NCHR 1st Annual Report Released (Sort of)

Reports abound this morning on the internet by such organizations as Middle East Online, al-Jazeera, and IslamOnline that detail the release of the first annual report by Egypt's 15-month old National Council on Human Rights (NCHR).

The commonality among today's stories is that the report is shocking because the NCHR cites that torture takes place in Egypt. Doubly shocking to these media outlets, the NCHR also is calling for the end of Emergency Law (in place since October 1981, but really since 1967 - the only period that EL has not governed Egypt since 1967 is the 6-month period that Sadat was both PM & President).

So after much flack and criticism by independent Egyptian and English-language newspapers, not too mention practically every activist working in the human rights field, the NCHR has delivered. Or has it?

Well, before everyone gets excited by the NCHR's criticism of the government, lets look at the record.

In regards to viewing the NCHR as a state funded body that turned around and bit the hand that feeds it, consider the fact that the government was supposed to allocate 3-million LE (about 500,000USD) for the council's operations. It received only one-million and was forced to rely on foreign funding. According to one council member, the Danes and the Dutch were the most generous donors. So it was underfunded by its own government in a country where NGOs receiving foreign funding is a big no-no.

Secondly, the NCHR was promised offices which were never supplied by the government. Instead, the NCHR conducts its business from the ruling NDP's downtown headquarters. This does not exactly scream independence and the symbolism is not lost to anyone concerned with HR in Egypt.

This brings us to the report's criticism of torture being employed in Egypt. While no doubt the media was quick to run with this, it should be noted that the Egyptian government more or less acknowledges that it uses torture anyways. Families and victims of torture (not many, but a small minority) have been compensated by courts over being tortured by the police in the recent past. So, in effect, the state knows it uses torture - not that it has ever convicted someone who tortured someone else though. This is not too mention that all human rights group domestically (Nadim Center, EOHR, Hisham Mubarak Legal Center, and LAND to name a few) and internationally (HRW, AI, US State Dept) have been writing for years that torture is systematic and a chronic staple of most police barracks throughout the country. So for the NCHR to point out this fact out is merely stating the obvious. This is not a some incredible revelation that indicates that 'more' freedom is on the march in Egypt this week. Indeed, had the NCHR not pointed out that torture is employed in Egypt, it would of sapped the credibility credit that some critics think has already long run-out.

The second point of interest is that the NCHR called for the government to end the state of Emergency that has existed continuously for a quarter of a century. Well, not to take the wind out of the NCHR's sails but an incident needs to be recalled from this time last year. In April 2004, when Mubarak was hanging with Shrub in Crawford, Boutros Boutros-Ghali -aka BB-G- (yeah, the former UN S-G and president of the NCHR) said the NCHR was going to motion the government to repeal EL. Speculation increased when interior minister, Habib al-Adli, said he would not be opposed to such a measure. At a crucial meeting in late April 2004, the NCHR voted its conscious on the issue. Not only did the council NOT support calling for the end of emergency law, they vetoed discussion of potentially voting on approaching the government to repeal the EL. The vote was 24-3 in favor of NOT discussing the issue (Only Hafiz Abu Sa`ada, Bahey al-Din Hassan, and Hoda Sadaf voted in favor). At the time, BB-G argued that the NCHR had not formulated its final stance on EL while V-P Kamal Abul Magd was unreachable for comment. So in a weird way, we have been down this road once.

A serious disconnect exists between the NCHR's words and deeds. While it speaks boldly on occasion, it rarely acts in a complementary fashion. Consider the fact that the NCHR has failed to comment on the detention of 2,400 residents of northern Sinai governate's al-`Arish and al-Shaykh al-Zuwaid following the Taba bombing last October. Joe Stork (Washington Director of MENA operations for HRW) mentioned at a Cairo press conference in February 2005 that he had met with BB-G and had been informed that the NCHR prefers to handle such incidents "quietly" when approaching the government.

Additionally, there is some controversy over the release of the NCHR's report. The NCHR was scheduled to meet on 12 April 2005 to discuss the final report as well as adopt it before sending it to the president and parliament. With Bahey al-Din Hassan traveling (one of the opposition figures on the council), V-P Abul Magd called a meeting on short notice on 5 April where the report was adopted without discussion and sent to the president. Bahey al-Din Hassan said to me on 7 April that he had neither seen the report nor know of its contents. He felt that there was some funny business surrounding the manner the report was passed. He said he heard that the report would not be made public for some weeks, if not months.

I also spoke to Hafiz Abu Sa`ada (on 9 April) who told me that al-`Arish was discussed in the report and that it would be public after the president and parliament had a chance to review the NCHR's recommendations. Surprisingly then the Reuters managed to get a copy of the report on April 10th. How did they do this, you ask? They called and asked for a copy and were given one.

Before we start hailing the NCHR, let us remember that the only power it has is to make recommendations and request cooperation between ministries/agencies. Should the government ignore its recommendations or various ministries refuse/forget to cooperate, the NCHR has not legal recourse to call on them to account.

So yeah, the reports out. Is it worth the paper it is written on?...we'll see. Does this mean that anyone is listening?...not likely, they don't have to.

The shock is not what was the report said - it is that the press is covering it from such an angle, which makes the NCHR look unexpectedly more independent than it really is.