On the eve of the 64th session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights hosted by Egypt last month, a group of civil society representatives from across Africa were gathered at the registration desk inside the sprawling Jolie Ville resort in Sharm el-Sheikh.
The mood was tense. Egyptian officials were refusing to issue badges to human rights workers from a number of countries — including South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda — with little explanation. The conference was scheduled to begin in two days, on April 24, and participants who had flown in from across the continent needed the badges to attend.
Tempers flared and loud arguments broke out, with shouting from both sides, which culminated in an Egyptian registration official physically assaulting a human rights worker from South Sudan.
“She was slapped. A proper slap,” says Diana Gichengo, a program manager at the Kenya Human Rights Commission, who was standing nearby. “She was the most vocal of the South Sudanese delegation, so Egyptian security hit her.”
The incident set the stage for a highly contentious session of the African Commission last month, the first to be hosted by Egypt in over three decades. Civil society representatives who attended told Mada Masr that over the course of their visit they were subjected to unprecedented degrees of intimidation, surveillance and restrictions by Egyptian security officials.
“Everyone was watching their back, everyone was scared,” Gichengo says.
Human rights advocates say their mistreatment fits into a broader pattern of Egypt’s years-long efforts to undermine the regional human rights body.
Established more than 30 years ago, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) is the primary organ of the African Union entrusted with the promotion and protection of human rights. Its founding treaty, the African Charter, allows for citizens of the AU’s 55 member states to file individual complaints to the commission.
Over the years, the commission — which acts as a quasi-judicial body — has become a trusted place for civil society representatives in Africa to raise human rights grievances, especially for cases that fail to find redress through national legal avenues. This is particularly true in Egypt, and over the past several years the commission has received more complaints from Egypt than any other country on the continent.
In response, the commission has repeatedly called on the Egyptian government to refrain from committing human rights violations, including executing victims of unfair trials, arbitrary arrests, and sexual violence. However, the commission has no enforcement mechanism, and Egypt has largely ignored its recommendations.
The biannual sessions of the commission represent the largest gathering of civil society organizations in Africa, and Egypt’s bid to host the 64th session had already sparked deep concern among civil society groups and calls for a boycott in the months leading up to it. In November, sixty-five human rights groups and civil society organizations across Africa issued a public letter to the chairperson of the commission, Soyota Maiga, blasting Egypt’s “brutal crackdown on human rights” and urging her to reject the bid.
“Free and effective participation of Egyptian and non-Egyptian civil society organizations during the ACHPR’s sessions is put into question,” the letter said. “The security and safety of human rights defenders participating in this session may also not be guaranteed.”
Their fears appear to have been justified.
In the run-up to the session, more than 70 activists from a number of countries including Ghana, Malawi, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia and Uganda, among others, were either denied visas to Egypt or were only granted visas on or after their travel dates.
Those who did manage to travel to Sharm el-Sheikh say that the turnout was extremely low, due in part to the travel restrictions, but mainly because a number of organizations, particularly those focusing on LGBT rights issues, chose to boycott. Additionally, only three Egyptian nongovernmental organizations attended the session, a reflection of the unprecedented crackdown on civil society in Egypt over the past several years.
“Unfortunately we saw restrictions being imposed on Egyptian civil society organizations,” says Joseph Bikanda, the lead advocate for the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network. “When we asked why civil society in Egypt did not attend, an Egyptian government official told us it was because there was no translation provided. What, none of them speak any English? It was all fabricated.”
Civil society groups typically take part in a pre-session event, the NGO Forum, a few days ahead of the official session to hold panels and discussions on human rights issues. Yet activists say the proceedings were extremely restricted and that they were prevented from booking meeting rooms in any of the resort’s hotels.
“We could not find any accommodation, not because the hotels did not have availability, but because hotel staff told us they had received instructions from security not to host any events,” Bikanda says.
Bikanda, who is also a member of the NGO Forum steering committee, says when one hotel did offer availability for a meeting room that could hold around 30 people for a couple of hours, they sent him an invoice for US$4,000, an absurdly high figure. “They clearly wanted to destroy any ability for civil society to operate,” Bikanda says.
Activists also say they were heavily surveilled by Egyptian security officials throughout the proceedings, creating an atmosphere of intimidation. “You could tell clearly you were being followed. I even saw people taking pictures of me,” Bikanda says. “We felt that we were not free at all.”
Delegates describe seeing security officials eavesdropping on conversations in hallways or seated nearby at dinner tables. “If you gathered in a group to discuss something you would see all these men in blue suits come around you. If you moved to another area, more blue suits would come again. There were people at our side events with walkie-talkies. They were clearly surveilling us,” Gichengo, of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, says.
Security officials also searched through delegates’ belongings and confiscated materials, including pamphlets and T-shirts promoting the independence of the commission. “We never thought they would be this obvious,” Gichengo says. “If you’re hosting, at least pretend to support the commission’s work!”
Difficulties also extended to the registration process. Official badges for the session are typically issued by the secretariat of the commission. Yet in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egyptian government officials took over the process and added another level of their own security clearance. “The registration process was conducted by the Egyptian security services and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” Bikanda says. The repeated stonewalling by officials in issuing badges to some delegates eventually led to the physical assault on the South Sudanese human rights worker.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to calls from Mada Masr for comment.
Bikanda, who has been attending the biannual African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights sessions since 2010, says this was the worst experience of the nearly 20 sessions he has taken part in. “Egypt is a historic land for Africa, for humanity. We felt our presence on Egyptian soil could have made us proud to be African. But we didn’t feel it in that space.”
Egypt also happened to be coming under review by the commission during the session it was hosting. “Egypt was being reviewed in their own country, to the best of my knowledge this has never happened before,” Gichengo says. “This inhibits a lot of accountability and does not create a neutral ground for people aggrieved by Egypt.”
To voice their frustration, civil society groups penned an open letter from Sharm el-Sheikh to the commission chair in which they recounted their mistreatment by Egyptian officials. “We are now constrained to express and register our deep concern and frustration at events that over the last few weeks threaten to disrupt the cordial working relationship that has existed within the African human rights community,” the letter said.
Criticism of the Egyptian government by civil society groups across Africa extends beyond its dismal human rights record and its conduct hosting last month’s session. There are broader concerns over Egypt’s moves to curtail the independence of the commission itself.
In 2013, Egypt was suspended from the African Union following the military ouster of then-President Mohamed Morsi, only to have its membership reinstated less than a year later, after Sisi was elected president.
Last year, the Egyptian government spearheaded the adoption of a provision by the African Union Executive Council that undermines the commission’s independence by subjecting its work to control by the African Union member countries. Egypt also led a successful effort last summer to reverse a decision to grant observer status to a nongovernmental organization, the Coalition of African Lesbians, in consideration of “African values.”
When Sisi took over as head of the African Union this past February, rights groups warned that his chairmanship could undermine the independence of regional human rights mechanisms on the continent.
“Egypt is the principal driver of weak human rights and accountability institutions in Africa,” Gichengo says. “This was all part of a grand scheme to undermine the commission.”