Human Rights Council condemns reprisals amidst unprecedented rate of cases in MENA region

One
can only wonder how the HRC can maintain its credibility while its
member
states are actively working against the council’s very raison d’être of
protecting human rights.

Xinhua/SIPA USA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) meets with visiting UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in Cairo, Egypt, on Feb. 15, 2017. Egyptian president and visiting United Nations chief vowed here Wednesday to continue cooperation and solve regional problems. Xinhua/SIPA USA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Closing its 36th session on September 29,
2017, the Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted a resolution strongly condemning
acts of intimidation and reprisals against those who cooperate with the United
Nations. Among the 19 states that abstained from the resolution were Egypt,
Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

This resolution followed the presentation of a report to the
HRC on September 20, in which UN Secretary-General (UNSG) António Guterres cited 29 countries where individuals have
been subjected to reprisals for reporting human rights violations to UN
mechanisms. No less than a third of these countries are in the Middle East and
North Africa (MENA) region.

Over the past year, human rights defenders in
Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan
and the United Arab Emirates faced reprisals for daring to speak up at the UN
level against their government’s abuses. They suffered from various forms of
reprisals, ranging from asset freezes and travel bans to arbitrary arrest and
detention, enforced disappearance, and in some cases, torture.

Secretary-General’s report on
the issue of reprisals

The UNSG report was presented to the
Human Rights Council in Geneva on September 20, 2017 by UN Assistant
Secretary-General for Human Rights Andrew
Gilmour
, who was appointed by Ban Ki-moon last year to tackle the pressing issue
of reprisals. 

While the UNSG has reported on this issue annually
since 2010, the most recent report features more cases than ever before,
reflecting an unprecedented crackdown by states on human rights defenders they
accuse of “spreading false information” to UN bodies.

“There is something grotesque and entirely contrary
to the Charter and spirit of the United Nations, but particularly this Council,
that people get punished through intimidation and reprisals for cooperating
with the UN on human rights,” Gilmour said while
presenting the report to the HRC.

It is particularly disturbing that of the ten MENA
countries, three - Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - are themselves members of
the HRC, a body supposedly responsible for “strengthening the promotion and
protection of human rights around the globe.” It is absurd that these
governments punish those who cooperate with UN protection mechanisms
established by the council of which they currently hold membership.

Reprisals in North Africa: Egypt

During his speech before the HRC, Gilmour highlighted
the case of Ebrahim
Metwally
, an Egyptian lawyer arrested at Cairo International Airport on September
10 while en route to Geneva to meet with the UN Working Group on Enforced or
Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID).

Metwally was charged
with “spreading lies” and “conspiracy with foreign entities, including the
Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.” The UN letter of
invitation was included in the evidence held against him.

The UNSG report featured the case of Ahmed
Amasha who, in March 2017, was abducted by the police, secretly detained, and
tortured because he was communicating cases of enforced disappearances to the
UN. He is currently being prosecuted under the Anti-Terrorism Law under the
pretext of “belonging to a banned group.”

These cases only begin to illustrate the severity of
the crackdown on human rights defenders in Egypt, where reprisals are intended
to deter activists from uncovering abuses committed by the government, including
the generalised practice of enforced disappearances and torture.

In September 2017, the UN Committee against Torture published the
results of its four-year long inquiry, which led to the "inescapable
conclusion that torture is a systematic practice in Egypt.”

Reprisals in the Gulf: Saudi Arabia
and the UAE

Saudi Arabia has been mentioned in six out of eight
UNSG reprisal reports, the latest featuring the case of prominent human rights
defender Issa Al Hamid.

Al Hamid was sentenced to eleven
years in prison by the Specialised Criminal Court for “communicating with international
organisations in order to harm the image of the State” due to his activism
within the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), which was banned and shut down by the
authorities in 2013.

As
is common practice in Saudi Arabia, Al Hamid was not immediately detained after
his sentence was issued in December 2016, but the authorities held the right to
arrest him at any time. On September 16,
Al Hamid was detained along
with fellow ACPRA member Abdulaziz Al Shubaily, himself sentenced to eight
years in prison and banned from using social media.

The detentions of Al Hamid and Al Shubaily occurred
in the context of a wave of arrests of
prominent activists under the new leadership of Mohamed Bin Salman.

In the United Arab Emirates, the practice of
reprisals is far from a recent trend. The country has been featured in the UNSG
reprisals report every year since 2013, the year of the largest mass political
trial in the country’s history. The trial of the ‘UAE 94’ saw
a group of lawyers, academics and government critics accused of having plotted
to overthrow the government.

In 2014, the human rights defender and blogger Osama Al Najjar was arrested in reprisal for his peaceful activism
and for having met with the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges
and lawyers during the Special Rapporteur’s visit to the UAE.

The
most recent case of reprisals in the UAE took place in March 2017. Renowned human rights defender Ahmed
Mansoor
was arrested in retaliation for his
engagement with the UN mechanisms and falsely accused of “circulating
false and misleading information on the Internet with a view to spreading
hatred and sectarianism.” 

These cases only represent the tip of the iceberg in
a region where rights activists continue to be systematically attacked by governments under the guise of
“terrorism,” “spreading false information” or “tarnishing the image of the
State.” 

One
can only wonder how the HRC can maintain its credibility while its member
states are actively working against the council’s very raison d’être of protecting human rights by turning against those who cooperate with UN
mechanisms.

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