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UN review of Egypt's human rights record raises eyebrows

Experts say Saudi Arabia and Montenegro's impartiality on Egypt may impact the outcomes of the report
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay speaks about Egypt in 2011 in Geneva (AFP).

Saudi Arabia will be among a panel of three states heading a United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) review of Egypt’s human rights situation on 5 November.

The review will be conducted through a procedure known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a tool which the UNHRC uses to assess the human rights records of all 193 UN member states, every four years.

The announcement of Saudi Arabia, Montenegro and the Ivory Coast as the 'troikas' or panel for Egypt’s review process has raised criticisms of bias and lack of credibility on the part of the HRC.

“Since their initial Universal Periodic Review, Egypt has been through two revolutions. Firstly, Mubarak was removed by popular protest and, more recently, President Morsi was forcibly ousted by the military regime. Egypt is due to have their second review in November. This is therefore a historic opportunity for the Human Rights Council to properly consider the implications of these events for the people of Egypt,” said Ravi Naik, a solicitor at ITN Solicitors who act on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party. 

“However, any review must foster confidence in its own process. Saudi Arabia’s selection as a member of the panel leading the review is of serious concern. Selecting such overtly biased states to conduct the review will completely undermine its independence and impartiality. We have therefore written to the Human Rights Council to express our concerns and asked for Saudi Arabia to be removed as a troika member.” 

According to the UN website, “Each State review is assisted by groups of three States, known as “troikas”, who serve as rapporteurs. The selection of the troikas for each State is done through a drawing of lots following elections for the Council membership in the General Assembly.”

While the reviews are conducted by the UPR Working Group of 47 members of the Council, any UN Member State can take part in the discussion and dialogue with the reviewed States, according to the site.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been staunch supporters of the former field marshal and President Abdel Fatah al-Sisireportedly pumping billions, along with Kuwait, into the country since the military-backed overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi in July last year. 

The presence of Saudi Arabia as part of the troika, with its clear geo-political interests in white washing Egypt’s human rights record, is not the only criticism of the review panel. International lawyers have put the whole selection process of selection of the review panel under scrutiny as well.

“It is more than coincidental that Saudi Arabia has been selected,” revealed Naik. 

While Saudi Arabia’s biases are clear, other members of the panel have also raised concerns.

Reports have revealed that the UAE invested billions of dollars in Montenegro through clandestine and lucrative deals between Emirati and Montenegrin leadership to in order develop the region, making the Eastern European state less likely to be an impartial conductor of the review.

The shady UAE-Montenegrin dealings are linked to Mohamed Dahlan, the former Palestinian spy chief in Gaza who has been living in exile in the UAE since 2011 when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused him of financial embezzlement and acting as an Israeli agent involved in assassination attempts on the late Yasser Arafat.

While Naik’s legal team is not positive about the outcomes of the report under the current panel, other experts say that the process, even if over the long term, will be effective in making a change to Egypt’s human rights situation.

“The troika only coordinates the process, but there are many more member states that are involved, including NGOs, reports from the special procedures branch and special rapporteurs,” said international law specialist Toby Cadman, a barrister at the Nine Bedford Row International Chambers of London who has also advised a number of groups involved in the Egyptian case.

“All the other states [47 members of working group] can make comments during the actual review,” he explained.

While Cadman said he believes Saudi Arabia’s bias may impact the review, he says the Gulf country’s impartiality can be balanced out through a rigorous and credible process which allows other influential and leading powers within the working group to contribute to the review.

Furthermore, Cadman sees the UPR as an impactful means to implement some amount of change within the global community.

“It can have a huge impact. In the case of Bangladesh, we highlighted a number of issues and raised them with the international community. We’ve had Ban Ki moon, John Kerry and William Hague contacting the Bangladeshi prime minister and taking issue with the country’s human rights situation,” he said.

“The US suspended a special agreement they had with Bangladesh on tax free trade. [The UPR] can have an impact as long as these reports are disseminated through a clear message,” Cadman told MEE.

Still though, Cadman confirms there are over-arching constraints to implementing international human rights law.

“There are criticisms that it [the HRC] doesn’t have enough power to really force change but it is an effective mechanism. One of the effective tools that it has, is it can put a resolution before all of its members to establish a commission of enquiry like it did in Syria, North Korea and Palestine,” Cadman explained.

The United Nations passed Friday a resolution for evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria to be sent to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The resolution must be passed by the Security Council before it can be put into action. With China and Russia likely to veto it, however, it looks unlikely to move forward.

While the United Nation review will not commence for another month or so, there have already been several hard-hitting accusations against the Egyptian government over its involvement in grave human rights violations since July 2013.

A Human Rights Watch report launched in August, detailed the involvement and individual responsibility of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, along with minister of interior Mohamed Ibrahim and the head of police special forces in the mass killing of protesters in Egypt during July and August 2013.

The product of a year-long investigation, and published near the anniversary of the so-called Rabaa massacre on 14 August, the report called for the matter to be investigated by the United Nations, as well as the Egyptian authorities, and urged that those responsible to face justice.

The HRW team which wrote the report was barred entry into Egypt ahead of its release, while one of the report’s witnesses was detained on 30 August by the Egyptian security authorities.

The Arab Organisation for Human Rights on Thursday also launched a 180-page report detailing the mass political detentions that took place in Egypt after the military coup.

"Arrests reached record levels in August 2013 when more than 9823 Egyptians were detained in indiscriminate and arbitrary arrests - including 522 women, 926 minors and 3686 students, some of whom have since disappeared without trace," according to the report.

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