By Summer Said and William Fisher
One of the byproducts of the incessant discussion of ‘reform’ in the MENA region has been the phenomenon of government-organized human rights bodies. As of this writing, such bodies are have been established in more than a dozen countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
However, these groups have been viewed with skepticism precisely because they have been formed by governments – often by repressive governments that continue to show little regard for individual liberties. Criticism has come from local NGOs as well as from international advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch.
Arguably the most highly publicized of these groups is the Egyptian Government’s Human Rights Council (NCHR), founded by President Hosni Mubarak under the leadership of former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali. The NCHR is about to celebrate its first birthday. As it prepares its first annual report, it may be timely to review its life to date.
Like many of the other government-organized human rights in the MENA region the Council was viewed with widespread skepticism by human rights and civil society NGOs –some of which have been the targets of an NGO law that places serious restrictions on their ability to operate freely. Today, the Council still finds most non-governmental organizations – and international human rights groups --unconvinced that the new body is anything more than “window dressing”.
Moreover, some of its most vocal critics are human rights activists who are members of the NCHR Board. The 25-member Board includes prominent representatives of human rights NGOs, universities, and women’s and legal affairs organizations.
Moataz El Fegiery, Program Officer for the Cairo Institute For Human Rights Studies, says: "NGOs consider the establishment of this Council an attempt to decorate the government externally, but no one really believes in the Council. The government can prove its will to reform by taking urgent steps to end the emergency law or combating the epidemic spread of torture or announcing a timetable for political reform, but none of this is happening."
At the heart of their criticism is the Council’s failure to deliver on its promise to recommend to President Mubarak the repeal of the country’s Emergency Law, which has been in force since the October 1981 assassination of President Anwar Al Sadat. The Emergency Law gives authorities extensive powers to restrict freedoms of assembly and expression and to arrest and detain Egyptians without due process.
A few months after President Mubarak announced formation of the NCHR, Chairman Boutros-Ghali told the press the Emergency Law would be repealed “in three weeks”. The NCHR prepared a memorandum to the General Prosecutor, who has jurisdiction over these laws, recommending that the Laws be repealed. The NCHR memorandum argued that the rationale for a state of emergency no longer exists because Egypt has experienced internal calm for several years. It also contended that continuing the state of emergency blocks political reform, discourages foreign investment, and damages Egypt's international standing.
But it then postponed presentation of the memorandum to Mubarak, citing the need for “further study”. Many critics believe the NCHR thus “failed in its first test to prove its commitment to human rights problem and its nothing more than window dressing.”
The General Secretary of the country’s oldest human rights organization, Hafez Abou Saeda of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), an NCHR Board member, says: “The matter does not need further consideration. What is needed is not an amendment of the Emergency Law but the end of the state of emergency. Any decision short of this will damage the legitimacy of the NCHR since it would be accepting a law that is the source of all human rights violations. The commitment to political reform and the continuation of the state of emergency are contradictory and can in no way occur together."
The EOHR is among leading human rights organizations critical of the NCHR. For the EOHR to recognize the NCHR, it says, “the government has first to abolish the Emergency Law, free political prisoners and apologize officially to all those who were tortured in police stations and prisons.”
Egypt’s Information Ministry’s website claims the country “has a long history in the protection of human rights.” But human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as the US Department of State, find Egypt’s human rights record among the worst in the Middle East. It is reportedly one of the countries to which the CIA ‘renders’ people in their custody to be subjected to torture in prison.
NCHR vice-chairman Kamal Aboul Magd, a noted legal scholar, believes “the Council’s most important achievement during its first year was the establishment of the Complaints Fund, which to date has received some 4,000 complaints from individual citizens and institutions. “ However, only 50 of the complaints received thus far were related to human rights violations. Aboul Magd says these complaints will be documented in the Council’s annual report expected to be released in January. The Council is currently visiting prisons and detention centers to ensure that prisoners are treated in accordance with local regulations and worldwide norms. Human rights violations are to be included in the annual report.
Critics complain that “almost a year after its formation last January, rights activists “still cannot identify the Council’s achievements” and that “its agenda remains shrouded in secrecy.” They charge the Council looks “more like an answer to international pressure than an answer to domestic political party pressure or public opinion.”
However, chairman Boutros Ghali has tried to reassure the Council’s critics that “everything will happen in time via diplomacy”, but has reminded the press that the government is not obliged to carry out the recommendations of the Council. “Our job is to present studies and resolutions to the government and they later decide what they will do,” he explains. The government-appointed Council is solely an advisory body and has no executive power to implement its decisions.
While some critics acknowledge that the Council’s board members enjoy good reputations and high credibility, some say that they are too busy with their other activities and “do not pay much attention to the Council.” Chairman Boutros-Ghali has seven or eight other engagements.
Amr Al Shoubki, political analyst at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, declares that the NCHR’s board members have “failed to present a real reform from the human rights status in the country. This is due to the fact the Council has been affiliated to the government since its establishment,” said Al Shoubki. “Those highly regarded people were not given the freedom to do what they wanted or what was required.”
The scorecard of MENA’s government-sponsored human rights groups was perhaps best summed up by a member of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, who asked to remain anonymous. Referring to Egypt’s human rights council, he concludes: “We should not expect a government-sponsored organization to scandalize the government. They were just established to receive complaints and issue useless reports.”
While a few of the government sponsored human rights commissions in the MENA region may be able to report sporadic progress, his conclusion appears to apply to the MENA region as a whole.