Sunday, May 27, 2007

Egypt: Human Rights Leader?

Since Egypt's election onto the U.N Rights Council, many have raised their voices questioning credibility of a council dedicated to protecting human rights whose own members are serial abusers of their own citizens. The New York based group Human Rights Watch, who have chronicled many of Egypt's abuses in a new report, made a plea for the Egyptian government to reform and improve its record on human rights:
"Egypt has for too long committed serious and systematic abuses at home while consistently undermining UN mechanisms to defend rights," said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East division.

"Now Cairo needs to show that it really intends to turn a new page on human rights and uphold international standards," he said.

In a 13-page briefing paper, the New York-based watchdog and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said Egypt's human rights record made it a poor choice for membership of the UN's Human Rights Council.

Egypt was elected May 17 to the rights body, where seats are allocated on a regional geographical basis.

Candidates are evaluated according to criteria such as political rights and freedoms, freedom of the press, and human rights promotion at the UN.

Egypt has been slammed at home and abroad over recent revelations of torture in police stations, and has routinely been criticized for its arbitrary arrests of dissidents and restrictions on civil society.

Earlier this month, rights watchdogs UN Watch and Freedom House described Egypt, Angola, Belarus, and Qatar, who were all vying for a place in the 14-seat Human Rights Council, as "unqualified" for membership.
Egypt was elected to the council according to region, and this article in Al-Ahram Weekly suggests what may have played a role in their successful election:

Although the council's founding document makes it a condition that election be based on the candidate's "contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights", analysts explained that the vote was marked by a lack of competition within three of the five UN regional groups, which only put up as many candidates as there were seats available. Egypt was elected on the African Group's "closed slate", with just four countries standing for four seats.

"It all has to do with the brilliant diplomatic efforts on the part of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry in marketing Egypt and getting as many votes as possible -- but definitely not with Egypt's record of human rights practices," explained Hafez Abu Seada, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR). "After all, countries with even worse records in human rights abuses could similarly win membership on the council," Abu Seada said.

Mohamed Zarie, director of the Egyptian Human Rights Association for the Assistance of Prisoners, concurred, saying that voting on the UN council "was all a game of power and mutual interests".

Some countries, according to Abu Seada, would agree to exchange votes in various UN councils and, in Egypt's case, it could rally support from three major blocs: Islamic, Arab and African countries. Zarie also thought there was a US role behind the success of Egypt, arguing that, "the US has diplomatic and strategic interests with Egypt."

But it may not all be bad news:

Whatever reasons were behind Egypt's election on the 47-member UN council, Zarie insists it was not much of a victory. "The Egyptian regime will be mired in an extremely embarrassing situation since it will have to uncover its human rights record to the world," Zarie said.

Once a council member, a country is supposed to "uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights" and "fully cooperate with the council". Zarie said that Egypt will also have to allow visits by, and fully cooperation with, the five council special rapporteurs who have outstanding visit requests dating back as far as 1996 (the special rapporteurs cover torture, human rights defenders, freedom of religion or belief, and the independence of judges and lawyers).

Which, Abu Seada says, is more of an advantage than a disadvantage. "This will help enhance the work of non-governmental human rights organisations and will partly compel Egypt to improve its human rights record which will now be exposed to the whole world.

Read the rest here

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