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Give Peace a Chance


British historian Lord Acton observed over a century ago that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is still true today, especially in the so-called “Third World, where free elections are a mirage and where the ruling elites are hampered by very few restraints in their pursuit of economic and political gain.

Since 1961, Amnesty International has been the virtual conscience of the world. Its document of reference is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, which holds that every individual is entitled to freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom from discrimination. The organization prides itself on its independence from political and ideological affiliation or corporate sponsorship, and survives strictly on fund-raising and donations from its 1.8 million members. It practices what it preaches, in the sense that it is a democratic movement organized into national sections which are all represented in a governing International Council. Its current major campaigns aim at stopping torture and violence against women, controlling the arms trade, eliminating the death penalty, redressing the imbalances brought about by economic globalization, defending the rights of refugees and migrants and supporting international justice through the International Court of Justice in the Hague and similar bodies.

All of this sounds very lofty indeed. But how effective is Amnesty International? Is the world a better place because of it? Well, let’s put it this way: The world would be a lot worse place without it.

Recent success stories include the release from prison of Honduran indigenous activist Feliciano Piñeda on February 2, 2006. Piñeda had been detained following a dispute with local landowners over communal land titles in the municipality of Gracias. Also recently released were Cambodian opposition parliamentarian Cheam Channy and Vietnamese dissident Nguyen Khac Toan, along with 15 Guantánamo Bay detainees. There is a form letter at the Amnesty International site that you can e-mail to President Bush demanding that he either close down that facility or charge and try those imprisoned there according to international standards.

Which begs the question: What can you do if you are concerned about human rights violations right here in Egypt? And how is Egypt doing on the human rights front? The answer to the first question is: You can get in touch with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (more below). The answer to the second question is not very cheery. The state of emergency imposed since Hosni Mubarak became president in 1981 is still in effect, which means that the constitutional protections of civil liberties are for all intents and purposes suspended. The government’s campaign against Islamic fundamentalists continues unabated, with scores of Muslim Brotherhood members and sympathizers arrested. Torture and mistreatment in custody are endemic and occasionally result in death.

As a face-saving measure, a National Council for Human Rights was created by Egypt’s Upper House (the Shura Council) in 2004 under the chairmanship of former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali, and with the mandate of receiving complaints, advising the government and publishing annual reports on the human rights situation in Egypt. Local and regional human rights organizations questioned its credibility, however, and made it immediately clear that they would have nothing to do with it.

Think Globally, Act Locallyhttp://www.eohr.org/

That the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights exists at all is reason enough to celebrate. That it’s been active since 1985 with a current membership of 2,300 is nothing short of miraculous.

The EOHR is similar to Amnesty International in its structure and goals. It aims to promote political participation without reprisals and the reform of the Egyptian constitution and attending legislation to bring them in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In practical terms, this means providing legal aid to political prisoners and assistance to detainees who are subjected to any form of cruel and unusual punishment. An important part of its work is the Women’s Legal Aid Project, whose stated goal is to eventually achieve gender equality in Egypt. The WLAP handles family disputes such as divorce, alimony, custody of children and property settlement; issues of nationality and citizenship; and matters related to job opportunities, conditions, and remuneration (equal pay for equal work).

The EOHR believes in working through peaceful means. It documents human rights violations through fact-finding missions to prisons and other places of incarceration. In addition, it keeps in close contact with the local and international media through press releases, reports, and other publications. Finally, it appeals directly to Egyptian governmental regarding specific cases and organizes conferences and seminars to promote human rights awareness among the public.

During the 2005 presidential elections, the EOHR along with 21 other human rights organizations formed the Civil Society Election Monitoring Coalition. Some 2,500 volunteers from 22 governorates were trained to monitor 329 main polling stations. Extensive violations were observed and duly documented, and when the dust had settled, Hosni Mubarak had won yet again.

So what’s the point? Well, that’s like asking what is jazz, and you know what Louis Armstrong said about that: If you have to ask, you’ll never know.

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