SG of the National Council for Human Rights of Egypt:

Human Rights Improved, and Egypt at a Historic Juncture

Seven years have elapsed since the establishment of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) in Egypt, yet the foreign observer

Dr. Mahmud Makarim
does not perceive any radical changes in the status of human rights in the country. How true is this assumption? The BHRM posed a series of questions to His Excellency, the Ambassador Dr. Mahmud Makarim, Secretary General of the National Council, to which he responded with the belief that the experience has in fact been a positive one. He added that the NCHR has made great strides in the human rights field, despite many difficulties, and considering that it is a relatively new institution.

How does the Council evaluate its achievements, considering the national plan devised for this purpose?

It is important to be fair when evaluating the efforts of the Council, as it operates in a society, in which there were accumulated negative human rights practices in the past. However, this does not excuse the slow pace of the human rights reform project in society. The Council is aware of the circumstances surrounding its establishment, especially the fact that its role as an advisory one, meaning that it does not have the power to achieve the hopes that many wish of it. Being a new and unprecedented institution, the Council also had to pay attention to the requirements of its establishment, such as preparing its internal organizational regulations, setting up its administrative basis, forming its committees and units, preparing a comprehensive national plan for the promotion and support of human rights, setting up branches for the Council in different provinces, and striving to establish partnerships with human rights organizations, both at home and abroad. All these activities occupied much of the Council’s time and attention, but they were necessary to establish its foundation, and put into place a strategic human rights vision for the future to enable us to continue working within its governing laws.

Despite this, what has been achieved on the issue of human rights in Egypt is an important step on the long road of reforms in a country which is currently undergoing the most crucial political, social and cultural transformation in its modern history. Any achievements or failures attributed to the Council form the essence of the human rights debate in Egypt, which is something we welcome and hope to learn from.

At the end of 2006, the Council prepared a national plan, aiming to merge it with the State’s five-year plan. The Council also set up a unit to follow up and evaluate the implementation of the goals contained in the national plan with the cooperation of Government bodies and civil society. Recently, this unit continued its discussions with related ministries and institutions in order to follow the plans they presented for discussion and review. Such plans aim to promote the status of human rights by using performance indicators, timetables and identifying obstacles to the reform project. The unit also organised discussions with some civil society organisations concerned with human rights, due to their participation in the successful outcomes of the plan, and invited them to a round-table meeting in order to establish a framework for mutual cooperation. It may be useful to note that preparations by the Council are currently underway to modernize and develop a plan in 2010, with the cooperation of the UNDP and the participation of various related governmental and non-governmental sectors and experts.

Has the Council succeeded in encouraging the Government to make national legislations conform to international treaties and agreements, and how can the development of human rights be measured?

Since its inception, the Council has paid particular attention to reviewing the Egyptian Constitution and legislations, in an effort to make them conform to international human rights standards. We have also presented six proposals to the Legislative Authority about altering the rules on preventive detention, as well as some aspects of the Penal Code regarding combating torture. The proposals also included a Supervising Judge system to supervise execution of punishments, the founding of unified prayer areas, a bill on equal opportunities and prohibiting discrimination, and the alteration of some sections in the Penal Code related to the promotion of free speech and thought. The Council also presented a number of studies and researches on articles of some laws which require review and alteration in order to conform to human rights standards.

In your last meeting with the EU Ambassador on 27 March, you discussed the issue of spreading human rights culture and plans for merging the national plan for human rights with the State’s general plans. Can you please shed some light on this?

The Council is aware that cultural rights, primarily the right to education and knowledge are indispensible, and that spreading the culture of human rights in society is both an enlightenment mission and developmental need. The Council has made great efforts within the framework of the National Project for Spreading Human Rights Culture, including organizing cultural seminars, meetings and workshops as well as cultural weeks and competitions, and launching research projects to integrate human rights culture in school syllabuses. We have also organized tens of training courses for groups concerned with the implementation of human rights.

The issue of illiteracy is currently considered a priority for the Council, as Egypt has the highest rate of illiteracy in the Arab world. The Council also believes in the necessity of finding alternative ideas and means of funding initiatives to improve the quality of education in the country. We also consider it necessary to combat private tuition, which has become almost a parallel system of education and a financial burden on poorer families, as well as negating the principle of equal opportunities.

The Council is working to integrate a human rights culture in school syllabuses, religious discourse and the media, and within the standards of professional performance for policemen, Government officials and the Public Prosecutor, in addition to all law enforcement agencies and services providers.

Egyptian civil society has a particular view towards official institutions. Considering that the Council was established by an official decree, has this in any way affected your relations with civil society? And to what extent have you been able to convince civil society institutions of the Council’s independence?

The Council considers continued cooperation with civil society organisations a priority, and has attempted to achieve this by organizing and participating in their activities and signing 69 protocols in this regard so far. The NCHR has also organized five forums with civil society organizations under the leadership of the President of the Council, Dr. Boutros Ghali. The forums aimed to exchange views and expertise, and explore means of cooperation between the Council and these organizations for the promotion and protection of human rights, as well as discussing the latest developments in the human rights field in Egypt.

The forums also discussed the obstacles facing the activity of civil society organizations in Egypt under Law 84 of 2002, which governs the establishment and work of civil society organizations; and evaluated the two experiences of parliamentary and presidential elections held in the country. These forums took place in order to improve mutual cooperation between the Council and civil society organizations. The Council cooperated with the following: the Coptic Salam Society, Al Raja Centre for the Care of People in Special Needs, the Arab Program for Human Rights Activists, One World Foundation for Development and Civil Society Care, the Egyptian Society for Equality, Muhiby Misr Society, Ma’at for Juridical and Constitutional Studies, The Human Rights Centre for Research and Studies at Assiut University and the Lawyer’s Syndicate, among others.

What is the methodology used by the Council in relation to monitoring and following the status of human rights and citizens’ complaints? And what mechanisms are utilized for dealing with the appropriate authorities for solving any problems?

The Council established a permanent and organized mechanism for receiving and dealing with citizens’ complaints by coordinating with other institutions and concerned bodies in the State to find appropriate solutions. We have also attempted to diversify the means through which complaints could be voiced, so we set up a free hotline for complaints and created mobile offices for complaints in far or isolated areas of the country.

These many complaints, however diverse, offer important and useful findings on the status of human rights in Egypt, and must be taken into account in any strategy designed to support and promote human rights in the country. A statistical study of these complaints revealed that most were related to violations of economic and social rights, as outlined in the Council’s annual reports.

As for the extent of the Council’s achievements on this issue, this necessarily depends on the extent of cooperation from the authorities and concerned bodies in the State, which at first was weak in the early years of our establishment but has improved in the last two years. The Council still hopes and urges state authorities and ministries to increase their cooperation with us in this regard, and to show more concern in investigating these complaints.

How far along is the (Insan) project, which was signed with the UNDP in December 2009, and was aimed at increasing the powers of the Council. And what programs have been implemented to achieve this aim?

The (Insan) project aimed to support the NCHR only a few months after its establishment as an independent national institution for the promotion and protection of human rights in Egypt, and as a national mechanism for the achievement of this goal. The project’s aims corresponded with the international frameworks and aims of the UNDP namely, democratisation and justice and human rights.

The central aim of the project is to enable the NCHR to achieve its goals by supporting it and developing it institutionally, establishing an administrative and financial system, and establishing firm ties with civil society institutions and donors. The project also helps the Council suggest the appropriate means to develop human rights, work on monitoring the implementation of related international obligations and agreements and present suggestions to the authorities so as to guarantee their effective implementation. In addition the project also helps the Council cooperate with national and international bodies and authorities, spread awareness by participating in the fields of education, media and culture, participating with Egyptian delegations in international human rights forums and coordinating activities with similar institutions, such as the National Council for Women and the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, among others.