Egypt would censor NGOs at UN

It’s the last round for the 32 countries that passed their human rights examinations in Geneva in April and May. During this week’s session of the Human Rights Council, each country presents its case and hear allegations from NGOs. But Monday’s session turned into an uproar.

Carole Vann/Juan Gasparini/Human Rights Tribune

Everything appeared to begin well yesterday (June 9), the second week of the current session of the Council. Delegations came together to launch the final round of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process of 32 countries audited during the past two months regarding their human rights records. However the exchanges among member states. quickly degenerated.

The reason for the conflict related to what non-governmental organisations (NGOs) could and could not say during their brief interventions – two minutes per organization. In other words, are the defenders of human rights allowed to underline gaps in the final report on their respective countries or must they be content with making only technical observations of little consequence ? At stake, once again, is the question of the role civil society plays at the heart of the Human Rights Council.

UPR, which is the greatest innovation of the Council, foresees two steps for NGO participation. First, a compilation of their concerns is included in the main document along with those of UN experts and the state in question. In the second step, these same NGOs may express ‘general comments’ before conclusions are made on the final examination. It was the notion of ‘general comments’ that set off the uproar on Monday with Egypt and Pakistan on one side and Slovenia (speaking for the EU), Switzerland, Mexico, Canada and France on the other.

During this final step of the UPR process, each country has one hour to present its commitments to safeguard human rights to the Council and to listen to comments from its peers as well as those from NGOs. First on the list Monday was Bahrain, which listened for two minutes to the critiques of Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, a Bahraini national from the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS). It would have passed like a letter in the post if the militant had abstained from attacking his country’s royal family. This imprudent digression aroused the thunder of Egyptian ambassador, Sameh Shoukry, who invoked procedure to try and censure Alkhawaja’s comments.

Thus for the rest of the day, a diplomatic struggle was launched between Western countries and Muslim ones, a verbal jousting contest that continued during the review of Tunisia and Morocco. Council proceedings were interrupted with reprimandes for the Danièle Mitterrand Foundation against the Polisario Front; interrupted again, with denunciations of the FIDH (International Federation of Human Rights) and Amnesty International regarding torture in Tunisia and the absence of independent judges and lawyers. At each intervention, the Egyptian delegation raised his hand to demand a point of order.

Egypt and Pakistan consider that comments from NGOs should be limited to general remarks about the final report while Western countries believe NGOs should raise points not mentioned in the report. For his part, Council President, Doru Costea, called for order at each intervention that deviated from the report’s content, and appeared to agree with the Egyptian position. France’s Ambassador, Jean-Baptiste Mattei, recalled that ‘”in the 240 minutes that UPR lasts, NGOs only have 20 minutes”. And if on top of this their comments are censured ? Swiss diplomat, Muriel Berset Kohen raised the ante : ‘nothing in the institutional text specifies that NGOs must limit the content of their interventions. We expect civil society to raise issues missing in the reports. ’

According to Ambassador Mohammed Loulichki of Morocco, who sat in stoic silence during the verbal ping-pong match about the Polisario Front, the question of NGOs is a fuzzy part of the UPR process. He himself led last year, the working group charged with drawing up the fundamentals of UPR. “It’s like a radio broadcast that one needs to fine-tune,’ he explained to TDH. ‘Sometimes there is static but after some adjustment, clarity is restored. We will get there, this is a good mechanism. It is the only exhaustive dash board for human rights that is available to the international community.”

See online: More on UPR

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