Egypt: COP27 under influence

Romain Doucelin / Hans Lucas / Hans Lucas via AFP

10 November 2022. What legitimacy for a COP27 under the influence of multinationals, in a context of repression of human rights defenders and environmental disinterest by the host country? A heavenly setting for an environmental and human disaster.

Since 6 November 2022, the States Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have been meeting in the seaside resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt for the 27th Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP27). As extreme weather events intensify and the energy crisis leads to an increase in the consumption of coal, the most polluting fossil fuel, the laxity of States in the face of the climate emergency continues to move the world away from the objectives they have set. The latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report is damning: global warming is expected to reach between +3.2 and 5°C by 2100, well above the 1.5°C warming limit set by the Paris Agreements.

The consequences of these extreme climate events on human rights are devastating. The depletion of resources and the resulting conflicts, environmental and climate migration, and breaches of the rights to health, water, food, housing and life particularly affect the most vulnerable people, such as those living in precarious situations or extreme poverty, women, young people, the elderly, indigenous peoples and minorities... This is why, after having welcomed the recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a fundamental right by the United Nations General Assembly last July, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) insists once again on the importance of placing human rights at the centre of the environmental and climate policies discussed.

For a regulated participation of companies in the COP

While it should be shining a light on affected communities and their demands for remedy, every year the COP serves as a platform for the most polluting companies. In 2021, the fossil fuel industry alone had over 500 delegates, the largest delegation at COP26, far outnumbering the indigenous peoples’ representatives attending.

The over-representation of private interests and the most polluting companies in the proceedings undermines any ambitious and credible environmental and climate initiatives, that are incompatible with industrial interests. In a joint statement, FIDH recalls that no genuine progress can be made as long as these companies have deregulated access to the climate summits.

Human and environmental rights: an interdependence soon to be recognised?

Recognition of the interdependence between respect for the environment and human rights is essential to ensure access to justice for communities affected by climate-related disasters. Although states have a responsibility for global warming, they are far from the only ones. A hundred oil, gas, coal and cement companies alone since the beginning of the industrial era. The irresponsibility of these companies, coupled with a lack of international regulation, directly threatens life as we know it on earth and therefore the exercise of all human rights. To put an end to this, FIDH has been running the #SeeYouInCourt campaign since 2021, by engaging with affected communities to support them in defending their rights and claiming their access to justice.

In addition, the states participating in the COP must finalise the establishment of a normative frameworks, at international, regional and national levels, that clarify the responsibility and obligations of economic actors with regard to human rights and environmental violations along their value chain and that limit their negative environmental footprint. The international community urgently needs to equip itself with the necessary legal tools to prevent such disastrous behaviour.

A typical example of this interdependence is the arrest of Egyptian human rights and climate activist Ahmed Amasha in July 2020 and his transportation to an unknown location. More recently, Indian activist Ajit Rajagopal was arrested while exercising his basic right to speak out to raise awareness of the climate fight among Egyptian citizens. His Egyptian lawyer, Makarios Lahzy, was illegally detained for 72 hours.

In Egypt, a repressive climate

The marginalisation of civil society from the negotiation process is particularly striking in Sharm El-Sheikh. The choice of Egypt as the host country for COP27 was justified by the Egyptian authorities’ desire to "bring the voice of Africa to the big polluting powers". Indeed, this continent is both the continent least responsible for climate change and the most widely affected by its effects. However, this choice risks discrediting the conference.

In August 2022, the Climate Action Tracker described Egypt’s overall climate action as "highly insufficient". In the line of fire of the activists, the Egyptian authorities’ decision to evict inhabitants from an island to turn it into a business district. The authorities have also removed more than 390,000 square metres of green space in urban areas without consulting local residents.

The hosting of COP27 in Egypt is marked by a new wave of repression and infringement of the rights of demonstration and expression. A few days before its opening, dozens of people were arrested for having called for anti-government demonstrations on 11 November 2022 and during the conference. In addition, the Egyptian authorities tightened controls, even installing surveillance cameras in taxis in Sharm El Sheikh, the seaside town hosting the conference. Such measures are yet another indication of the disregard for international human rights commitments made by the Egyptian state since General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi came to power.

Under his dictatorship, civil society organisations, human rights defenders, environmental activists and journalists have been the target of unprecedented repression: many are arbitrarily arrested and detained in brutal conditions, sometimes resulting in death.

Egypt currently has 60,000 political prisoners. Among the emblematic figures of this repression: Alaa Abdelfattah, a blogger and one of the leaders of the Egyptian revolution, has been on hunger strike for six months. On 1 November, he stopped all caloric intake and started a thirst strike on the first day of COP27. Alaa Abdelfattah’s life is now in danger: how can climate justice be guaranteed if the voices defending it are stifled?

Among the most serious violations of human rights, the practice of enforced disappearances has also intensified since 2015: the NGO Committee for Justice has counted 2,724 cases in 18 months in 2020-2021, of which 269 cases have been confirmed.

In the run-up to the climate summit, Egypt has tried to cover up the gaping wounds of a persecuted and silenced civil society by adopting a "national human rights strategy" to be presented with great pomp in September 2021, but in reality, this strategy is nothing more than smoke and mirrors intended for the international community in order to alleviate the pressure on the Egyptian government, as reported by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), a member organisation of FIDH. Indeed, the United Nations Special Rapporteurs still have serious concerns about ensuring secure access and full participation of civil society at COP27, in a context where the threat of reprisals is high.

The choice of Egypt as the host country and some of the world’s most polluting companies as sponsors of COP27 reveals a lack of concern for human rights, environmental and climate issues. Every actor involved in this summit has a significant role to play in influencing the outcome. To this end, FIDH mobilised several diplomatic levers and contacted the different sponsors of the COP27 so that they intervene with the Egyptian authorities for the release of the detainees.

With one year to go before COP28, the announcement of the United Arab Emirates as the next host country suggests a new summit under the sign of repression and denial of freedoms, further accentuating the disconnect between the fight for environmental protection and the respect of human rights. To address all of these issues, we therefore make the following recommendations to them.

 We call on states to raise their ambitions for an effective fight against climate change, in particular by committing to a significant reduction in their greenhouse gas emissions that would bring us closer to the targets set by the Paris Agreements.
 We call on the richest countries to fulfil their budgetary commitments to the poorest countries and to assume their share of responsibility by providing financial and technical support to address climate change.
 We call on all actors involved to emphasise the need for legislation that clarifies corporate responsibility for all human rights and environmental abuses.
 We call for the adoption of a UNFCCC Accountability Framework to manage conflicts of interest and to protect against undue influence of polluting interests.
 We call on companies to take all necessary measures to significantly and effectively reduce their contribution to climate change and to prevent, cease and remedy human rights and environmental violations related to their activities.
 We reiterate our call on the Egyptian authorities to immediately release Alaa Abdelhfattah and all human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience arbitrarily detained in Egypt.
 We call on the Egyptian authorities to end all reprisals against members of civil society who called for demonstrations during COP27 and more generally to guarantee the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and demonstration during and after COP27 and to hold accountable those who violated these rights.
 We urge the Egyptian state to end the practices of enforced disappearance and torture.
 We also call for the removal of all legal or practical obstacles to freedom of association, assembly and expression.

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