|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
7 - 13 March 2002
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The politics of rightsShe came to speak about "ethical globalisation" and the integrity of the international human rights law system, but encountered seething concern over the international community's double standard. Amira Howeidy reports on the UN high commissioner for human rights visit to Egypt and interviews her on the region's anxieties
News of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson being in town last week travelled fast, not least because she came at a time when issues of international humanitarian law in the region are more pressing than ever.
Events of the day have raised burning questions on the meaning and applicability of international humanitarian law. Nothing is being done about the scores of Palestinian civilians who are being killed daily by advanced American weaponry owned by Israel and about Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's detention in his Ramallah home. After the US military strikes on Afghanistan killed thousands of Afghan civilians, bringing down the Taliban regime and replacing it with a client government deemed more appropriate, many across the world watched in shock as America transported its Al-Qa'eda suspects to its Guantanamo Bay military base in Cuba and refused granting them POW status. Not only did US officials ignore international criticism of its treatment of the captives, but they went as far as disputing the internationally recognised and respected Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of POWs.
US President George Bush's statements on the "axis of evil" and insinuations of imminent strikes on Iraq exacerbated already charged public sentiments in the Arab world.
Enter Mary Robinson. Her visit to Egypt, Bahrain and Lebanon could not have come at a more critical time. Her agenda naturally focused on issues directly related to human rights development in each of the three countries, but the Egyptians were more interested in discussing the Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq crises.
During her stay in Cairo last Thursday and Friday, Robinson held closed meetings with the ministers of foreign affairs, the interior and social affairs, in addition to the speaker of parliament, the Arab League secretary-general, the grand imam of Al-Azhar and the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church. She also held a meeting with representatives of human rights groups and civil society.
Discussions revolved around the commissioner's concern over the continuing extension of the Emergency Law in Egypt since 1981, discrimination against women, the treatment of prisoners, the situation of human rights groups, the NGO law, recent Muslim-Coptic clashes and the status of Copts and Cairo's position on the International Criminal Court (whose statute Egypt signed but did not ratify).
An open discussion at Cairo University's Faculty of Economics and Political Science on 28 February and a press conference at the Conrad Hotel the next day, however, were very telling of Egyptians' human rights concerns.
"Frankly speaking," Abdel-Raouf El-Ridi, Egypt's former ambassador to the US, addressed Robinson at the seminar, "we see the Western world applying double standards. When there was occupation in Europe, those resisting it were considered heroes. When there was a Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, the resistance fighters were called mujahideen, who, back then in the Western lexicon, were considered heroes... But we have to observe the relationship between occupation and so-called terrorism, because [the Palestinians'] feeling of humiliation, resentment and anger at the Israeli occupation has led to the situation we have today. And occupation, Mrs Robinson, is a violation of human rights."
A series of questions underlined the pressure and influence Israel exercises on the international community, hindering it from applying international law. Others criticised the adoption of anti-terrorism laws in the US, the UK and elsewhere in the West, which violate civil liberties, especially of Arabs and Muslims. "Is the West adopting emergency laws (copied) from Third World countries under the pretext of its so-called war on terror?" an Egyptian working in the French Embassy asked. "What do you think of Israel's attack today on a Palestinian refugee camp that is under the supervision of UNRWA? Isn't this an escalation?" asked a reporter from the Middle East News Agency. Another reporter wondered why Robinson had rejected the text and action plan of the NGO forum in the WCAR anti-racism conference in Durban last September. "How are NGOs supposed to send their message across when they were blocked in such a way?"
Robinson was criticised for equating the plight of the occupied Palestinian people with that of Israel on the one hand, and Palestinian resistance with violence, on the other. She was also reproved for her silence regarding the expected attack on Iraq.
On the local level, the commissioner was asked why her concern for human rights violations in Egypt only encompassed cases that do not conform with the "Western" human rights agenda, such as the hype over the conviction of homosexuals and the trial of human rights activist Saadeddin Ibrahim, while overlooking the continuing military trials of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood members, for example.
A calm and composed Robinson responded diplomatically to the questions relating to Israel, being vague at times.
"[There is] a need for a political way forward to reduce the terrible situation of violence and violations of human rights in the occupied territories," she said. "I am also concerned about human insecurity in Israel and civilian deaths of Israelis. I don't equate the two situations. I do see the problems stemming from the occupation and from the resistance to occupation and the utter blockage of any kind of possible life for the civilians in the occupied Palestinian territories..."
Her response triggered a comment from the back benches of the press conference describing her as a "politician who won't be lured into criticising Israel ever."
While the high commissioner's replies disappointed some, others concerned with the local rights agenda seemed satisfied with her visit. "Since there are absolutely no channels between us and government officials," Hafez Abu Se'da, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) told the Weekly, "she managed to transfer our views and problems that far."
Abu Se'da argued that her agenda in Egypt focused on very specific human rights issues that reflected local activists' concerns as well. "She wasn't imposing any Western concerns or anything like that," he said.
Robinson's third visit to Egypt was described, in her own words, as better than the last. Abu Se'da thinks it is because, this time, the government has several achievements to boast of. Among those are the modification of the personal status law that allows women to receive a speedy divorce; the draft law providing facilities for the children of Egyptian women married to foreigners; and the release of Saadeddin Ibrahim by a court order. "That's why officials were more relaxed. But we don't feel that there is progress on the human rights level," Abu Se'da said.
The commissioner had intended to talk about what she calls "ethical globalisation" and her upcoming trip to Afghanistan during her Cairo visit, as her assistant told the Weekly. With so many other seething concerns on the minds of her hosts, Robinson was not given the chance to broach the subject. Still, the world's top human rights defender did not deliver the condemnation of Israel her audience was waiting to hear.
More than perception?Excerpts:
In the two public talks you gave here, you were bombarded with questions that expressed resentment as well as the perception that double standards apply to the Palestinians with regard to human rights. How do you view this?
I certainly noticed the strong views and the concern felt at the continuing occupation and violation of human rights in Israel. The failure to address the problem can be traced back to the role that the US played, if you like, in influencing a certain attitude towards human rights in this region.
That is of concern. I would have to say that the continuing situation in the Occupied Territories preoccupies not just those in this region but international bodies as well. It is certainly of acute concern to me, as high commissioner, as well as to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan ... What is important for me to assess as directly as I can, is the extent to which people here feel anger, frustration and the perception that double standards are being applied.
What do you think should be done to restore faith in international humanitarian law and international human rights, given that there is a widespread feeling that, when international humanitarian law is not in the interest of the superpowers, it is simply not applied?
I think, in fact, that the response to the 11 September attacks reveals the precise opposite. Although the initial response was to put the whole focus on combating terrorism without paying adequate regard to the standards of international human rights and humanitarian law, the institutions have actually been very firm.
I have made it very clear that there has been no change in the standards of international human rights and that they apply. I've also affirmed the importance of international humanitarian law. Another case in point is the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the lead agency on international humanitarian law, which has stood firm. Because we have stood firm on the principles, I think that it is now causing a rethink, particularly on the side of the US. A good example of this is the US turn- around on the Guantanamo Bay prisoners.
But the US administration has not decided yet whether they are POWs or not.
Well, nonetheless, I think that we've seen that, far from no international body criticising, there has been considerable attention given to the issue.
As you say, attention has been paid to the issue. But although international humanitarian law applies in the Guantanamo Bay case as well, it does not seem to be applied.
Well, I think that the situation is still evolving. In other words, I think that what the ICRC has said is that there is an assumption that those detainees from the conflict in Afghanistan that were taken to Guantanamo Bay would be entitled to POW status under the Geneva Convention, unless a tribunal determines otherwise.
As I understand it, there is now an ongoing discussion about clarifying their status... In other words, by standing strongly for international human rights and humanitarian law standards, we have made a difference.
So, why do you think there is a feeling here that the human rights of people in the Third World are not respected?
I know that, for millions of people on a daily basis, the true agenda of human rights is not a reality and this is something that makes me very angry. We are not addressing real poverty and we are not really tackling conflicts the way we should. But, part of what I'm very concerned to do is to make it clear that the agenda is there for everyone...
Yes, it's difficult and we're not going to arrive at an ideal situation tomorrow but I do believe that there is a much more engaged debate taking place on the way in which globalisation is not working, not only for developing countries but also for sections of the population within some of the developed countries. This is because this type of globalisation is market-led and is based on a philosophy of free trade and deregulation...
We need, therefore, to address the importance of having what I call a more ethical globalisation which means that we have to take seriously the different normative frameworks, if I can put it that way, the different set of rules that we have.
Do you think this is possible when you yourself have said that the human rights agenda is politicised?
No, what I'm saying is that the agenda is at times criticised for being politicised but there is increasing support for it and an increasing awareness amongst civil society worldwide of the way in which we can use the tools of the international system, such as the commitments that governments have made, to progressively implement economic and social rights.
You said you felt there was progress on the level of respecting human rights in Egypt since your last visit. What makes you say that?
I said there was progress in some areas. It is important when I come, prepared to criticise, that I also know that there is progress. For example, the women's divorce and nationality laws constitute progress but I've pointed out that there is still discrimination, for example, when an Egyptian woman marries a foreigner and her children can't get Egyptian nationality.
I've also asked that Egypt lift its general reservation to article two of the convention for the elimination of discrimination against women. I have expressed my concern about the continuation of the emergency law and of the special courts instituted under that system because you have a two-track system which is very bad for any system, especially when applied over a period of several years.
I'm aware that civil society, particularly the human rights NGOs, feel quite fearful and inhibited in their work and that worries me because Egypt needs a strong and vibrant civil society which can speak out without fear. I'm aware that there's a very significant problem of corruption which is by no means confined to Egypt but does, nevertheless, erode the standard of human rights.
You are concerned about the extension of the emergency law in Egypt. Some might say that such laws are a source of inspiration for the US Patriot Act. Do you perceive such a link?
I see a general problem since 11 September in that the focus on combating terrorism can be utilised in clamping down on political dissent, freedom of expression and on the role of journalists... that people who were never branded terrorists before can be branded terrorists now and this is a crucial problem.
Do you think the US should reconsider the US Patriot Act? After all, it is an ad hoc law that has been causing concern throughout the world.
I acknowledge this and the US was very shocked and, I would say, to some extent traumatised by the 11 September attacks. This constitutes a new experience of not being immune from the kind of terrorist attacks that most countries absorb, reluctantly, but absorb nonetheless as a reality. Therefore, there has been a very strong response and there is a continuing anxiety that the Al-Qa'eda network has not gone away.
There are also strengths in the US system, especially in that it's a country with many voices. I know that human rights NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and the Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights are very critical, internally, of the situation in the US. That's the best approach that a country can take -- for it to have within itself strong critics who reaffirm the importance of human rights. These voices have been strengthened in recent months.
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