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Egypt cracks down on human rights while championing sustainable development at UN

STATEMENT

The Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) expresses deep concern over the recent verdict against human rights defenders and organizations in Egypt, which freezes access to individual and organizational bank accounts in an attempt to obstruct their work in defending civil, political, economic and social rights in Egypt. The verdict came as the cabinet approved the long-disputed bill on non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which is now awaiting a parliamentary vote.

On Saturday 17 September 2016, the Cairo Criminal Court reaffirmed the order of the Egyptian prosecuting judge to freeze the assets of three human rights organizations and their heads, as well as the assets of the founders of two others, thereby impairing their day-to-day activities defending human rights and social justice. The decision affects the assets of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and its founder and director Bahey Eldin Hassan; the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and its director, lawyer Mustafa al-Hassan; and the Egyptian Center for the Right to Education and its director Abd al-Hafiz Tayel. The personal assets of Hossam Bahgat, former director and founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and Gamal Eid, the director and founder of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information were also frozen.

The proposed NGO bill would restrict civil society space in the country even further. Specifically, it reasserts that the executive has power over the establishment, activities, and resources of NGOs, all of which must now be scrutinized by an executive committee composed of representatives from the General Intelligence Services, the Ministry of the Interior, the Central Bank of Egypt, the Ministry of Justice and the Vice President of the State Council (Art 48).

It is a sad irony that the latest crackdown on NGOs took place as President Sisi appeared at the United Nations General Assembly, affirming his commitment to “the further realization of the Egyptian people’s aspirations for freedom, dignity and social justice”. Egypt has presented itself as one of the countries “championing the future” of the global sustainable development agenda adopted at the General Assembly last year. However, the Government’s campaign against human rights NGOs stands in stark contrast to the commitments it has undertaken under Sustainable Development Goal 16 to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies…provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”. It also contradicts the numerous recommendations made to Egypt when it appeared before the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review in 2014 concerning the elimination of interference with the registration, funding and work of NGOs.

In its National Review, presented to the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in July 2016, the Egyptian Ministry of International Cooperation affirmed that, “the Government of Egypt recognizes the important role of civil society as a key partner in supporting sustainable and inclusive development” and cited Article 75 of the Egyptian Constitution, which states that all citizens are permitted to form an NGO upon notification and that such organizations have the right to practice their activities freely. Significantly, the Government’s report reviews Egypt’s commitments across all the Goals, with the exception of Goal 16.

The asset freeze comes amidst ongoing criminal charges being brought against dozens of human rights defenders who are accused of taking foreign funding illegally with the intent of “pursuing acts harmful to national interests”. Since the crackdown began numerous human rights defenders have also been subject to travel bans.

Human rights NGOs are not the only groups suffering the state’s crackdown on civil society. Violations by the executive of workers’ rights to independently organize continue to be reported. Since 2011, hundreds of independent trade unions were established in the wake of the January 25 Revolution.  However, the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation brought a case before the administrative court to prohibit its independent counterparts, which was referred to the Supreme Constitutional Court in June. Similarly, the Civil Service Law, passed during the International Monetary Fund’s recent visit to Egypt, only recognizes state-controlled unions. There are also reports of civilian workers in factories owned by the defense ministry facing military trials, which lack the most basic guarantees of legal rights, on charges of “incitement to strike” and “refraining from work” for demanding better wages, improved health services and increased security.

CESR joins the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and other domestic and international human rights NGOs in urging the Government of Egypt to end the harassment of Egyptian human rights NGOs and the ongoing crackdown on civil society space. It calls on Egypt to annul the verdict and drop all charges against the above-named human rights defenders and ensure that they are able to carry out their legitimate activities without fear of prosecution, intimidation or reprisal. CESR also calls on Egypt to bring its NGO-related laws, policies and practices firmly into line with international human rights standards, with the recommendations of the Universal Periodic Review and its recent commitments to promote the role of civil society in the pursuit of just and sustainable development.