A report submitted to the 20th session of the UN Human Rights Council, currently convened in Geneva, by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Peaceful Assembly and of Association, exposed the Egyptian government’s attempts to mislead and present inaccurate information in its international reports. This comes as a continuation of the Egyptian government’s exhaustive attempts domestically to confuse matters and shirk its responsibilities. According the Special Rapporteur’s report, which reviewed his communications with several governments, including the government of Egypt, Egypt refuses to admit wrongdoing and often avoids assuming responsibility.
The report notes that the Egyptian government received six letters from the Rapporteur, the first in October 2011 regarding the events at Maspero and the sectarian clashes in the village of Marinab in Aswan. In addition, the Egyptian government received two letters on its treatment of civil society, the first of which was sent on November 17, 2011 and condemned the ferocious media attack on non-governmental organizations and accusations of treason, and the second sent after the offices of 17 civil society groups were raided.
In an official letter to the Egyptian government in December 2011, the Special Rapporteur condemned the arrest of activist Alaa Abdel Fattah and his prosecution before a military court a issued a general condemnation of the referral of civilians to military trials. The special rapporteur also condemned the attacks and sexual assaults on female activists during events at the Cabinet building and on Mohammed Mahmoud Street in his communication sent on January 2012.
Overall, the Egyptian government’s responses to these letters have been weak and unsubstantiated; indeed, the government ignored some of the letters entirely, including the letter on the beating of female activists during the Cabinet protests, according to the report.
In its response to the letter on the Maspero massacre of October 9, 2011, the government listed the measures it had taken in response to the events, including, for example, the formation of “family house,” which ostensibly includes several religious leaders, the drafting of anti-discrimination legislation, and the drafting of a bill to regulate the construction of houses of worship. The response contained several falsifications, placing responsibility for the massacre on “elements armed with Molotov cocktails and live ammunition” and noting that the events were part of a larger project whose goal is to impede democratization in Egypt and obstruct elections.
In its response, dated October 18, 2011, the Egyptian government made no mention of how demonstrators were crushed under armored military vehicles. Indeed, the government continued to intentionally distort the facts of the massacre, stating, “Muslims and Christians in the village of Marinab in Aswan [sectarian tensions in Marinab were a prime reason for the Maspero march] stood together to reject the violence at Maspero. Indeed, they refused to participate in these demonstrations, preferring to resolve the problem peacefully, which suggests that some subversive elements took part in these peaceful demonstrations to intentionally ruin them.”
With regards to the media assault on NGOs, the legal harassment they faced, and the raiding of some of their offices, the government claimed that all measures taken were legal, that civil society associations face no restrictions of any kind, and that the freedom to form associations was guaranteed in accordance with “Article 11 of the law which elucidates clear conditions for the establishment of associations.” The government also stated that there are no problems with the issue of the foreign funding of associations of any kind, adding that only 1 percent of grants submitted for approval had been rejected.
All of these claims are evidence of the Egyptian government’s persistent repression of civil society associations as well as its attempts to mislead international public opinion. In reality, the Egyptian government launched a serious media attack on civil society groups, accusing them of treason and foreign collaboration via leaks to the press, while the investigations conducted and charges leveled against the organizations contained no reference to the implementation of foreign agendas or attempts to undermine national security. During the crisis, the government used all means to defame NGOs, including by bringing the judiciary into what was a purely political issue.
The claim that Law 84/2002 on NGOs easily permits associations to register and receive foreign funding is not believable even in international forums. This law was a constant cause for criticism of Egypt during the Universal Period Review of 2009, as the law imposes arbitrary restrictions on civic associations, diverting them from their primary goal of social development to dealing with the bureaucratic restrictions of the administrative authorities. Dockets at the Administrative Court stand witness to the degree of interference by the administrative authorities, behind which works the security apparatus, in NGO operations, beginning with the rejection of associations that conflict with the public order (a much-used pretext for the administrative authorities to reject the establishment of associations) and extending to interference in the internal affairs of NGOs and the right of the administrative authorities to reject associations’ resolutions or certain candidates for membership of their boards, the arbitrary rejection of grants and funding received by associations, and the dissolution of associations by administrative order. In most of these cases, the administrative judiciary has upheld the right to association and overturned the decrees of the administrative body.
The claims made by the Egyptian government contrast starkly with the bitter reality in which civic associations operate. Indeed, NGOs all over Egypt suffer from clear repression and arbitrary administrative interference, perhaps now more than at any time in the past, especially when it comes to the receipt of foreign grants or funds, which has led many associations to reduce their staff numbers. According to many complaints we have received, several associations will be forced to suspend their activities due to the lack of financial resources given the intransigence of the Ministry of Social Affairs and, ultimately, the security authorities.
The Special Rapporteur’s report asked the Egyptian government to provide the required information in a timely manner and to respond to inquiries made in the letters that remained unanswered, expressing its concern at the government’s lack of response. The Special Rapporteur also expressed his concern about the status of civil society associations in Egypt, particularly after the raids and referral of some activists to trial on charges of treason and collaboration with foreign entities. In addition, the Special Rapporteur voiced concerns about Law 84/2002, which, he reasserted, does not comply with international standards, and he asked the government to adopt a new law that guarantees the right to form and operate NGOs.
The Special Rapporteur asked the Egyptian government to comply with the recommendations it ratified in the UPR of March 2009 as well as with UN Resolution 15/21 [Human Rights Council], which called on governments to respect and protect the right of citizens to peacefully demonstrate and form associations. The Rapporteur also asked the government to stop using violence against peaceful demonstrations, to conduct comprehensive, independent investigations into human rights violations including all forms of intimidation, threat, and repression, to hold those responsible for these practices accountable, and to offer full compensation to victims.
In this context, the CIHRS presented an oral intervention before the UN Human Rights Council today in a special session devoted to the discussion of the report by the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. The CIHRS urged governments of member states to incorporate the report’s recommendations into their national policies and legislation, stating that governments should adopt a system of notification rather than one of prior authorization for the establishment of associations. The CIHRS also urged them to follow the recommendation to establish a set of guiding principles on the freedom of assembly to guarantee increased support for a strong framework of principles and standards to guarantee freedom of assembly, provided these standards are incorporated into the operations of various UN bodies, including in its national missions and bureaus.
The intervention noted that the protection and promotion of the freedom of assembly and association constitute the front lines in the battle for human rights, as they are a principal guarantee for liberties and are thus crucial for the future of the human rights movement in the Arab region and around the world. The intervention rejected governments’ treatment of liberties on the international and national levels as “second-class” rights instead of non-negotiable rights that must be protected.
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