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Amid crackdown, UN calls on Egypt to protect civil society space




New York, November 12: When Egypt appeared before the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva last week, dozens of member states called on the country to guarantee an environment conducive to the work of human rights defenders and civil society organizations.  The calls came amid legislative and administrative measures that are clamping down on voices of dissent. In particular, the government’s ultimatum that NGOs register under the repressive Law 84/2002, a deadline which expired on Monday, was raised repeatedly.

The head of the Egyptian Delegation, Minister of Transitional Justice H.E. Ibrahim el-Heneidi assured the Council that the government was listening to civil society’s concerns about both the registration deadline and an even more draconian law regulating NGOs that has been proposed.  Consultation on the latter issue would be extended to find consensus, he stated.

These affirmations ring hollow in the face of legislative and administrative reforms currently being enacted in the country, however. Such measures have exacerbated reprisals against human rights defenders who play a critical role in drawing attention to patterns of human rights violations in the country, including deprivations of economic and social rights. Indeed the restrictive environment has affected civil society engagement in the UPR process itself.  Dozens of Egyptian organizations made submissions to the UPR highlighting the deteriorating situation of economic and social rights as well as restrictions on civil and political freedoms. But amidst a worsening climate of intimidation most to them decided not to attend the session fearing their participation might result in reprisal or even persecution.

The UPR, a peer-review mechanism by which a country’s performance with regard to a broad spectrum of human rights is examined by representatives from other member states, came one year after Egypt appeared before the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  On that occasion, the Committee, made up of independent experts, issued a comprehensive set of recommendations, which Egypt has so far failed to act on. Social and economic policies enacted since the 2011 Revolution continue to undermine the economic and social rights of the Egyptian people, with poverty and inequality rising and unemployment soaring, at the same time as basic social services are being cut.  

For this reason, the UPR was an important opportunity for States to hold the Egyptian government accountable to the full range of its human rights obligations, particularly given the rising levels of poverty and deprivation.

The UPR’s recommendations included calls for Egypt to intensify its efforts to eradicate poverty. The need for more robust measures to ensure the right to social security and to an adequate standard of living was raised repeatedly, in particular for women, youth and persons with disabilities. Youth unemployment, which has now become a full-blown crisis with one in three people between the ages of 20 and 29 unemployed, was another major concern raised.

These recommendations echo a number of concerns made in the joint civil society report, coordinated by CESR together with a coalition of Egyptian human rights organizations and endorsed by some 130 labor and civil society groups, which was submitted to the UPR earlier this year.   

In its closing statement, the head of the Egyptian government’s delegation recognized the crucial importance of social justice in securing the country’s transition. He said his government was committed to “true social justice” and declared "I wish to reiterate that Egypt and its people are full of hopes for a future with a thriving environment for rights, where justice and life in dignity are achieved." Implementing the recommendations of the UPR and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights would be an important first step towards fulfilling this commitment.

Egypt, which has the option to either accept or reject the recommendations, will report back with its responses at the 28th Session of the Human Rights Council in March next year.  The government thus has an opportunity to prove that the commitments made at the UPR are not empty rhetoric and set a path to restore the full spectrum of human rights among all those who live within its frontiers. After all, this is not only the desire of the Human Rights Council, but also of ordinary people all over the country.