March 12th marks the date that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and UN member states break their silence on the human rights violations committed by the Egyptian authorities under the Abdel Fattah el-Sisi Presidency. The joint declaration delivered at the UN Human Rights 46th Council condemned the situation in Egypt highlighting “restrictions on freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly, the constrained space for civil society and political opposition.” Amongst the states that signed the declaration counts France, United Kingdom, Germany, the United States, thus most of the signatures came from Western and European countries with no signatures from Arabic, African or Asian countries. The statement denounced the use of anti-terrorist rhetoric in order to imprison and persecute journalists, critics of the system as well as human rights defenders. Delivering the statement, Finland’s ambassador Kristi Kauppi stated that “We urge Egypt to guarantee space for civil society to work without fear of intimidation, harassment, arrest, detention or any other form of reprisal”.
The declaration has been widely well-received by the international community as more states are predicted to join the signatures. The Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Bahey Hassan resonated this sentiment by marking this date “The 12 March declaration ends years of a lack of collective action at the UN Human Rights Council on Egypt, despite the sharply deteriorating human rights situation in the country, countries should continue to make it clear to the Egyptian government that it will no longer have a carte blanche to arbitrarily imprison, torture or violate the right to life or unlawfully kill people.” Despite the international pressure, Egypt has not yet responded to the declaration thus reinforcing their reputation of human rights condemnation dismissal. The representative of Amnesty International, Kevin Whelan, at the UN in Geneva reminded the international community about the reluctancy “to criticise Egypt publicly and collectively. But, I think we’re at a moment where the survival of the human rights community in Egypt is at stake.”
Since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi entered power in 2014, freedom of expression, especially critical to the ruling power, has declined in Egypt. Indeed, Freedom House index research found that Egyptian media outlets are dominated by a pro-government narrative while journalists who oppose the state’s views risk harsh persecutions — take the case of Mahmoud Hussein as an example. The Egyptian jail holds around 60,000 political prisoners, putting the nation behind China and Turkey as the world’s worst imprisonment of journalists. Despite past warnings done by international organisations on this issue, some Western nations such as the United States have previously shown their sympathy towards the Egyptian government through former President Donald Trump’s referral to President el-Sisi as his “favourite dictator”.
The last condemnation of this magnitude denouncing Egypt’s violations of human rights happened in 2014. The March 12th declaration comes as a much needed international display of intolerance against oppression and abuse of power over civil society. However, the state’s signatures are not enough to show their commitment to fighting for the protection of human rights in Egypt. To show this, these states should as well consider interrupting their armament trade with Egypt. For example, the Biden Administration should retract their $200 million arms agreement that was put in place a month prior to the signature, in order to prove its willingness to hold Egypt accountable for its unjust actions. Furthermore, NGOs should offer financial and structural support for the protection of civil liberties and civil society organisations.
In conclusion, the declaration of March 12th finally recognises publicly by an important part of the international community the human rights abuses in Egypt. Nevertheless, states and NGOs should take more significant action, such as arms trade sanctions, in order to show their commitment to the protection of human rights — the alarm has been sound, but more response is needed.
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