NCHR asserts its independence
The newly established National Council for Human Rights is slowly getting into gear while fending off criticism from sceptics, reports Gamal Essam El-Din
Former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali, the chairman of the newly-created National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), met with President Hosni Mubarak on Sunday to review the organisation's plan of action for the next period. The discussion followed two NCHR meetings -- which took place on 18 and 19 February -- and comes a month after the Shura Council appointed NCHR's 25- member board on 19 January.
Ghali said he told President Mubarak that the organisation had established seven committees. Another committee would soon be formed to draft NCHR's internal regulations; members would also meet in a few weeks to appoint heads of the seven committees, six of which will deal with political, social, economic, civil, cultural and legislative matters. The seventh committee, Ghali said, would verify citizens' and institutions' complaints regarding human rights violations.
Even as the NCHR tries to set up its organisational structure, it has faced a harsh campaign spearheaded by both opposition and independent human rights NGOs.
Mohamed El-Sayed Said, of the Cairo Centre for Human Rights Studies, told Al-Ahram Weekly the high-profile status of some of NCHR's board members was a double-edged sword. "There is no doubt that people like Ghali or former information minister and acclaimed Islamic thinker Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd are highly regarded in public circles," commented Said, who is also a leading figure at Al-Ahram's Centre for Strategic and Political Studies. "The problem, however, is that these same people are not full-timers. How can people occupying several posts in Egypt and abroad find enough time to do their job properly at NCHR?"
Ghali recently told the press that he chairs six institutions other than the NCHR, and was taken aback by Mubarak's decision to nominate him for the post. "When President Mubarak told me about the nomination," the 82-year-old Ghali said, "I told him that not only was I too old, but also too busy to have time for a seventh job." Ghali said Mubarak convinced him that the energetic Abul-Magd would be a big help.
Ghali has argued that his many responsibilities will not hinder the council's work. "I know that most critics want to see quick results on the ground, but I believe that everything [will happen in time], via diplomacy."
The Nasserist Party, harshly critical of Ghali when he was foreign affairs minister, launched a major attack against him this week. The party's mouthpiece, Al-Arabi, blamed Ghali for the massacres that took place in Rwanda in 1994 when he was UN secretary-general. The paper said Ghali had to explain his role in the massacres before assuming his post as head of the NCHR.
Ghali's appointment has also become the subject of a lawsuit. Mamdouh El-Sheikh of Menoufiya has decided to sue Shura Council Chairman Mustafa Kamal Helmi for appointing Ghali to head the NCHR despite published accusations that he failed to prevent the mass extermination of the Rwandan people while he was UN secretary-general.
The new council's duties include fostering a culture of human rights and examining bills dealing with human rights issues before they are presented to parliament. According to Said, the fact that it took more than six months for the Shura Council to appoint the NCHR's board shows that improving the country's human rights record is still not a major government priority. Many people thought that as soon as the People's Assembly approved the council's formation last June, "the government would do its best to redress human rights violations like ill- treatment in police stations and torture of detainees," said Said. "The government, however, chose not to pave the ground for the council in terms of embracing any serious initiatives that might lead to a remarkable improvement in the human rights record."
In its 2003/2004 report, the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) alleged that police regularly used torture, and that approximately 13,000-16,000 people are detained without charge on suspicion of security or political offences each year. Amnesty International, EOHR said, published a report last year stating that "everyone taken into detention in Egypt is at risk of torture."
Ghali said that although he was aware that "some in the human rights and NGO [communities] like to draw the media's attention [to issues like torture and the emergency law] by making a lot of noise," he prefers dealing with such matters via patience and diplomacy.
Police and security forces are desperately in need of education on human rights issues, Ghali said. "Most importantly, they will have to be educated on how to [extract] the truth without resorting to torture or force."
The NCHR will coordinate with the United Nations, international human rights NGOs, and as many as 32 Egyptian human rights NGOs, Ghali said. "The NCHR was not created to fight Egypt's human rights NGOs. The latter are doing a wonderful job and we want to complement them."
Many commentators, however, still think the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) sees the NCHR more as window-dressing than part of a genuine reform programme. Said and other representatives of human rights NGOs are also concerned about the NCHR's affiliation to the Shura Council.
Although the Shura Council will provide NCHR with its headquarters at first, Ghali said, this does not mean that the council will be affiliated to the Shura Council. "We are already independent, and will be more so when we move to our own headquarters," Ghali said, "with a secretary-general and a dedicated support staff."
Abul-Magd said, "the council will never end up being a government mouthpiece." He said, "most of the attacks against this council are entirely unfounded. It is unjust to attack even before the council plunges into business." Abul-Magd also dismissed NCHR's affiliation with the Shura Council as being "nominal. The council is not affiliated to the president of the republic [either]," he said, "even if it is obliged to present him with an annual report about its findings and remarks on human rights violations."