Breaking the Silence: Egypt’s unprecedented repression scrutinized at the United Nations

In Egypt /Road Map Program, Statements and Position Papers by CIHRS

(13 November 2019 – Geneva) Egypt’s human rights record over the last four years came under scrutiny at the United Nations today, as part of the Human Rights Council’s (HRC) Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Egypt received dozens of initial recommendations to improve its human rights situation. The review took place as the Egyptian government continues to brutally crackdown on virtually all forms of dissent, including widespread attacks against human rights defenders, independent civil society organizations, and other peaceful critics of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s authoritarian rule.

According to Mohamed Zaree, director of the Egypt Program at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), “For far too long has the international community remained silent as the Egyptian government has murdered, kidnapped, imprisoned, and tortured citizens who criticise it.  Today marked the beginning of this silence being broken.”

The Egyptian government began today’s session by presenting its four-year report on its human rights situation; falsely claiming – against overwhelming evidence to the contrary- to  respect its national constitution and international treaties regarding the protection of citizens’  freedoms and rights to  privacy, bodily integrity, and humane treatment. Dozens of reports from the UN and human rights organizations, together with European Parliament resolutions confirm the Egyptian government’s widespread and systematic repressive practices. These include: enforced disappearance; torture-coerced confessions; brutal and life-threatening detention conditions, especially for political prisoners;  arrests (including 4000 arrested last September) and indiscriminate searches and seizures of citizens and their personal property – such as phones- on the streets; and the arrests and prosecution of first and second-tier political party leaders for peacefully exercising their  legally sanctioned right to political participation.

The Egyptian government also celebrated its establishment of a supposedly independent national entity for overseeing presidential elections and referendums, as well its establishment of several entities organizing media work. In stark contrast to the Egyptian government’s favorable portrayal – these entities – in practice –  function to create and maintain an appallingly repressive atmosphere for political and media activity. The results thus far include constitutional amendments that indefinitely extend and solidify the unilateral authoritarianism of the current president, together with blocking over 500 websites in conjunction with continual attacks on journalists. Some journalists have even been imprisoned on the pretext of publishing false news merely because they differed with the official state narrative.

Before the review, 14 states published questions for Egypt on a wide-range of egregious human rights violations including its systematic use of torture,  inhumane conditions within prisons and detention sites, attacks against human rights defenders and organizations, unfair trials resulting in the death penalty, restrictions on freedom of expression, and violence and attacks against women and LGBTQ individuals. States also addressed Egypt’s lack of judicial independence and the unchecked power of its president provided by “emergency” laws. Most of the recommendations addressed to Egypt during today’s three-hour session also addressed these same issues.

Several recommendations focused on guarantees of the rights to free and peaceful assembly or demonstration (Poland, Norway, Spain) and the right to freedom of expression, both online and offline, which includes access to information and the unblocking of websites (Switzerland and Honduras). Many states also demanded the immediate release of those detained for exercising their right to free expression, whether by demonstration or other means of expression (Britain). Egypt was called on to amend legislation to ensure access to information and freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, and Chile).

A moratorium on the death penalty in preparation for its abolition (especially for children) was a demand occupying a large proportion of international participation. Several demands addressed death sentences against minors and/or after mass or military trials, and the need to ensure minimum fair trial guarantees and a halt to military trials for civilians (Switzerland and Mexico). Numerous states called for the death penalty to be suspended in Egypt (New Zealand, Norway, Slovenia, Belgium, Australia, Austria, Italy, France). Pakistan, Peru, Korea, Spain and Brazil also stressed the need to respect human rights while countering terrorism, and called on the United States to open investigations into extrajudicial killings in the fight against terrorism.

Many of the recommendations also addressed dire conditions in prisons,  and allegations of torture, ill-treatment and lack of healthcare; these inhumane prison conditions are considered by UN experts  to be a “consistent, intentional practice by the current Government of President Adel-Fattah Al-Sisi to silence dissenters.” Egypt was urged to provide minimum healthcare and humanitarian conditions for detainees (UK), accountability for torture crimes, and to allow independent human rights organizations and UN agencies to access and visit detention sites.  In addition,  the majority of recommendations called on Egypt to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention  against Torture and the International Convention for the Protection of Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

Likely the government-enforced absence of many Egyptian human rights defenders – who are banned from traveling to the session – spurred intense discussion among most states regarding the restrictions imposed on civil society in Egypt. Some specifically recommended closing Case 173 of 2011 against Egyptian human rights organizations (Poland);  lifting travel bans and asset freezes on a number of defenders (Britain and Germany); ending reprisals against human rights defenders in general (Afghanistan and Denmark); and providing a favorable working environment for civil society to operate freely without intimidation (New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, United States).

 Seven UN human rights experts, in a recent statement, demanded that Egypt ” immediately cease its campaign of persecution against protesters, human rights defenders, journalists and anyone else with divergent opinions.” The statement expressed deep concern about the arrest and torture of three activists in particular: Alaa Abdel-Fattah, Mohammed Al-Baqer, and Israa Abdel-Fattah. Al-Baqer, who heads the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, “may have been targeted specifically in reprisal for the NGO’s submissions to Egypt’s forthcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR)” in March.

“Many UN member states made it clear today that they are alarmed by the unprecedented levels of repression currently in Egypt,” said Jeremie Smith director of the Geneva office at CIHRS. “It is now critical for these states to come together to maintain pressure on the Egyptian government to end its repressive policies and ensure action by the Human Rights Council to address this human rights crisis.”

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s repressive policies have failed to achieve the promised stability; instead causing unprecedented levels of political violence while undermining the rule of law and the fundamental rights and freedoms of all Egyptians.  Egyptian human rights defenders have showed incredible courage by participating in the Universal Periodic Review of Egypt despite the dangers and potential reprisals; courage that – as emphasized by Mohamed Zaree “should be matched with equal moral and political courage on the part of member states, so that the Egyptian government can take responsibility for its brutal policies. Silence is costly. “

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