportunity for Egypt to correct its course and its human rights record. It is now under the spot light...this is the blessing in disguise!

  3. Bilo,

    Some Angolans NGO's considered Angola's election as step necessary to increase the respect for Human rights in Angola. And Human Rights in Angola are in a terrible situation, despite some efforts of the Government.

    Some Angolan friends say that now they have more hope in the future.

    Could it be that Angolans are being positive and Egyptians are being negative about this event?

    To know more about Human Rights in Angola, check this report by the US State Department.

  4. The Egyptian HR-NGOs wrote their letter before the election. Perhaps they would look at it now from a different angel and see this as an opportunity and as a crack in the door that could lead to improvement in HR conditions in Egypt!

  5. You have bahai's in each country- what are those bahai's doing to make their UN representative understand the egyptian government's attacks on the bahai's and human rights record. Clearly there are 168 bahai communities that are not doing enough!! What are you doing to get these 168 bahai communities to speak to their represetnatives.

  6. First of all, thank you for your concern and suggestion. Baha'is are indeed present in 218 countries (according to the Encyclopaedia Britanica linked here). These countries are represented by the Baha'i World Community which has a permanent representative to the United Nations, who is actively engaged in raising awareness and presenting to the United Nations the struggle of the Egyptian Baha'is as well as the human rights violations being committed by others.

  7. the UN is a joke...

    they have no idea as to what constitutes justice....

  8. The election of Egypt to the UNHRC is an opportunity for progress, despite the obvious conflict that it highlights with regards to violations. The system of involving countries that have a history of such human rights abuses is one that would see a process of rehabilitation, and offer experienced observation as to the true meaning of human rights. To engage such parties in this practice increases their qualifications and opportunities for rectification, and equally, their responsibilities and accountability to the greater UN body. If it so happens that there is no improvement in Egypt’s current deficient performance after their membership to the UNHRC, then it would truly be an absolute exposure and humiliation to the member states that Egypt is not sincere or compatible, thus furthering the process of achievement.

    Credit is to be given to the UN for such a system where there is democracy, justice and appropriate leniency, as well as inclusion whereby the violator is not secluded, but given the opportunity and means to achieve a higher standard. Whatever reason may provoke some to challenge the integrity of the UN, let it be clear that there is no other entity that is as close to a just and democratic world government as has been achieved, and if weighed against the performance of national states, and the extensive scale of its involvement, it is far more advanced and qualified than any present governing body. If there are any imperfections, it is due to its relative infancy as a global entity, and the process of maturity that its member nations have yet to achieve.

    One would hope that Egypt show its true worth and take this opportunity to rectify its actions, and by example, advance others to do the same.

  9. r.a., Thank you for your clear and balanced comment.

  10. Although Anonymous thinks the UN is a joke, he should remember the underlying structure of the UN. The UN is not a world government. It is an association of nation-states primarily concerned with their own interests. The UN is only broadly speaking concerned with the interests of humanity as a whole. The reason for creating a Human Rights Council, which the Baha'i International Community supported, was to change the tendency for human rights violators to be placed on the previous human rights bodies. Unfortunately, it is clear that the new type of elections for this Human Rights Council can also result in memmbership of nations that violate human rights.

    If you observe the General Assembly votes regarding the persecution of Baha'is in Iran, you will note that they are passed by a MINORITY of nations in the UN. This is because there are significant numbers of nations that abstain from votes against Iran's treatment of the Baha'is. If the UN operated by Baha'i principles of voting within consultative bodies, the resolutions against Iran's treatment of the Baha'is would not pass (there is no abstaining in Baha'i votes on resolutions; if a majority is not in favor, the resolution does not pass). Baha'is should have no illusions that the UN's members all subscribe to human rights; but the UN is at least committed in principle and carries out a vigorous exchange among governments and NGOs about this issue.

  11. With all due respect sir [for sake of discussion]I have this neighbor who fires his gun without regard his surroundings and kills my pet dog
    Yet there is a law that was passed by the government forbidding the killing of dogs and other animals but refuses to press charges against my neighbor because the government refuses to recognize that Sable and White Collies [dogs] are animals and my dog was a Sable and White Collie???

    Now how ridiculous does that government look if it joins the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
    And the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals refuses to pressure government A to enforce international treaties??

    They pass a resolution saying killing Sable and White Collies but PROVIDES NO PENALTIES FOR KILLING Sable and White Collies!!!

    Would you not say that the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is a useless organization???

  12. Anonymous,
    You raise very important questions. Thank you....

  13. To Anonymous 2,

    Your example makes the point that the UN Council on Human Rights or the UN is useless.

    So the UN is not as effective as it should be. But what hope is there other than the UN or an organization similar to it to promote respect for human rights.

    The other option is to throw in the towel. I am not in favor of that option. It is better to try than give up!

  14. the other option is the World Government set up by the Will and testament of Bahaullah and Abdul Baha....

  15. I generally avoid using the phrase "with all due respect" because it is an indication to me that the respect is not there. Egypt should not be on the Human Rights Council. My point is that the UN is a group of nation states acting in their own interests. Of course there should be something better. But abandoning the organization entirely because it is flawed is not the best solution. The Universal House of Justice has not abandoned the United Nations organization and so I do not think the Baha'is should take that radical a step. Rather, we should be making every effort to improve it and to contribute to the education of governments and civil society about the absolute necessity of a world federation in which nations cede some of their sovereignty to international authority.

  16. Bill,
    Thank you for your comment. I think it is worth mentioning here that comment contributors to this blog are of various affiliations and backgrounds.


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