Hours after the United Nations decided to postpone a planned anti-torture conference in Cairo, over 80 prominent human rights workers, lawyers, journalists, activists and public figures in Egypt called on the UN to “explicitly cancel or reallocate the event to another country with the minimum respect for human rights,” in a joint statement on Tuesday evening.
The conference on “Defining and Criminalizing Torture in Legislation in the Arab Region,” co-hosted by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the National Council of Human Rights in Egypt, was due to take place in Cairo on Sept. 4 and 5.
News of the conference sparked an outcry from Egypt’s human rights community.
“Such events essentially aim to whitewash the Egyptian regime’s reputation prior to the Universal Periodic Review for Human Rights at the UN coming up in November,” Mohamed Zaree, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, told Mada Masr.
The UN appears to have attempted to downplay the conference even as plans for the event were underway. A human rights worker in Beirut — where the UN office that was organizing the conference is based — who closely followed developments around the conference, told Mada Masr that the UN “tried to keep the event not very well known initially.”
“If you look at the list of NGOs that they consulted and the date that the concept note was drafted, it shows how much the office did not want independent NGOs to know,” the source said.
Aida Seif al-Dawla, one of the founders of the Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence — which has been outlawed by Egyptian authorities, and its staff banned from travel — said that independent rights organizations were unaware of the conference until it was announced last week.
“As soon as we learned about the conference, we began communicating with the invited parties and explained the situation to them, after which most of whom said they would not participate,” Seif al-Dawla said. “Human rights activists outside of Egypt also contacted the OHCHR’s headquarters in Geneva.”
The pressure appears to have worked, with the UN deciding to postpone the event a mere three weeks before it was scheduled to take place “due to the pressure brought on OHCHR and the High Commissioner herself,” the Beirut source said.
Rupert Colville, the spokesperson for OHCHR, pointed to the concerns of civil society groups as prompting the decision to postpone. “We are well aware of the growing unease in some parts of the NGO community with the choice of location, and we understand and are sensitive to this,” Colville said in a statement to Mada Masr. “As a result we have decided to postpone the conference and reopen the process of consultation with all relevant actors … before making a final decision on when and where to hold the conference.”
Colville defended choosing Cairo to host the conference, saying: “There is of course quite a lot of value in holding a conference that aims to try and reduce torture in a country (and a wider region) where torture is taking place. There’s rather less point in preaching to the converted in countries where torture never happens.”
In response, Zaree told Mada Masr: “Is it possible to organize a conference in North Korea on nuclear non-proliferation? Or in Saudi Arabia on women’s rights? Or in Turkey on freedom of expression?”
The joint statement said the conference in Cairo should be canceled outright, rather than postponed, outlining several reasons, including the “systematic” use of torture in Egypt, an “unprecedented crackdown” on civil society organizations, and reprisals faced by human rights workers in Egypt who interact with the UN.
The statement highlighted the case of Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy, a co-founder of the Association of the Families of the Disappeared, who was arrested at Cairo International Airport on September 10, 2017, as he was preparing to depart on a flight to Geneva to participate in a session of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.
In another incident, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Leilani Farha, condemned the Egyptian government in December for what she described as “a pattern of reprisals” against people she met during her official country visit to Egypt two months earlier.
Zaree also pointed to the 64th session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights that was hosted by Egypt in May. 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.
“The credibility of the UN HR mechanism as well as the whole HR discourse requires that this conference be held in a country that is known for a better human rights record or that has provided evidence of a political will to address crimes of torture and maltreatment. Egypt has neither,” the joint statement said.