EU’s Commitment to Human Rights in Egypt Rings Hollow

Press release
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Photo CC by @fo0_

Brussels, 14 August 2014 – One year after the military’s deadly onslaught on supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi, which left hundreds dead and thousands injured, accountability remains elusive.

The deadly dispersal of gatherings in al-Nahda and Rabaa al-Adawiya squares in Cairo marked a grim milestone in a long history of crackdown on dissenting voices, including civil society, peaceful protesters and human rights defenders (HRDs). This particular event has been described by the EU as disproportionate and resulting in an “unacceptable large number of deaths and injuries”. The denial of entry to the Executive Director and the Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) is only the most recent example of the government’s policy in this regard. The HRW delegation was to brief diplomats and journalists in Cairo on the findings of a report on the bloody dispersals of these demonstrations.

One year on, impunity prevails as authorities have failed to hold officials, police and army officers accountable for the repeated use of excessive force. The EU has called on the Egyptian interim government “to act on its promise and complete a transparent and independent investigation”, but this has not been accompanied by meaningful measures. Although a national fact-finding committee was created, its work is opaque and its findings will not be made public. Furthermore, Egyptian authorities have not yet allowed relevant UN special procedures mandate-holders, such as the special rapporteurs on independence of judges and lawyers, human rights defenders, and the working group on arbitrary detention to visit the country.

After decades of tacit support to dictators upholding impunity, the EU tried to review its South Mediterranean policy following the Arab Uprisings. However it has failed to translate words into a coherent, principled policy and returned to favouring short-term interest instead of human rights and accountability.

EU-Egypt cooperation: words but no deeds

Since the Egyptian uprising of 25 January 2011, the EU has been trying to establish itself as a key player in helping Egypt’s transition to democracy. However, it has failed to develop and maintain a coherent and consistent policy on human rights and democratisation in its relation with Egypt. In its public diplomacy, the EU has reiterated the need to uphold human rights, but it was nevertheless ready to accommodate the authorities’ violations of international human rights commitments. As respect of human rights is conducive to stability, this is the benchmark on which we assess EU-Egypt relations.

The EU’s Foreign Affairs Council (FAC), charged with forging a common position of the 28 EU member states on external relations, has adopted two sets of conclusions since last summer. In its conclusions of August 2013, the EU called for the full respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms, “guaranteed by the rule of law and protected by a fully empowered civilian government”. In light of this, the EU interrupted most of its direct funding to the Egyptian government, suspended the export of any equipment that could be used for internal repression and agreed to review its security assistance to Egypt. Assistance in the socio-economic sector and to civil society has continued, also through direct grants to the Egyptian government. The EU stated that it “will monitor the situation in Egypt closely and readjust its cooperation accordingly”.

The second set of FAC conclusionsof February 2014 welcomed that “the new Constitution enshrines human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression, assembly and women’s rights. Existing and future national legislation has to be in full compliance and implemented in line with the Constitution and international standards. (…) The Constitution should be applied in a way that ensures full civilian control over all branches of government, and civilians should be tried in civilian courts at all times”. All these concerns were reiterated in the EU’s progress report on Egypt published in March 2014.

In June 2013, the European Court of Auditors published a report on EU aid to Egypt, the full version of which has been regretfully removed from their website. The report recommended to the European External Action Service and European Commission (EC), to prioritise human rights and democracy in Egypt, and develop an intensive dialogue on them with the Egyptian authorities, as well as to apply conditionality rigorously in relation to human rights and “deep democracy”. Subsequently, the EU tasked theHigh Representative Catherine Ashton and the European Commission, to “review the issue of EU assistance to Egypt under the European Neighbourhood Policy and the Association Agreement on the basis of Egypt’s commitment to the principles that underpin them”. So far, the EU has not reported publicly on the implementation of these recommendations. Moreover, it has been reported that direct cooperation would resume as soon as Egypt’s political roadmap is implemented.

Against the background of repression, mass death sentences, impunity and proven incapacity to face the previous trade liberalisations, the EU and Egypt began a dialogue in June 2013 on how to deepen further trade and investment, with a focus on possible negotiations of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. To accompany the negotiation process, the EU has launched a sustainability impact assessment (SIA), to ensure that the trade agreements are not harmful to human rights abroad (see the EU’s own guidance and Handbook for Trade Sustainability Impact Assessment). Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) asked the EC to postpone the SIA, denouncing several shortcomings in the way the study was carried out, and insisted that the current context in Egypt is not conducive to a comprehensive and participatory assessment of the human rights situation. However, the assessment has continued, and the final report is due on 2 September 2014.

HRDs and draft law on associations: EU’s deafening silence

Despite the documentation of numerous cases of harassed and jailed HRDs, including prominent activists such as Mr Alaa Abdel Fattah, Ms Yara Sallam, Ms Sanaa Seif and Ms Mahienour El Masry, as well as the fact that women HRDs have been identified as a priority by the EU, the latter has been silent in the face of their repression. In April, the EU High Representative visited Egypt, but according to publicly available information, the situation of HRDs was not on the agenda of discussions with Egyptian officials. Yet on 23 June 2014 the EU congratulated itself for its implementation of the guidelines on human rights defenderson their 10th anniversary, stating that the EU’s policy on HRDs has become “more effective and coherent since the adoption of the Guidelines” and that the EU would “intensify its political and material support to human rights defenders”. This shows a clear disconnect between EU’s principles and discourse and its actions.

The EU has remained silent in the face of ever-increasing restrictions and hurdles preventing NGOs from working in Egypt. The government’s latest measures to hamper the exercise of freedom of association by NGOs is a very repressivedraft law on NGOs that could be adopted soon. On 18 July, the Egyptian Ministry of Social Affairs published a notification requiring all existing civil society entities to register as NGOs within a period of 45 days under the threat of dissolution.

Election observation: a murky business

Since last summer, the EU has been following closely the electoral process. An election observation mission (EOM) was deployed around Egypt’s December 2013 constitutional referendum, which was conducted in an environment lacking democratic and pluralistic debate. The results of this EOM were never published, but EU High Representative stated that alleged irregularities “do not appear to have fundamentally affected the outcome” and welcomed the fact that the new Constitution enshrined fundamental rights and freedoms. She noted that the legislation would have to be in compliance with the new Constitution and expected its application in a way that would give full effect to civilian pre-eminence.

The EU deployed a fully-fledged EOM to observe the May 2014 presidential elections. The final report of the EOM was delivered on 22 July, and commendably included a number of important human rights recommendations. However, it stated that these should be “long term measures,” in spite of the rapid deterioration of human rights. Moreover, the report stated that the protest law should be reviewed “in the long term’’, despite its blatant violation ofinternational human rights standards. The EOM added that “consideration should be given” to legal reforms to ensure that “judicial decisions do not unreasonably restrict the participation of political and civil society stakeholders in public life”. In particular, the EU notes that detention without charge should be curtailed, the right to due process should be respected and civilians should not be tried in military courts. All these issues should be a priority for Egypt, not long-term goals.

In light of this, we urge the EU and its member states to significantly reinforce the coherence and consistency of its human rights and democracy policy in its relation with Egypt and in particular:

  • Continue to monitor the human rights situation in Egypt through its embassies and delegations on the ground, including the cases of HRDs, and publicly condemn human rights violations;
  • Call upon the Egyptian authorities to withdraw and review the draft law on associations;
  • Continue trial observation by EU representatives in Cairo, in particular for cases of HRDs and journalists, and communicate publicly thereof;
  • Call upon the Egyptian judicial authorities to respect fundamental freedoms including the right to fair trial in accordance with international standards, and immediately release all detained HRDs;
  • Publicly remind Egyptian authorities that the EU’s level and scope of engagement is conditioned by the country’s progress on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, in accordance with the European Neighbourhood’s Policy and its “more-for-more” principle;
  • Ahead of launching official negotiations on the EU-Egypt Free Trade Agreement, require authorities to take the necessary measures to ensure that trade may effectively benefit human rights. In the meantime, the EU should postpone the next phases of the SIA until Egypt regains political stability and gives assurances that NGOs and stakeholders can participate in the consultation process without interference. A human rights impact assessment should determine if the context allows parties to conclude an agreement without impeding the capacity of individuals to enjoy their rights or the capacity of State (and non-state actors, where relevant) to meet their human rights obligations;
  • Ban the export of surveillance technologies that could be used to spy on and repress citizens and uphold the ban on the export of security equipment or military aid which might be used for internal repression;
  • As requested by the European Parliament and the European Court of Auditors, clarify the specific measures which were taken in response to the decisions of the EU Foreign Affairs Council to review EU assistance to Egypt;
  • Lead efforts on a resolution on the human rights situation in Egypt at the next session of the UN Human Rights Council.
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