EU must publicly condemn human rights violations during meeting with Egypt

Egypt, Shrinking Space for Civil Society, Statement

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Brussels, 20 July 2017 – Ahead of the EU-Egypt Association Council of 25 July, EuroMed Rights urges the EU to raise human rights concerns publicly with its Egyptian counterpart. We believe that this high-level meeting should be the opportunity to communicate to Egypt, and to public opinion in Europe, that the EU does not endorse Egypt’s repressive policies and fully expects that meaningful human rights and democratic reform must take place. The 17 July 2017 EU report on EU-Egypt relations noted that “considerable challenges continued as regards the rule of law, the protection of human rights, fundamental freedoms and the space for civil society” in Egypt. However, it did not reflect the seriousness of the situation, including the sharp deterioration of rights that has taken place in the past two and a half years.

In June, the EU’s statement under Item 4 at the UN Human Rights Council’s 35th session was withdrawn due to vigorous opposition to critical language on Egypt and other states’ human rights record. The division amongst EU Member States is regrettable, and has signalled to Egypt that its human rights situation is not a priority anymore, after having been raised continuously under Item 4 since June 2014.

In parallel, the crackdown on any form of opposition is worsening:

  • Cases of enforced disappearances, for periods up to seven months, have increased since 2015. The victims include children as young as 14 years old, who are being tortured in detention to obtain convictions in subsequent trials. There have been several documented cases of extra-judicial killings, usually linked to enforced disappearances. Human rights organisations have documented several trials that did not respect international or Egyptian fair trial standards, such as civilians subjected to military trials and mass death trials:
  • On 29 June, President Sisi approved a new law regulating the work of NGOs. This law will make it almost impossible for an independent civil society organisation to survive in Egypt. It will also be a major obstacle to the implementation of the EU-Egypt partnership priorities, a document that is set to be formally adopted at the EU-Egypt Association Council. The partnership priorities would allow to channel up to 699 million EUR to Egypt, through direct budget support to the government and support to local NGOs. However, with the newly adopted law, it is unclear whether there will be any independent civil society left to serve this purpose. All international human rights NGOs have already left Egypt since 2012 because of the authorities’ judicial crackdown on their work as part of case 173/2011, but this new law means that the remaining NGOs might find themselves unable to operate. Human rights defenders are not only harassed in Egypt, but also in Europe, as happened at an event EuroMed Rights organised in May in Rome;
  • Detention and harassment of political activists from opposition parties, including human rights lawyer and potential 2018 presidential candidate Khaled Ali, has continued unabated. Repression of human rights defenders, journalists and political opposition figures has reached unprecedented levels. On 15-18 June 2017, around 170 opposition activists and human rights defenders were detained in an attempt to silence dissent and protest over the Tiran and Sanafir islands’ transfer to Saudi Arabia;
  • Access to at least 123 websites was blocked in Egypt as of 13 July 2017.

This crackdown does not produce stability and security, quite the contrary: terrorist attacks have increased and become far more deadly. The extended state of emergency and the lack of enforcement of the 2014 Constitution prevent any peaceful avenue for political expression and lay the path for radicalism. Meanwhile, over 100 of Egypt’s Coptic Christians have been killed in terrorist attacks since December 2016. The government highlights the plight of the Copts, but does not show the will to protect them in practice.

In light of this, the EU should not restrict itself to corridor diplomacy on 25 July, but publicly condemn these extremely worrying developments. The EU cannot expect to have a thriving bilateral relation with a country that eradicates its own civil society and locks up or kills any form of peaceful dissent.