Saturday, February 20, 2010

Egypt accepts major human rights recommendations

Lina Attalah

Egypt accepted most recommendations presented by fellow countries on improving its human rights record at the Universal Periodic Review in Geneva yesterday, expressing a new commitment to human rights in Egypt.

The review is a United Nations mechanism, established in 2006, whereby countries’ human rights records are assessed through recommendations of fellow countries. In the first hearing session, held on 17 February, Egypt received recommendations from many countries mostly calling for the lifting of the emergency law, putting an end to torture practices, eliminating discrimination against women, and ending sectarian violence, among others.

Out of 165 recommendations, Egypt accepted 119 and rejected 14, while the rest were deferred to another Human Rights Council session to be held in June 2010. “I think [Egypt’s acceptance of the majority of recommendations] shows that Egypt is taking the process seriously. You can’t go to the Universal Periodic Review and reject all recommendations. There’s a natural pressure and governments have to engage,” says Heba Morayef, researcher on Egypt and Libya with the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Some of the recommendations accepted by Egypt include the release of administrative detainees, the redefinition of torture in the Penal Code to waive the state of impunity in torture cases and the compliance of the new anti-terrorism act with international human rights law. Egypt also recognized the need to amend the NGO law to facilitate the registration and functioning of civil society and to adequately respond to sectarian violence against Copts. Recommendations on freedom of expression, women’s rights of representation in the judiciary and more general social and economic rights were also accepted by Egypt.

Egypt also committed to the protection of refugee and migrant rights. A press release by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights says, “in an indirect reference to the shooting of African migrants attempting to cross the borders to Israel, Egypt has agreed to ensure that the police act with restraint unless they are in danger.” In the past year, Egyptian border police have shot and killed more than 12 African migrants crossing in to Israel.

According to EIPR’s press release, some recommendations were also deemed “inaccurate” and “factually incorrect” by the Egyptian delegation, especially with regards to freedom of religion and the use of the emergency law against journalists, bloggers and political activists.

“The government is lying when it describes as “factually incorrect” well-documented abuses such as the use of Emergency Law powers against bloggers and political activists or the impunity granted for perpetrators of sectarian violence,” said Hossam Bahgat, executive director of EIPR, in the press release. “We urge the government to support all of the review’s recommendations and establish a participatory and transparent implementation plan that is measurable and time-bound,” he added from Geneva where he observed the deliberations of the Universal Periodic Review.

Rejections by Egypt include specific amendments to the Penal Code on prison sentences to those who circulate false news that disturb public security and those who insult the president of the republic, hence limiting freedom of expression. Egypt also refused to abolish the death penalty, to invite international election monitors, to remove references to religious affiliation from identity cards, to amend personal status law to provide for more gender equality, and to stop prosecution on the basis of sexual orientation. Cultural reasons are mostly cited in explaining Egypt’s reservations on the latter rights.

Egypt postponed its response to certain recommendations to the next session in June. Those recommendations encourage Egypt to pass a unified law for the building of places of worship, to allow UN human rights reporters to visit Egypt and to provide Bahai’s with official documents and identity cards.

“Overall, it’s good Egypt accepted many recommendations, but several crucial issues remain in question,” says Morayef.

“A state position at the Universal Periodic Review can be used as a tool to remind it of the commitments it has voluntarily made,” Morayef told Al-Masry Al-Youm. “The advantage of the Review as opposed to other mechanisms is that it raises the level of engagement. The review included an intra-ministerial committee, involvement from the National Council of Human Rights and interest from the media. This means that it can be used as a powerful tool and as a minimal benchmark in [advocacy work],” she adds.

The final report on Egypt’s adoption of the Universal Periodic Review recommendations will be released at the Human Rights Council session in June in the presence of human rights watch dogs. While those groups only had observer status at the February round of discussions, they will have the right to present oral and written interventions in June.

Lina Attalah Senior Reporter

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