The timing could not have been more perfect for Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi. His country will host the next session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) scheduled to take place from 24 April to 14 May 2019 at a time when Egypt ranks as one of the worst violators of human rights in Africa.
Many in the human rights community in Africa, called on the African Commission not to accept the bid by Egypt to host the 64th Session of the African Commission because Egypt’s wanton human rights abuses starkly contradict the Commission’s mandate to protect and promote human and people’s rights. African civil society groups had called on the Commission to award the right to host the session to another country and not “raise its flag over the gravestone of human rights in Egypt.”
Ordinary sessions of the African Commission which are held at least twice in a year, often bring together hundreds of human rights defenders and representatives of civil society to discuss human rights concerns on the continent. The human rights record of Egypt and its treatment of Egyptian human rights defenders and journalists and those from other countries working in Egypt, raises concerns and questions over the security and effective participation of human rights defenders when they participate in the session.
President Sisi has re-positioned Egypt to play host to major regional and international gatherings to legitimize his leadership internationally and divert attention from the human rights abuses currently taking place. Recently, in February this year, the Egyptian government hosted the inaugural Summit of the European Union (EU) and the Arab League at the Red Sea Sharm al-Sheikh Resort despite reservations from civil society groups in the EU and the MENA region. As expected the Summit focused on migration, the need for the EU and the Arab League to strengthen partnerships, as well as conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya, while President Sisi used the platform to defend his domestic human rights record.
Like the EU-Arab League Summit, the timing of the Commission session may be perfect for President Sisi and his government for two principal reasons. The first and probably the most significant is that the Egyptian Parliament recently approved draft constitutional amendments that would lift current Presidential term limits and extend President Sisi’s stay in power till 2034. The bill is moving at the speed of light having received overwhelming support when it was first introduced in Parliament on 3 February 2019.
485 out of 596 members of Parliament voted to advance the bill when it was first introduced. In addition to extending the term in office of the President, the bill grants new political powers to the military and more control of the judiciary to the President. The bill will soon go through a second committee reading and this will lead to a referendum during which Egyptians will have to approve the bill which has been widely supported by different sections of government.
In theory, a referendum is supposed to be an opportunity provided to the electorate to vote on a political question referred to them for a direct decision. In practice though and in a context like that of Egypt where the rule of law has been suppressed, the judiciary is captured, and the fundamental freedoms trampled upon at will, a referendum will be used as a smokescreen for the authorities to have their way.
It might be useful for the international community to learn from Burundi’s recent experience with a referendum. Less than a year ago, Burundians were forced under circumstances similar to those which now prevail in Egypt to vote for constitutional amendments in a referendum that extended the term in office of controversial President Pierre Nkurunziza until 2034. The referendum was characterized by intimation, execution and harassment of those who were perceived to vote against the proposed constitutional amendments.
Egypt is basically reading from the same script as Burundi. Years of repression including during periods of elections have kept these leaders in power and when their constitutionally mandated terms in office come to an end they prolong their stay by bulldozing their way through parliament and forcing citizens to legitimize their actions by voting in a referendum.
We can anticipate that the extension of Sisi’s term in office is a done deal and the period ahead of, during and after the referendum will be characterized by high levels of intimidation, violence targeting those whom the authorities perceive will vote against the constitutional amendments and civil society representatives, journalists and citizens who express concerns over the manner in which the process is conducted.
Secondly by hosting the African Commission’s 64th session, President Sisi will use the occasion to explain to the world that Egypt “respects” human rights and recognizes the vital role the Commission plays in raising human rights concerns with states and in enhancing human rights on the continent. Since coming to power through a coup in 2013, President Sisi, has overseen a crackdown on civil society and journalists in unprecedented levels. According to several Egyptian civil society groups who now work under extreme duress, more than 1520 people have forcefully disappeared over the last six years and there are at least 60000 prisoners detained under appalling conditions. The Egyptian authorities organize regular raids on the premises of civil society organisations and have closed the bank accounts of some, making it impossible for them to do their human rights activities.
On 23 October 2018, the government passed Law 180 governing the electronic licensing of websites. Owners of websites must now obtain a license issued by the government before they can publish information. The law empowers the Council of Media Regulation to issue or revoke licenses to media agencies. Before that on 29 May 2017, Egypt passed one of the most draconian laws targeting NGOs. Many human rights defenders and journalists are under surveillance by the security services and Egyptian intelligence services infiltrate meetings organized by Egyptian civil society at home and abroad. What also works in Egypt’s favour is that President Sisi took over as Chair of the African Union in February 2019. Ironically, the continental body had suspended Egypt’s membership when Sisi seized power during a coup in 2013 and only re-admitted Egypt later.
The granting of the right to host the African Commission to Egypt comes at a time when “trusted” human rights organisations and institutions have been criticized by civil society groups for rewarding some of the worst violators of human rights with key positions and responsibilities. In October 2018, the United Nations General Assembly elected 18 new members into the United Nations Human Rights Council to serve from 2019-2021. Among those elected are Cameroon, Eritrea, Bahrain and the Philippines. In 2017, the UN General Assembly elected Equatorial Guinea into the Security Council to serve from 2018 – 2020.
Institutions like the African Commission are far from perfect. One of the Commission’s weaknesses is its inability to enforce resolutions it takes in crucial human rights issues. However, this quasi-judicial body remains a trusted place for human rights defenders and representatives of civil society organisations in Africa to raise concerns on human rights with some of the resolutions of the Commission being implemented by governments.
Indeed, the Commission has over the years provided a “safe space” for human rights defenders to raise concerns in countries where the space for civil society is closed like Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan, or Equatorial Guinea. The Commission played a crucial role in supporting the governments of Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Mali to adopt laws that protect human rights defenders.
Having Egypt as host for the Commission also raises security challenges for human rights groups that would want to participate in the Commission sessions given the militarization of civic space in Egypt and the way the government monitors the activities of human rights groups. The honest truth is that several human rights organisations in Africa may not make it to this session of the African Commission for the reasons advanced above, but for those who do, the African Commission and the government of Egypt owe them the right to guarantee their safety, security and effective participation.