Celebrating human rights

Celebrating human rights

Egypt celebrated International Human Rights Day last Monday, holding various official and non- official events designed to highlight the country”s actions to promote human rights and the seriousness with which the government views the issue.

On Monday, a ceremony took place at Al-Ahram organised by the Human Rights Capacity Building Project (BENAA, or “Building” in Arabic), during which prizes were distributed to journalists whose writings promote human rights.

Among the topics raised in the winning articles were the role of Internet blogs in enhancing public awareness of human rights, as well as violence against women, the issue of street children and the prickly subject of torture.

The event highlighted the Egyptian government”s desire to be seen to be taking human rights seriously and to be cooperating fully with civil- society organisations in its dealings with the subject. It also demonstrated the greater openness of public debate on human rights.

Organised in cooperation with Al-Ahram”s Regional Press Institute, the BENAA event was attended by Al-Ahram Chairman Mursi Atallah and the paper”s Editor-in-Chief Osama Saraya.

The current public debate on human rights is especially pertinent in the light of criticisms made by local and international human rights organisations of the human rights situation in Egypt, documented in reports by international groups such as the US- based Human Rights Watch and Egyptian civil society organisations like the National Council of Human Rights (NCHR).

“We are an advisory body, and even though we are appointed by the government, the government is not obliged to implement our recommendations,” former United Nations secretary-general and now head of the NCHR Boutros Boutros- Ghali told the Weekly.

However, he noted that the very existence of his organisation with its governmental blessing was a step forward.

“We based the NCHR”s third annual report, the Human Rights Situation in Egypt 2006/2007, on complaints received from citizens from all walks of life. We took into consideration infringements and violations of their rights as provided for in the Egyptian constitution, national laws and legislation, and in the international Charter on Human Rights,” Boutros-Ghali explained.

He stressed that the focus of the NCHR was to “identify the most serious infringements of human rights.”

Ghali also noted that particular problems faced by religious minorities, such as Coptic Christians and Bahaais, had been carefully examined. “However, many Muslims also complained about what they saw as infringements of their human and social rights,” Boutros-Ghali added.

“The treatment of prisoners and detainees, for example, was scrutinised. We found that most complaints were due to the small size of prison cells, a lack of proper ventilation, a dependence on food brought in from outside the prison by friends and relatives, or bought from the prison canteen, and a lack of access to potable water,” Boutros- Ghali said.

The NCHR also tackled freedom of thought and expression, the case of blogger Karim Amer, who was referred to the Public Prosecution Service a year ago and became the first Egyptian blogger to be put on trial for his writings, was a case in point.

“The violation of the rights of one citizen is as important as the collective violation of the rights of many citizens,” Boutros-Ghali said.

He said that in the case of the Bahaais, the NCHR had recommended that the religious identity of individuals should not be written on identity cards. This, he noted, was of particular importance to Bahaais and to people who had changed their religious affiliations.

“Religion should be a private matter,” Boutros- Ghali insisted. “No citizen should be discriminated against because of his or her religion, gender, race or political affiliation.”

Boutros-Ghali also said that the NCHR expected “the media to play a more active role in spreading the culture of human rights in Egypt,” a point with which Ambassador Ahmed Haggag, head of BENAA, concurred, adding that “we must also not forget citizens” social and economic rights.”

Next year, the United Nations will be commemorating the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is widely considered to be the mother of all human rights conventions.

Egypt played a part in the drafting of the declaration, and “the country therefore has an interest in upholding the principles enshrined in it,” Haggag told the Weekly.

In another event held Monday, Boutros-Ghali inaugurated a two-day conference on human rights and democracy in Africa, the first time that Egypt had hosted such a conference and an indication of the importance the country accords the subject.

The former Senegalese president and current head of the Francophonie, the community of French-speaking nations, Abdu Diouf delivered the keynote speech at the conference, in which he praised Mrs Suzanne Mubarak”s efforts in advancing human rights, especially women”s and children”s rights, in Egypt and on the African continent.

The Cairo conference, organised with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), aimed to review both the role of governments and of human rights organisations.

It follows the adoption of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance by the African Union (AU) on 30 January 2007, laying the foundations for good governance on the continent, and an earlier Cairo conference on democracy and human rights that took place in January 2005.

The conference also puts further pressure on the country to improve its human rights record