Is the Egyptian Government Worthy of the United Nations Human Rights Council Membership?

In Salon Ibn Rushd by CIHRS

On May 8th 2006, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies –CIHRS- held a seminar on “Is Egypt worthy of the United Nations International Human Rights Council (UNHRC)’s Membership?” The UNHRC was established upon the General Assembly’s resolution to replace the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR); the members of the first round were to be elected on May 9th 2006. Keynote speakers of the seminar included Dr Osama El-Ghazali Harb, Editor-in-Chief of Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya (International Politics) Quarterly; Dr Aida Seif El-Dawla, representing the Egyptian Organization for Combating Torture; Dr Mohammed Abul-Ghar, University professor and spokesperson of the March 9th Movement for the Independence of Universities; and Dr Hani Annan, member of the Coordinating Committee for the Kefaya (Enough) Movement. While Hisham El-Bastaweesy, a judge, excused for a sit-in he was engaged in at the Judge Club in the context of the judges’ movement to defend the independence of the judiciary.

Bahey Eddin Hassan, head of the CIHRS, commenced the dialogue raising the main question of the seminar, which was if the Egyptian Government was worthy of the UNHRC Membership. Mr. Hassan noted that the UN Secretary General, Mr. Kofi Annan, had previously formed a Committee of the Wise (as it was called) to discuss the UN structural problems. Tremendous developments have been achieved in the UN over the past 60 years; however in parallel with this development, there has been a constant feeling, particularly among NGOs, of grave shortcomings on the part of the UNCHR. In this context, the Committee of the Wise designed different scenarios to reform the Commission, one of which was setting up a Human Rights Council – the idea which was adopted by the UN Secretary General, Kofi Anan. The resolution on the establishment of this council was promulgated earlier that year. The Council is to meet four times a year; meetings, still, would be held flexibly at any time to look into any gross human rights violations. Many details would still appear in practice.

The new council would be formed of 48 member states, 13 of which are supposed to be Asian, 13 African, 8 Caribbean and Latin American, 7 Western European, and 6 Eastern European. Eight Arab states, so far, have already sit for elections. However, in case Egypt sits for elections, would Egypt be worthy of the Council membership?

In his word, Dr. Mohammed Abul-Ghar argued that four states objected to the establishment of the Human Rights Council, namely the United States of America (USA), Israel, and two other unheard-of states, most probably tiny isle states. Cuba and Venezuela, however, abstained from voting on the grounds that the USA might use the Council to put further pressure on them. The Egyptian representative agreed and demanded harsher punishments against the human rights violating states, depending on the Council provision that two thirds of the votes are enough to dismiss any member state in case of violating human rights even if it was elected. The Council, moreover, may send delegates for local visits to the different states to inspect and make reports on the conditions of human rights there. Obviously, both options would be embarrassing for states where human rights are being violated. For these reasons, Egypt had an oscillating position between agreement and disagreement. Mr. Abul-Ghar contended that Egypt’s chances to gain the Council membership were certain, however, Egypt did not seem willing to join.

Dr. Aida Seif El-Dawla then took over, raising a question on the extent to which the UN mechanisms and resolutions are effective in solving many of the world problems and crises, based on the Report of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. For instance, in terms of the Palestinian issue, no steps have been taken to implement the UN resolutions in this regard. The systematic weakness of the UN is attributed to the fact that the state mostly in charge of this institution has certain political interests conflicting with many resolutions. Referring to Egypt’s early objection to the establishment of the Council, which eventually changed to approval due to foreign policy pressures, which was reflected in the Egyptian Foreign Minister’s declaration. Egypt provided the pretext that transforming the UN Commission on Human Rights into a Human Rights Council would further politicize human rights movement. However, in the 2005 session of the UNCHR, Egypt voted against the UNHRC resolution to review the Guantanamo Prison cases submitted before the UN International Investigation Commission, though Egyptian citizens had already been incarcerated there. When asked about the reasons for objection, director of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s Human Rights Department retorted that objection was for certain political considerations. In resumption of her address, Dr Seif El-Dawla contended that the UN Human Rights Rapporteur had not been able to enter Egypt for nine years so far to inspect human rights conditions since the Egyptian Foreign Ministry had not issued him an authorization to undertake his mission.

Dr. Seif El-Dawla argued that Egypt was not deserving of joining the Council given all its acts of oppression against free thought and expression, and the widespread torture as well as the continued application of the emergency law. If a certain comparison was to be held between the Egyptian and the Indian National Human Rights Councils, we would find that the Indian Council at least has the power to inspect Human Rights conditions, while the Egyptian version was denied such jurisdiction and was confined to making reports.

Dr. Hani Annan, however, referred to the debate over national sovereignty and its relation with discussing human rights issues at the international level. Annan argued that the communications revolution caused enormous change, and that the world is turning from the state domestic sovereignty concept to another concept holding human rights violations as a non-domestic issue; meaning, all domestic affairs of a certain state should not remain domestic – seeing that every state has its own laws and traditions is enough to facilitate oppression, tyranny or misappropriation of wealth, etc. Wishing that Egypt would join the UNHRC even for once, Annan hypothesized that this will distort its image in front of the whole world when it commits a flagrant violation that will render it dismembered. This is because as soon as Egypt joins the Council, it will tend to make a media ballyhoo, whereas when dismissed, it would not be able to provide justification.

Assessing the UN performance in general, Annan explained that the UN, particularly after the war on Iraq, bore semblance to the former League of Nations: totally paralyzed, as a result of the US pressures along with the stringent financial conditions it was facing, especially following the USA refusal to pay its UN quota more than two years. A certain restructuring of the UN had to be undertaken, consequently. Mr. Annan argued that gaining the membership of the UNHRC will impose many restrictions on Egypt in terms of its domestic practices and the extent to which it complies with international treaties and conventions. Change is taking place, both in Egypt and in many other regions, though slowly, he argued. Owing to this change, and as the old regimes have started to falter, they started to fear collapse; which is clearly reflected in the excessive and unjustified security violence against a handful of demonstrators, in addition to the judges’ stance and their claim of rights. However, such are the demands of a certain group, which if made by other groups, a wide-ranging action will take place, as part of the world-wide action.

In conclusion, Mr. Annan expressed his wish that Egypt would join the UNHRC as a member, so that human rights advocates and civil society associations would keep a closer eye on the government’s practices with the intention of exposing its human rights violations.

Dr. Osama El-Ghazaly Harb, on the other hand, had different views which he explained in a nutshell. Arguing that the human rights movement in Egypt has not had any representation for years, Mr. Harb indicated that having it currently represented constitutes a sign of change. This movement has begun the toughest stage of change which is indeed the main propelling force from stillness to motion.

States and governments with a good record of respecting human rights should participate in the formation of this international council. Egypt, however, is absolutely out of context so far. Two points prove this idea, he emphasized, the first one is the report of the National Human Rights Council, which documents cases of arbitrary arrest, provisional custody, torture and restricting freedom of association. The report referred, as well, to the numerous complaints filed, that amounted to 6500, in addition to violating the freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration. The report, however, is considered a quite moderate one.

The second point, according to Mr. Harb, is the international organizations’ reports on human rights violations in Egypt. These reports, commissioned by the Human Rights Watch and the Amnesty International, affirm that Egypt is not ready yet for the UNHRC membership. Mr. Harb added that Egyptian policies lead to a systemic failure, and constitute a violation of economic and social rights – the basic human rights, which are indeed on the decline – as well as the low levels of economic and social services.

Regarding the establishment of the UNHRC, Mr. Harb showed unease. The Council should necessarily represent the world civil society, thus forming the Council on the basis of governmental participation is both illogical and ineffective. However, if it was based on the participation of civil society associations, with their undeniable moral values, which do represent an element of change, the proposed Council would be positively influenced. If such associations networked in a single international entity that could reflect the power of the civil society, much could be gained.

As an ending note, Mr. Harb noted that we are undergoing a transitional phase of multiple dimensions from one system of rule to a completely different one. The 50-year-old authoritarian regime, is completely unable to continue with its old methods. Egypt, he indicated, is expecting a newly-born regime – one sign of delivery is the emergence of many movements and initiatives constituting transition to the Second Republic (a true democratic regime that should replace the over 50-year-old authoritarian one).

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