Monitoring, Tough Message on Dire Rights Situation Long Overdue
Geneva, Switzerland — Egypt’s human rights community is facing “annihilation” by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government, more than 100 leading human rights organizations from around the world have warned in a letter to foreign ministers.
The groups called on governments to lead and support the creation of a monitoring and reporting, mechanism on the ever-deteriorating human rights situation in Egypt at the upcoming 46th regular session of the United Nations Human Rights Council scheduled to begin on February 22, 2021. Establishing a monitoring and reporting mechanism would serve as an important step in raising the profile of the violations and crimes committed, providing remedies for survivors and victims’ families, deterring further abuses, and establishing pathways for accountability.
“Governments at the UN Human Rights Council should send the overdue message to the Egyptian government that abuses are and will be monitored and reported and that brave Egyptians facing oppression every day are not alone in their struggle,” said John Fisher, Geneva Director at Human Rights Watch.
Ten years after the 2011 Egyptian nationwide uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians are living under a repressive government that is stifling all forms of dissent and peaceful expression. Recent weeks have shown that collective action is both possible and can have an impact. “Only through sustained and committed international action can we ensure the survival of the Egyptian human rights movement in the coming period,” the groups said in their letter.
According to groups that joined the letter the struggle for human rights in Egypt is at a “critical juncture.” Inaction by Egypt’s partners and Human Rights Council member states has emboldened the Egyptian government “in its efforts to silence dissent and crush independent civil society.”
The recent shocking arrests and investigation of senior staff of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), and the freezing of their assets in abusive proceedings in front of a “terrorism circuit” of a criminal court represent an “abhorrent and unacceptable attack” against one of the most prominent human rights organizations in the country, the groups said. It demonstrates the Egyptian government’s determination to escalate its sustained, widespread, and systematic attacks against human rights defenders and civic space.
Since the ousting of former President Mohamed Morsi from power in July 2013, the Egyptian authorities have waged an increasingly brutal crackdown on human rights defenders and civil and political rights more broadly. Thousands of Egyptians, including hundreds of human rights defenders, journalists, academics, artists and politicians, have been arbitrarily detained, frequently on abusive criminal charges or through unfair trials.
Egyptian security forces have systematically subjected them to ill-treatment and torture. UN experts have warned that catastrophic detention conditions have endangered detainees’ lives and health. Other peaceful activists have been forcibly disappeared. What happened to some of them has never been revealed.
“The people of Egypt have lived under despotic governments before, but current levels of repression in Egypt are unprecedented in its modern history,” said Bahey El-din Hassan, Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “The consequences are potentially terrible for both human rights and regional stability.” In August of last year Mr. Hassan was sentenced to 15 years in prison in absentia by a Terrorism Circuit Court in Egypt for his human rights advocacy work.
In such a severely repressive environment, many human rights organizations have been forced to close, scale down their operations, operate from outside the country, or work under constant risk of arrests and harassment.
The government typically invokes “counterterrorism” to justify these abuses and to criminalize freedom of association and expression. UN experts have warned about Egypt’s use of “terrorism circuits” of criminal courts to target human rights defenders, silence dissent, and lock up activists during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Faced with these repeated warnings, the UN Human Rights Council has a responsibility to act and ensure robust reporting and international scrutiny over the deteriorating human rights situation in Egypt, the groups said.
“The survival of the embattled human rights movement in Egypt is at stake,” said Kevin Whelan, Amnesty International representative to the UN in Geneva. “Members of the international community have the responsibility to support efforts to establish a monitoring and reporting mechanism at the Human Rights Council on the situation in Egypt, signalling that Egypt’s disregard for human rights will no longer be ignored or tolerated.”
To: Ministers for Foreign Affairs
CC: Permanent Representatives to Geneva, and human rights Ambassadors
9 December 2020
Lead on joint action to address the human rights crises in Egypt
at the 46th Session of the UN Human Rights Council
We are writing to urge your government to lead collective action at the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council (the Council) and establish a monitoring and reporting mechanism on the human rights situation in Egypt.[i]
We are at a critical juncture for human rights organizations and the wider struggle for human rights in Egypt. The latest shocking arrests and investigation of senior staff of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and the freezing of their assets in abusive “terrorism circuit” court proceedings represent an abhorrent and unacceptable attack against one of the leading human rights organizations in the country. It also demonstrates the Egyptian government’s determination to escalate its sustained, widespread and systematic attacks against human rights defenders and civic space in Egypt. While the recent release of three EIPR staff, who should not have been arrested in the first place, brings relief to their families and friends, a fourth EIPR staff member remains detained and the organization is still under attack. The threats to other remaining independent human rights organizations still persist, with rights defenders facing arrests, arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearances, prosecution and travel bans solely for advocating for human rights.
The release of the three EIPR staff after two weeks does however demonstrate the impact that international coordinated and public pressure can have, and therefore creates an opportunity to protect individuals, organizations, and the broader Egyptian human rights community.
For years civil society has warned that the Egyptian government is attempting to annihilate human rights organizations and eradicate the human rights movement in the country. The recent attack against EIPR is only the latest example, and sobering reminder that Egyptian authorities can close down the few remaining human rights organizations and that human rights defenders live with the constant threat of arbitrary detention. This constant, nearly decade-long pattern of increasingly brutal forms of repression must be challenged or we risk witnessing another escalation.
The inaction of the UN Human Rights Council on the human rights crises in Egypt appears to have emboldened the government in its efforts to silence dissent and crush independent civil society. The international community is able through joint action at the upcoming Council to send a clear message that such an attack is not acceptable and will come with costs. Only through sustained and committed international action can we ensure the survival of the Egyptian human rights movement in the coming period.
Such action would also greatly aid in efforts to protect and ensure the release of other unjustly jailed Egyptian human rights defenders and other prisoners of conscience, who continue to be kept in virtually indefinite pre-trial detention on trumped up charges, and face heightened risks to their health in Egypt’s overcrowded and unhygienic prisons due to the COVID-19 pandemic and lack or denial of medical care. Women human rights defenders are also targeted and face heightened threats due to their work. Human rights defenders held in prolonged pre-trial detention include, Mohamed al-Baqer lawyer and director of Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, journalists Esraa Abdlefatah and Solafa Magdy, Ibrahim Ezz el-Din, housing rights researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms and Patrick Zaki, gender rights researcher at EIPR. The Council, under your leadership, should be pushing for the immediate and unconditional release of all those detained for exercising their rights to freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, and contribute to influencing the political will of the Egyptian authorities to improve the human rights situation.
Your government has committed to take leadership and responsibility in initiating Council action when human rights criteria are met. Egypt meets these criteria and we strongly urge you to act now.
Egypt is an emblematic example of how governments are using the guise of counter-terrorism to quash civil society. UN experts have expressed concern about the collective and corrosive effects of Egypt’s counter-terrorism laws and practices on the promotion and protection of human rights. They warned Egypt is using the “Terrorism Circuit” of criminal courts to target human rights defenders, silence dissent, and lock up activists during the COVID-19 pandemic. Egypt’s misuse of counter-terrorism does not stop at the national level, but it rather seeks to undermine international and African human rights systems. We remain highly concerned about the devastating effects on civic space globally if Egypt’s policies are exported to the UN system and other countries. Using Egypt as a case in point, UN Special Procedures highlighted the “profound need by States to hold other States abusing counter-terrorism and security laws to account.”
The Egyptian authorities have a track record of carrying out patterns of reprisals against human rights defenders for their legitimate work, including for engagement with UN Special Procedures. These have included arbitrary arrests and detention, enforced disappearance, torture, unlawful surveillance, threats and summons for questioning by security agencies.
The government’s refusal to address key concerns raised by States in its response to the UPR in March 2020 demonstrated its lack of political will to address its deep challenges and to engage constructively with the Council. Egypt continues to refuse to receive visits by Special Rapporteurs on torture and human rights defenders.
UN experts have warned that catastrophic detention conditions coupled with denial of adequate health care have endangered detainees’ life and health. Despite this, the Egyptian authorities have consistently refused to allow independent monitors access to prisons and other detention facilities.
Failure to initiate Council action on the situation in Egypt at the 46th Session of the Council will send a dangerous message to the Egyptian government that it can continue escalating its crackdown against human rights defenders and organizations, and violating the fundamental freedoms and human rights of its citizens, with impunity.