Defending Human Rights Is Not Terrorism: The Egypt Arrests as a Case in Point

Human rights defenders around the world are being harassed, arrested, detained, ill-treated and charged with terrorism-related offences. As both of our special rapporteur mandates have consistently documented, the actual conduct of these activists involves promoting and protecting human rights, specifically rights protected by international law. One of us, Fionnuala, has reported that more than 66 percent of all communications to governments from her mandate between 2005 and 2018 involved the misuse of a counterterrorism or extremism measure against a civil society actor. The other, Mary, advocates daily on the misuse of security measures against human rights defenders in multiple  countries. We are concerned that the consolidation of a global counterterrorism architecture creates a permissive and enabling environment that sustains and facilitates such abuse, and that a large portion of that system is found within the United Nations itself.

The Egyptian government last week demonstrated an egregious example of the misuse of terrorism charges allied with the application of truly exceptional legal process, when it targeted a leading independent human rights organization, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). EIPR is one of the most respected and well-known organizations in the region. The authorities have targeted the organization since 2016, when the bank accounts of former EIPR Director and Founder Hossam Bahgat were frozen and he was banned from leaving the country. In February 2020, EIPR’s gender rights researcher, Patrick Zaki, was arrested, and he remains in pre-trial detention on charges relating to terrorism and incitement.

Last week, three EIPR officials were arrested by Egyptian security forces: Executive Director Gasser Abdel Razek; Karim Ennarah, director of criminal justice; and Mohammad Basheer, administrative manager. They face terrorism and public security charges. Reports of their court appearances raised deep concerns for us both about their treatment in custody, because of their physical condition and  information gleaned about detention conditions.

It seems that the arrests were in direct retaliation for a meeting the three advocates had with diplomats from 13 countries including Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Finland, Sweden, and Germany, among others. These countries and other government institutions and representatives have been quick to react to this behavior by the Egyptian government, which would appear to undermine good relations between Egypt and tacit allies:

European Union Parliament — Statement by leading ministers of the EU Parliament: “We are appalled by the arrests of Mohamed Basheer, Karim Ennarah and Gasser Abdel-Razek, who are senior staff members working for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). EIPR is a prominent Egyptian human rights organisation and one of the few remaining ones that openly advocates for basic freedoms in Egypt, where the government has been adopting repressive policies against all independent voices. These are dramatic developments, since the first of the three arrests came just hours after a meeting between EIPR and diplomats, including from the EU, and constitutes a new level of crackdown on NGOs. We call for the release of all those detained in Egypt for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association.”

EU External Action ServiceStatement by the spokesperson on recent arrests of human rights activists, reading in part: “These developments are of significant concern, which the EU has conveyed to the Egyptian authorities. The EIPR provides a critical and invaluable service to the Egyptian people by promoting political, civil, economic and social rights, with a focus on personal rights and freedoms. It is a well-respected interlocutor that has put particular emphasis on the importance of operating in full transparency. Providing space to civil society is a joint commitment enshrined in the EU–Egypt Partnership Priorities, and is stipulated in the Egyptian Constitution. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms constitutes an essential element of EU-Egypt relations.”

Germany – Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement from Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Assistance Bärbel Kofler (available only in German).

Canada — Global Affairs Canada on Twitter: “#Canada is deeply concerned by the detention of three employees of @EIPR. We urge Egyptian authorities to uphold fundamental freedoms of expression and belief as well as human rights. #HumanRights defenders must be allowed to work without fear of arrest or reprisals. #EIPR

United States – State Department comment on Twitter: “We are deeply concerned about the detention of two employees of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which works to strengthen & protect rights & freedoms in Egypt. The United States believes that all people should be free to express their beliefs and advocate peacefully.” 

Antony Blinken (Biden nominee for U.S. Secretary of State) – Statement on Twitter, also forwarding above State Department comment. He wrote: “Share concern re. #Egypt‘s arrests of three employees of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Meeting with foreign diplomats is not a crime. Nor is peacefully advocating for human rights.”

France – Foreign Ministry statement, reading in part: “France expresses its deep concern over the arrest of Mohamed Bashir, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an organization that promotes human rights in Egypt.”

While these expressions of solidarity are laudable, they point to the need for a more profound and uncomfortable conversation among States and within the United Nations on the rampant abuse of counterterrorism measures against those who defend the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights treaties. As egregious as these arrests may be, they are not isolated and EIPR is far from alone in being targeted by abusive counterterrorism measures under domestic law. Counterterrorism law and practice, enabled and supported by an ever-growing U.N. architecture, is fast expanding across the globe, and independent human rights oversight of its capacity-building and technical work is limited and resource constrained. Governments wary of dissent, freedom of expression and assembly, and open political participation are increasingly using counterterrorism as a tool of governance. Security is not a byproduct of government; it is government, and the first line causalities are human rights defenders.

There is a profound need by states to hold other states abusing counterterrorism and security laws and practice to account, in meaningful and practical ways. Equally, a preponderance of States needs to reign in the permissive global environment spawning outwards from the United Nations that has become the foundation from which domestic abuse is legitimized and enabled. The United Nations must speak in one voice — that is, not only with the voice of the U.N.’s human rights constituency that we represent, but across the system, including that part of the system that promotes and supports counterterrorism. We must, together, draw a red-line, and actually #standupforhumanrights.

Abusive states read the doublespeak of U.N. entities: Special Rapporteurs such as us complaining about human rights violations, even as other elements such as counter-terrorism entities remain silent. It is not enough anymore to say that human rights advocates and civil society are the U.N.’s partners in the fight against terrorism and extremism, when they are the global targets of abuse and misuse.

Speaking up for human rights does not make a human rights defender a terrorist; it makes them a defender of international law and the rules that we all, in theory, uphold. It is time we all collectively speak up for those defenders and the values they defend.

(The authors are, respectively, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights.) 

IMAGE: EIPR via Twitter.

 

About the Author(s)

Mary Lawlor

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders. Adjunct Professor of Business and Human Rights in the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), School of Business, Trinity College Dublin. Follow her on Twitter (@MaryLawlorhrds)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism. This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity. Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. You can follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).