Wall Street Journal Looks at UN’s Push for Careful Review of NGO Restrictions in Egypt

UN Comments Revive Debate on Egyptian Human Rights
The Wall Street Journal: Asia
By Reem Abdellatif

The United Nations’ top human rights official has urged Egypt to ensure a draft law on civil rights organizations isn’t used to crack down on activists and rights groups, reigniting a debate that flared up last year with the prosecution of several U.S. non-governmental organizations.
Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, used tough language Wednesday when urging that the draft law must be carefully reviewed by Egyptian and international human rights experts before being adopted by the country’s Shura Council, or upper house of parliament. Ms. Pillay warned that such a law could impose “draconian” restrictions on civil society groups and leave Egypt in an even worse situation than prior to the February 2011 revolution that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak.
“It seems that there is a real risk that the current draft will not only make it difficult for civil society to operate freely and effectively, but may also conflict with Egypt’s obligations under international law to uphold the right to freedom of association,” Ms. Pillay said.
International and local rights groups have repeatedly decried the law, warning that it could move Egypt further away from the ideals that contributed to the revolution.
The draft law places tight restrictions on funding and donations for civil rights groups. If passed, it could also allow Egypt’s government to restrict the activities of human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations.
Last year, the government launched an investigation of more than 40 workers at non-governmental organizations in Egypt, including the American National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI). The workers, who included Americans and other foreign nationals, were charged with working for an unregistered NGO and obtaining illegal funds from foreign countries, including the U.S.  The NGO workers denied all charges against them.
A diplomatic crisis was defused when most of the foreign workers were allowed to leave the country rather than stand trial. However, Robert Becker, who was an employee of the NDI in Egypt, stayed behind to stand trial on charges of managing an unregistered NGO. A verdict in the case is expected in June 2013.
Some lawmakers have referred to the NGO case in defending the new draft law, which they say will bring about transparency and limit illegal donations coming in to NGOs from foreign countries who wish to “harm Egypt.”
The initial draft of the civil groups law was written by the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm. Although the law is still being discussed by Egypt’s upper house of parliament, it is expected to pass in the coming months.
“It’s a horrendous draft, it could allow government to close offices and monitor NGOs,” said Hafsa Halawa, a former NDI employee who is currently on trial. “There are some articles that are obviously based on the charges which were brought against us.”
Ms. Halawa, a lawyer, believes that the draft law is aiming at preventing organizations that receive foreign funding from working again in Egypt. Groups such as the NDI and IRI have suspended operations in Egypt since the trial began last year.
Human rights activists have also criticized the arrest and questioning of dozens of journalists and opposition activists since President Mohammed Morsi was elected in June, often on the pretext of defaming the president or spurring public unrest. Several lawyers affiliated with Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement have filed cases against activists critical of the president.
Ms. Pillay contrasted this with the slow-moving investigations of those held responsible for abuses under former President Mubarak.
“At the same time as these proceedings are underway, people – including members of the security forces – responsible for very serious human rights abuses, such as the killing, torture, rape and other forms of sexual attacks on protesters, and ill-treatment of detainees, have in many cases not been properly investigated by the General Prosecutors, let alone brought to justice,” Ms. Pillay said.
Ms. Pillay said her office had submitted several detailed proposals and comments regarding the draft law. Egyptian authorities did not respond to questions about the UN official’s comments.

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