The 64th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), the African Union’s top rights body, will take place from April 24 to May 14 in Sharm al-Sheikh. In addition to its systematic failure to respect and protect human rights at home, Egypt has also led efforts to undermine the commission’s independence. The commission should strongly raise Egypt’s human rights abuses at the meeting.
“Egypt is trying to appear like a country open for human rights delegates and summits while, at the same time, crushing all dissenting voices and its once-vibrant human rights community,” said Michael Page, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “We know that many Egyptian and international organizations are not allowed to work freely in Egypt and cannot voice concerns without severe retaliation from the government.”
The commission should ensure that all government and nongovernment delegations are able to participate freely in the summit. It should also make clear that it will strongly address any measures of reprisals by the Egyptian authorities against criticism of its practices.
A senior staff member of a leading Egyptian rights organization told Human Rights Watch that only three Egyptian human rights groups were considering participating in the summit because most of the groups were concerned about retaliation by the government.
In recent years, the Egyptian authorities have relentlessly cracked down on nongovernmental organizations, issued the 2017 draconian law that effectively bans all independent work by nongovernmental groups, and prosecuted scores of staff workers of Egyptian organizations. It has also frozen the assets of the most prominent human rights defenders in the country and their organizations and issued travel bans against scores of them. In April 2018, the government said it would repeal the abusive 2017 NGO law but the government has not made a new draft law public.
The Egyptian authorities have also taken reprisals against human rights defenders and activists for cooperating with regional and international human rights monitors, including United Nations agencies and experts. In late 2018, Egyptian authorities detained several citizens who met with the UN special rapporteur on adequate housing during her official mission to Egypt, as well as demolishing their houses and banning their travel. The government denied any wrongdoing and accused the UN High commissioner on human rights and other UN officials of breaching UN standards and adopting the “lies” of “terrorist” organizations.
In September 2017, officials stopped Ibrahim Metwally, a lawyer and co-founder of the Associations of the Families of the Disappeared, from traveling for meetings with UN officials in Geneva. Security agencies arrested him at the airport and held him incommunicado for a few days. He is still held in “pretrial detention” for farcical charges.
The Egyptian government has tried to undermine the independence of the commission through spearheading the adoption of African Union’s Executive Council’s Decision 1015, paragraph 5. The provision, which was passed in June 2018, undermines the commission’s independence by subjecting its work to control by the African Union member countries.
The Egyptian government has ignored decisions and resolutions the commission and its experts have made addressing several violations and abuses including the crackdown on civil society, restrictions on freedom of religion, unfair trials and mass death sentences, arbitrary arrests, and sexual violence.
The ACHPR session comes at a time when the Egyptian authorities have been severely oppressing dissent and obliterating any space for peaceful expression or gathering before the public vote held between April 19-22 on highly draconian constitutional amendments that will strengthen the military control of public and political life and further undermine the already weak judicial independence.
Egyptian human rights organization have documented the arrests of over 160 people, often in mass arrests, since February in relation to the ongoing crackdown on dissidents and perceived critics. These amendments, and several other laws that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has approved in recent years, such as new media laws and laws to expand the use of military courts to try civilians, violate international law standards including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Since al-Sisi secured a second term in elections that were largely neither free nor fair in March 2018, his security forces have escalated a campaign of intimidation, violence, and arbitrary arrests against political opponents, activists, and many others who have voiced even mild criticism of the government. The Egyptian government and state media have framed this repression under the guise of combating terrorism, and al-Sisi has increasingly invoked terrorism and the country’s state of emergency law to silence peaceful activists.
In July 2013, the African Union Peace and Security Council suspended Egypt’s membership in all African Union activities following the forcible removal of former President Mohamed Morsy by the army, which was led by al-Sisi, then the defense minister. The suspension ended after al-Sisi was elected President in June 2014.
But Egypt has failed to effectively investigate or to hold any official or member of the security forces accountable for the mass killings of protesters in the summer of 2013 despite several national and international calls, including by the ACHPR, and despite incriminating evidence. In August 2013, Egyptian security forces most likely at least 817 people in a few hours during its violent dispersal of the largely peaceful pro-Morsy sit-in in Cairo’s Raba’ Square. The killings likely amounted to crimes against humanity.
“Through such summits, Egypt is trying to whitewash its dire record of abuses,” George Kegoro, executive director of Kenya Human Rights Commission said. “The African human rights commission should take the opportunity of this meeting to vigorously engage the Egypt government on its own actions that threaten the rights, and the very lives, of many Egyptians.”
The co-signing organizations are:
Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies
Belady Center for Rights and Freedoms
Business and Human Rights Tanzania
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
Committee for Justice|
Egyptian Front for Human Rights
Human Rights Watch
International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI)
Kenya Human Rights Commission
Ligue Sénégalaise des Droits Humains (LSDH)
Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC)
The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms
The Freedom Initiative
The International Commission of Jurists