The government’s flagship human rights organisation has done nothing to limit human rights violations, writes Bahey Eldin Hassan*
On 18 January 2007, the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) will end its three-year term as specified by law. Its membership is to be reconstituted by the Shura Council, either by changing all, some, or none of its members. This author, a current member, has personally declared his refusal to have his membership renewed.
When evaluating the NCHR’s work, the pivotal question that needs to be answered remains, “What has been the value added of the three year-old NCHR?” Both the quantity and the quality of its activities during its three years must be considered.
In terms of quantity, the NCHR could be considered to have been an active institution. It issued numerous documents and two annual reports (a third is underway). It convened three sessions of hearings. It organised several seminars and more than 70 meetings, both bilateral and multilateral, with concerned parties. It also organised a number of visits to prisons, and participated in monitoring parliamentary and presidential elections.
A positive surprise
In terms of quality, two things are presented as evidence of good performance. The first is the NCHR’s opening annual report, which was a positive surprise to public opinion. The second is the council’s proposal on constitutional amendments, which included many of the demands of the Egyptian public.
A major reason behind the relatively positive evaluation of the first annual report is the fact that Egyptian NGO briefs on human rights violations constituted its main source of information. The first report also conducted a quality analysis of the complaints received by the council and highlighted the lack of response of the relevant authorities to the council’s investigations. It also documented shortcomings in the administration of justice, in investigatory practice, and in state security action when dealing with human rights issues. However, once the government expressed its dissatisfaction with this report, these two positive features were dispensed with in the second report.
As a council member, this author voted against the second report and registered his objections in a newspaper article entitled “Ten Steps Backwards”.
Turning to the council’s generally positive constitutional amendment proposals, it is regrettable that they did not cover the areas that fall directly under the council’s jurisdiction, namely the human rights guarantees contained in Chapter 3 of the constitution. This, despite the following:
First, the government has announced that, in order to transform emergency law into a permanent Anti-Terrorism Law, it intends to amend this chapter, particularly by weakening the existing constitutional guarantees therein.
Second, at present the Egyptian constitution does not refer specifically to “human rights”, except once in Article 53, which is related to foreign political refugees and not to Egyptians.
The constitution makes no reference to international human rights instruments.
Clearly, the opening of the door to constitutional amendments is an exceptional opportunity that should have been seized by the NCHR to enhance the constitutional protection of human rights in Egypt.
Virtue of silence
The NCHR organised three hearings on torture cases and on the massacre of Sudanese refugees in Egypt. It also sent a fact-finding mission to Sinai. However, it did not issue any statement informing the public of the outcomes of its hearings, or of the negligence of governmental bodies in responding to the council’s investigations. Its presentation of these issues in its annual report was confined to an inaccurate summary of the hearings and investigations.
Further, the NCHR kept silent on major torture cases widely reported by the media and was content with a limited presentation of some events in its annual reports. It also avoided addressing the question of Egypt’s secret prisons, the subject of discussion all over the world following revelations of the kidnapping of “Abou Omar” in Italy and his transfer to Egypt where his confessions were to be extracted by force. The NCHR devoted only a few lines, from newspaper reports, to this issue in its first annual report and it completely ignored it in its second report.
When the prime minister stated in interview with the US media that Egypt had received 60 persons to be investigated, the NCHR ignored members’ suggestions to ask him for elaboration. It also avoided addressing the transferral of Talaat Al-Sadat, a civilian and Member of Parliament, to a military court.
In addition, the NCHR overlooked the judges’ demands for judicial independence and full election supervision despite the judiciary’s deep-rooted relationship to human rights. The council also remained silent with regard to so- called elections in labour and student unions.
The council’s silence/protection umbrella also extended to all issues ascribed to the official Islamic religious institution concerning violations of freedom of expression. Moreover, NCHR officials censored the reports and activities of its members and its committees on such issues, as well as any material collected by them.
Silence would have been preferable to the way some other serious violations were covered. A case in point is the NCHR’s statement on the occasion of the 25 May 2005 assault on female demonstrators protesting against the referendum on amending Article 76 of the constitution. The statement provided justification for the collective sexual harassment of women by considering it an act of mutual violence between the government and the opposition.
Silence would also have been preferable to the NCHR’s statement following a visit to some prisons that pretended that the conditions found therein were normal. Another such case is the council’s adoption of the Ministry of Interior’s position on the need for a new anti-terrorism law in case the state of emergency is lifted.
The NCHR’s failure to carry out its mission led to a decrease in the number of complaints submitted for its attention from a monthly average of 485 to 466, though the opposite would have been expected since awareness of the council’s role would have increased with time.
The NCHR convened less than 10 meetings with senior officials but held more than 70 meetings with foreign diplomats and delegations in Egypt. The purpose of these meetings was not to expose human rights violations, but rather to respond to criticism of the government’s human rights record.
Who monitors the NCHR?
This poor performance had a negative impact on the NCHR’s relationships with human rights NGOs. From the very beginning, NGOs had doubts about the council’s credibility. Its performance entrenched these doubts, especially after the NCHR’s statement on the referendum and its acceptance of the decision of the governmental Committee for Parliamentary Elections Supervision to make the NCHR a channel for NGOs seeking to monitor the process. NGO fears with regard to assigning the council as guardian over them proved justified. In a case filed before the State Council, the latter issued a ruling in favour of the NGOs. One of the ironies of this case is that the person who filed it was one of the council’s NGO members.
Some council officials attributed the motivation behind the criticism by NGOs to competition for foreign funding. However, it should be noted that governmental and non- governmental organisations are not funded via the same channels, even if the source could be the same.
This does not mean that NGOs have fulfilled their duties with regard to the NCHR. Lack of consistency and follow- up were prevailing characteristics of the NGO-NCHR relationship in both criticism and cooperation. It could even be said that the NCHR’s internal criticism was clearer and more consistent than that of the NGOs.
At the time of the council’s establishment, this author had suggested that NGOs set up a monitoring body to cooperate when possible and criticise if required, in order to balance governmental pressures on the NCHR and to improve its performance. Unfortunately, this proposal, though welcomed, was not implemented.
NCHR is not an NGO
An important similarity, to the extent of being identical, is noticeable in the working methods and tools of human rights NGOs and the NCHR. However, this similarity should not lead to dealing with the NCHR as just another NGO whose credibility and effectiveness is to be assessed according to the impact of its activities on public opinion regardless of whether the government responds or not to its reports.
Third world governments always deal with NGOs in a hostile way and consider them a platform for opposition or foreign country interference. But how can the government justify its non-cooperation with a state-established organisation whose chairman, vice-chairman and members it appoints? Among them are several leading members and supporters of the ruling party.
The government does not follow NCHR recommendations, does not provide it with basic information, and does not investigate its complaints. When it comes to responding to citizen’s complaints transmitted through the NCHR, replies are very few and almost devoid of content.
The government has yet to send its comments on the NCHR’s second report for the year 2005 (issued in April 2006). It is ironic that in its response to the first report, the government noted that it was commenting on it as “a reader”. In other words, its response was not the fulfilment of a legal and political commitment toward the NCHR, but merely a reaction to the NCHR’s invitation to “all recipients to provide it with feedback”. Nevertheless, NCHR reports always thank the government for its cooperation.
Even when the NCHR commissioned a UN Development Programme expert to design a national plan for human rights to be implemented by the government, the latter refused to provide him directly, or through the NCHR, with the basic information needed. So, what is the value of a plan not designed according to proper information and whose implementing agency is not a willing participant?
The NCHR’s major task is to influence the executive decision-making process with regard to human rights. If this is not the case, its existence is meaningless. Therefore, three years after its creation it is justifiable to ask “What if the council was not there?” Would there be more violations of human rights? Would the rigging of parliamentary, labour and student elections have increased? Would torture be more brutal and severe? Would the government’s disrespect and non-execution of judicial rulings be intensified?
Sadly, the existence of the NCHR did not impose any limits, whatsoever, on human rights violations.
No value added
The added value of the establishment of NCHR is basically its defence of the government’s human rights record. The reasons behind this situation lie first and foremost in the state’s lack of political will for reform. The motivation behind the establishment of this so-called “independent” institution was to help to improve the government’s image internationally. The soft criticism of its reports would merely constitute a mild addition to critical reports issued by Egyptian and international human rights NGOs, while the unbalanced composition of the NCHR’s membership in favour of the government would successfully undermine its “independence”. The lack of democracy, transparency and efficiency in the administration and internal management of NCHR, were obviously an enabling factor in this respect.
Finally, further facilitating the government’s intentions, have been the good intentions and generosity of the NCHR’s foreign donors!
* The writer is director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and member of the National Council for Human Rights.