Egypt’s UN Human Rights Council seat: Why and why now?

With 173 votes out of 193, Egypt won a seat with a three-year tenure at the United Nations Human Rights Council

Sonia Farid

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With 173 votes out of 193, Egypt won a seat with a three-year tenure at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) in what was officially considered a restoration of Egypt’s influence on the international level and a culmination of a series of honors that validates its status.

“Egypt joining the Human Rights Council, in conjunction with its current membership of the Security Council and the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, reflects increased confidence in Egypt internationally, and its leading role in promoting security and stability in the Middle East and Africa,” said a Foreign Ministry statement.

Celebrations apart, it seems inevitable to look into the criteria based on which such an election was made and how it reflects the true human rights record of the elected country on home turf.

Egypt’s UNHCR ambassador Amr Ramadan noted that votes were cast for four of the 13 seats reserved for Africa, two of which should go to North Africa.

“Egypt and Tunisia won those two seats,” he said, adding that this doesn’t mean Egypt gets no credit for winning the seat. “Egypt could have won with 97 votes, yet it got much more owing to recognition of its growing international role.”

Openness to initiatives

Ramadan added that Egypt has also demonstrated its openness to different human rights initiatives as long as they do not contradict with its values. “Many Western countries voted for Egypt, which is indicative of Egypt’s commitment to human rights and those countries’ realization of the importance of such a powerful ally in the region. In fact, Egypt got the same number of votes as the UK.”

As for countries that did not vote for Egypt, Ramadan argued that they did so because they opposed certain policy stances Egypt has taken.

“For example, Egypt refuses the politicization of the UNHCR so that it becomes a tool for settling scores between countries. We also reject all rhetoric that does not respect plurality and diversity, which angers some countries.”

A parliament member and head of the Human Rights Committee at the House of Representatives, said that winning the UNHCR seat is a rebuttal to allegations by members of the Muslim Brotherhood living abroad about Egypt’s human rights violations. “It also has put paid to attempts by some NGOs that receive foreign funding in order to tarnish Egypt’s image in front of the International Community,” he said.

Leftist journalist Hussein Abdel Razek objected to Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid’s statement about the UNHCR seat being an international acknowledgment of the “serious steps Egypt has been taking to establish a modern civilian state that promotes human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.”

For Abdel Razek, the policies adopted by the current regime, and which earned Egypt a more influential position on the regional and international levels, are the main reason for winning the seat.

“As for human rights, violations still take place like in the previous eras and freedoms are restricted,” he said.

Abdel Razek referred to an earlier statement by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in which he called for “reconsidering the concept of human rights” and argued that the situation in Egypt it is different from many other countries.

“Again, Egypt’s alleged specificity and the fact that Egyptians still lack basic rights like education, employment, and housing are used as excuses for not prioritizing human rights.”

According to Abdel Razek, the protest law and the subsequent prison sentences against a number of youths bear witness to human rights violations. “A seat in the UNHCR will not erase any of this.”

Hafez Abu Seada, Chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, argued that Egypt’s winning of a UNHCR seat is a remarkable triumph for Egyptian diplomacy and an indication of a substantial progress in the country’s international status.

Challenging role

The responsibility that goes with this newfound status, he argued, is still a challenging one. “Egypt is now one of 47 countries who are to monitor the status of human rights across the world, which requires paying close attention to human rights issues on the domestic level to prove that it is in line with this new international role,” he said.

This, he explained, will not be possible without preparing accurate reports about human rights conditions inside Egypt and supporting the efforts of the National Council for Human Rights.

“The parliament also has to focus on legislations that protect human rights and facilitate the establishment of human rights organizations.”

Salah Sallam, member of Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights, admitted that Egypt’s human rights record had come under fire in the past.

“However, winning the UNHCR seat indicates that we are on the right path,” he said.

“There are several security officials in Egypt who do not acknowledge the importance of human rights and this is what caused several Western countries to criticize Egypt.”

He added that those same Western countries do not, meanwhile, want to see Egypt stable. “That is why they keep looking for drawbacks with a magnifying glass.”