In the absence of will
The National Council for Human Rights' new anti-torture unit this week announced its action plan. Amira Howeidy
Seven years after it was formed the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) cannot be accused of having chalked up any great success in improving Egypt's human rights record. The only headlines this once controversial para-government body with a mandate to promote human rights in Egypt has attracted recently concerned the sacking of Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd, vice-president of the council since it was established in 2003.
The majority of local human rights organisations lost faith in the council long ago, accusing it of engaging in little more than bureaucratic posturing. This week, however, the NCHR did manage to attract the attention of civil society and media representatives with the announcement of a 12- month action plan for the council's newly formed anti-torture unit.
Although the principles of human rights and general freedoms are enshrined in the constitution and Egypt has signed several international human rights agreements, including the International Convention against Torture, it has no legislation to combat the practice. Yet in the two-page action plan issued by the anti-torture unit, which lists six objectives for the coming year, anti-torture legislation is nowhere mentioned. Instead it focuses on issues such as: "developing the quality of monitoring and documentation of torture cases"; "developing partnerships with civil society organisations"; "raising awareness" regarding torture; "developing the roles of relevant ministries" and raising "the awareness of the judiciary and prosecutors".
The action plan was announced at a press conference on Monday held by the president of the NCHR's anti-torture unit, Said El-Daqqaq. He is also secretary- general of the ruling National Democratic Party in Alexandria. The press conference followed a two-day workshop by the unit during which it shared its "strategic plan" with government institutions and human rights groups.
"Egypt is signatory to the International Convention against Torture... and it is our duty to ensure Egyptian legislation is compatible with the convention," said El-Daqqaq.
Asked by Al-Ahram Weekly why, then, the unit's action plan ignores the legislative aspect of the battle against torture El-Daqqaq replied that "a lot of effort is needed by civil society and the press to raise awareness before tackling legislation."
The action plan itself is the outcome of a four-day workshop that the unit held last November. In its analysis of the "phenomenon of torture" the workshop identified the lack of legislation to prevent torture, or even define it, as a major problem, and criticised the failure to enshrine the principles of the international agreements and conventions on torture and human rights which Egypt has ratified in legislation.
Bahieddin Hassan, an ex-member of the NCHR and director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, argues that combating torture in Egypt requires "the political will to do so". No amount of awareness, he says, will halt what in the end is "state policy".
The unit was formed four months ago after the NCHR signed a partnership agreement with the Dutch Embassy in Cairo and the Copenhagen-based International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). Through the partnership the Dutch Embassy funds the unit via the IRCT.
Giorgion Caraciolo, IRCT's North Africa and Middle East coordinator described the action plan as "fairly good from the NCHR's point of view". It only makes sense, he said, to issue a plan that "could be implemented given the political environment". Asked to comment on the plan's failure to address anti-torture legislation, Caraciolo noted that the IRCT and the council "have different opinions, and we don't have control over the activities taken by National Council for Human Rights".
Egypt's human rights record was reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on 17 February. During the review the Egyptian delegation, headed by Minister of State for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Moufid Shehab, was "grilled" -- in the words of UN diplomats -- over human rights concerns, not least the "systematic abuse" of detainees in Egypt. In the recommendations that followed the review, the UNHRC called on Egypt to end the state of emergency and ensure that future anti-terrorism legislation complies with international human rights law.
International human rights organisations remain critical of Egypt's human rights record. On 16 February Human Rights Watch described human rights violations as "widespread and routine, including arbitrary detention, torture, and unfair trials before state security and military courts".
While Egypt's human rights record, on the whole, seems as poor as it was when the National Council for Human Rights was established seven years ago, rights activists do point to a number of "small" victories.
Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, credits the council with amendments to the pre-trial detention laws. Under the changes detainees must appear before a judge within 24 hours of arrest, allowing human rights groups and lawyers access to the defendant.
In addition, the transparent ballot boxes introduced in the 2005 elections were a council initiative. Neither of which, he says, means that the council, in its present form, "isn't a colossal waste of time".