CAIRO: A US non-governmental organization has launched a stinging attack on Egypt’s role in the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) referring to it as “one of the most aggressive opponents of universal standards on human rights.
“The primary finding of the report is that a small but active group of countries with very poor human records have so far succeeded in limiting the ability of the HRC to protect human rights, despite their minority status on that body, Freedom House says in its report, “The UN Human Rights Council Report Card: 2007- 2009.
In its report issued Tuesday, the Washington-based group assesses the progress of the HRC, an inter-governmental body established in 2006.
As part of its mandate the HRC is charged with bringing to book governments that violate human rights, and taking action to combat human rights abuses.
The report judges the HRC in four areas sub-divided into 11 categories. The four areas include the HRC’s ability to take “timely action on some of the world’s most egregious human rights abuses occurring in specific countries or regions of the world and censor governments as appropriate; the ability of NGOs and human rights activists to engage with, and influence the HRC; and the ability of the HRC “to raise, and take appropriate action to address emerging global patterns of human rights abuses.
Many of the problems that plagued its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission, continue to undermine the HRC’s effectiveness, the report finds, in particular the politicization of its activity.
Some of these problems are innately structural, Freedom House says, pointing to the HRC’s “flawed election system that allows “members of the five regional groups decide in advance who will represent them, regardless of their human rights records.
“It remains the primary weakness of the HRC that far too many of the world’s democracies allow highly repressive countries – such as Egypt, China and Cuba – to get elected to seats on the HRC and then follow their aggressive lead.
Wael Aboulmagd, deputy assistant minister of foreign affairs for human rights, dismissed this allegation.
“Their main problem here is that the countries they characterize as democratic are in the minority, and they see everyone else as undemocratic, Aboulmagd told Daily News Egypt.
“By voting in the democratic process they are not getting what they want, so their only way is to say that it’s a flawed system.
The report says that Universal Periodic Review mechanism meanwhile – where the human rights records of HRC member states are reviewed periodically – “has proved useful mainly for countries Freedom House designates as Free or those ranked near the top of the Partly Free category. States that are not interested in reform undermine the process by presenting overly positive reports about their records and lining up friendly countries to testify on their behalf.
Egypt – head of the HRC’s Africa group – is mentioned 11 times in the 25-page report. Freedom House is critical of Egypt’s “thwarting various attempts to take action on Darfur, as well as its leading role in altering the mandate of the Special Representative on freedom of opinion and expression by requiring that it cover abuses “amounting to religious or racial intolerance.
Together with members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Egypt complained that the Special Representative had exceeded his mandate when he signed a statement declaring that the concept of defamation of religion is incompatible with freedom of expression.
Opponents of the OIC’s motion that freedom of opinion and expression should encompass religious defamation suggested that such an action would unjustifiably limit freedom of speech.
Aboulmagd accuses the report of presenting Western and European views on issues within the HRC.
“On the areas that they criticize, they’re simply parroting the views of European and Western countries on these issues. We are entitled as member states of the UN to have a different view.
Egypt also attempted to limit the mandate on human rights defenders by “challenging the accepted concept that human rights defenders include individuals who are ‘self proclaimed.’
The ability of nongovernmental stakeholders to engage with the HRC is severely undermined by the 19-member NGO Committee which acts as a gatekeeper by voting on NGO applications for UN accreditation, the report says.
Accreditation allows NGOs to engage with UN human rights bodies and mechanisms.
In addition to countries it lists as Partly Free or Not Free making up half of the committee’s members, Freedom House says that “the roster of Not Free or Partly Free countries include some of the world’s most aggressive opponents of universal standards on human rights: China, Cuba, Egypt, Pakistan, Russia and Sudan.
“These countries increasingly attempt to influence the ability of NGOs to engage with the HRC by denying accreditation to organizations that they view as too critical of their human rights records or that advocate on behalf of issues to which they are opposed.
The report recommends that the committee be replaced with a professional bureau that will evaluate the applications of NGOs on a purely technical basis.
Despite its giving pass masks on only two of the 11 criteria used to judge HRC performance – and awarding ‘fail’ in four categories – Freedom House says that “these efforts to pervert the mandate of the HRC and to roll back universal norms of human rights are deeply concerning, but they are not yet irreversible.
The report adds, “It remains the primary weakness of the HRC that far too many of the world’s democracies allow highly repressive countries – such as Egypt, China, and Cuba – to get elected to seats and then follow their aggressive lead.
Aboulmagd labeled the report “too harshly critical and accused Freedom House of coming “from a skewed biased angle for these issues. Every one of [the] issues they are addressing is an issue of debate and difference inside the council.
“Freedom House is an advocacy group; they see it from that angle. The United Nations Human Rights council is not an advocacy group; its job is not exclusively to point fingers, there is a difference of perception and expectations.
“The report is an attempt – and not a very successful one – by one of the experts at Freedom House to assess thus far the work of the Human Rights Council. Egypt was referenced one or two times in a negative light. That’s their prerogative; we see things very differently.
Soha Abdelaty, deputy director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights which monitors Egypt’s performance at the HRC, says however that Egypt has “not lived up to the pledges it made to the UN General Assembly to make the council an effective body.
She reiterated the report’s findings, saying, “In many ways, Egypt has played an obstructive role in the council, whether it is by seeking to eliminate country mandates or mechanisms (and thereby eliminate scrutiny of any country situation), or by seeking to limit NGOs’ participation in the Council.
“Egypt was never in favor of establishing the Human Rights Council in the first place, and to a large degree its performance during the past couple of years as a member lead us to believe that it does not want an effective human rights body at the UN, she told Daily News Egypt.
Abdelaty added however that it is too early to dismiss the HRC.
“Having said that, we still feel that the council remains an opportunity to raise human rights issues and an arena to debate and make decisions on these issues and situations. We think it’s too early and unfair to dismiss the council altogether, and hope that the more constructive members can save it from demise. – Additional reporting by Abdel-Rahman Hussein.