Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) meets with visiting UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in Cairo, Egypt, on Feb. 15, 2017. Egyptian president and visiting United Nations chief vowed here Wednesday to continue cooperation and solve regional problems. Xinhua/SIPA USA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Closing its 36th session on September 29, 2017, the Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted a resolution strongly condemning acts of intimidation and reprisals against those who cooperate with the United Nations. Among the 19 states that abstained from the resolution were Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
This resolution followed the presentation of a report to the HRC on September 20, in which UN Secretary-General (UNSG) António Guterres cited 29 countries where individuals have been subjected to reprisals for reporting human rights violations to UN mechanisms. No less than a third of these countries are in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
Over the past year, human rights defenders in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates faced reprisals for daring to speak up at the UN level against their government’s abuses. They suffered from various forms of reprisals, ranging from asset freezes and travel bans to arbitrary arrest and detention, enforced disappearance, and in some cases, torture.
Secretary-General’s report on the issue of reprisals
The UNSG report was presented to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on September 20, 2017 by UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmour, who was appointed by Ban Ki-moon last year to tackle the pressing issue of reprisals.
While the UNSG has reported on this issue annually since 2010, the most recent report features more cases than ever before, reflecting an unprecedented crackdown by states on human rights defenders they accuse of “spreading false information” to UN bodies.
“There is something grotesque and entirely contrary to the Charter and spirit of the United Nations, but particularly this Council, that people get punished through intimidation and reprisals for cooperating with the UN on human rights,” Gilmour said while presenting the report to the HRC.
It is particularly disturbing that of the ten MENA countries, three - Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - are themselves members of the HRC, a body supposedly responsible for “strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe.” It is absurd that these governments punish those who cooperate with UN protection mechanisms established by the council of which they currently hold membership.
Reprisals in North Africa: Egypt
During his speech before the HRC, Gilmour highlighted the case of Ebrahim Metwally, an Egyptian lawyer arrested at Cairo International Airport on September 10 while en route to Geneva to meet with the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID).
Metwally was charged with “spreading lies” and “conspiracy with foreign entities, including the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.” The UN letter of invitation was included in the evidence held against him.
The UNSG report featured the case of Ahmed Amasha who, in March 2017, was abducted by the police, secretly detained, and tortured because he was communicating cases of enforced disappearances to the UN. He is currently being prosecuted under the Anti-Terrorism Law under the pretext of “belonging to a banned group.”
These cases only begin to illustrate the severity of the crackdown on human rights defenders in Egypt, where reprisals are intended to deter activists from uncovering abuses committed by the government, including the generalised practice of enforced disappearances and torture.
In September 2017, the UN Committee against Torture published the results of its four-year long inquiry, which led to the "inescapable conclusion that torture is a systematic practice in Egypt.”
Reprisals in the Gulf: Saudi Arabia and the UAE
Saudi Arabia has been mentioned in six out of eight UNSG reprisal reports, the latest featuring the case of prominent human rights defender Issa Al Hamid.
Al Hamid was sentenced to eleven years in prison by the Specialised Criminal Court for “communicating with international organisations in order to harm the image of the State” due to his activism within the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), which was banned and shut down by the authorities in 2013.
As is common practice in Saudi Arabia, Al Hamid was not immediately detained after his sentence was issued in December 2016, but the authorities held the right to arrest him at any time. On September 16, Al Hamid was detained along with fellow ACPRA member Abdulaziz Al Shubaily, himself sentenced to eight years in prison and banned from using social media.
The detentions of Al Hamid and Al Shubaily occurred in the context of a wave of arrests of prominent activists under the new leadership of Mohamed Bin Salman.
In the United Arab Emirates, the practice of reprisals is far from a recent trend. The country has been featured in the UNSG reprisals report every year since 2013, the year of the largest mass political trial in the country’s history. The trial of the ‘UAE 94’ saw a group of lawyers, academics and government critics accused of having plotted to overthrow the government.
In 2014, the human rights defender and blogger Osama Al Najjar was arrested in reprisal for his peaceful activism and for having met with the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers during the Special Rapporteur’s visit to the UAE.
The most recent case of reprisals in the UAE took place in March 2017. Renowned human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor was arrested in retaliation for his engagement with the UN mechanisms and falsely accused of “circulating false and misleading information on the Internet with a view to spreading hatred and sectarianism.”
These cases only represent the tip of the iceberg in a region where rights activists continue to be systematically attacked by governments under the guise of “terrorism,” “spreading false information” or “tarnishing the image of the State.”
One can only wonder how the HRC can maintain its credibility while its member states are actively working against the council’s very raison d’être of protecting human rights by turning against those who cooperate with UN mechanisms.