GENEVA (26 November 2013) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Tuesday warned that a new law regulating demonstrations in Egypt could lead to serious breaches of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and must be amended.
The law gives wide-ranging powers to local security authorities to ban such gatherings. Article 7 of the law prohibits protesters from conduct that would, among other things, constitute a threat to “security” and “public order,” “disrupt citizens’ interests,” or obstruct justice, without providing clear definitions of those terms.
“International law requires precision in detailing what specific conduct is prohibited by law,” Pillay said.
“This is a country whose people have proclaimed loudly, clearly, courageously and repeatedly their desire to be able to demonstrate peacefully in accordance with their international human rights,” she said. “Egyptian civil society organizations and human rights defenders raised many concerns, but unfortunately these have not been taken into account.”
“Of particular concern are the provisions on the use of force by law enforcement officials and the excessive sanctions, including massive fines as well as prison sentences, that can be imposed on those found to be in breach of this law,” the High Commissioner said.
The new law prescribes a list of escalating measures that law enforcement authorities can employ, after issuing warnings, to disperse unruly demonstrators. These include use of tear gas, water cannon, smoke grenades, warning shots, rubber bullets and even live ammunition.
“There has been a succession of extremely serious incidents over the past three years when the authorities are alleged to have used excessive force against protestors -- most recently during the deadly 14 August events in Rabaa al-Adawiya in Cairo,” Pillay said.
“The law should make it absolutely clear that, in accordance with international standards, intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.” *
“There is a real risk that the lives of peaceful protestors will be put at risk because of the violent behaviour of a few, or because the law may too easily be interpreted by local security authorities in a way that permits them to use excessive force in inappropriate circumstances,” the High Commissioner said.
Organisers of protests are required by the new law to give at least three days’ notice to the police (except during election periods when it is reduced to 24 hours). “This effectively outlaws spontaneous peaceful demonstrations,” Pillay said.
“The law is also much too wide-ranging in terms of restricting locations,” she said.
“Article 5, for example, has a sweeping ban on public meetings or assembly for political purposes in and around places of worship. There are tens of thousands of mosques, churches, shrines and other such places of worship in Egypt.”
“No one should be criminalised or subject to any threats or acts of violence, harassment, persecution, intimidation or reprisals for addressing human rights issues through peaceful protest,” the High Commissioner stressed. “The fact that the law criminalises acts by demonstrators which may breach ‘security and public order,’ without clearly defining these terms, leaves the door open to a very restrictive and repressive interpretation.”
“Assembly organizers should not be held liable for the violent behaviour committed by others,” she said. “Instead, police have the duty to remove individuals committing violent acts from the crowd in order to allow protesters to exercise their basic rights to assemble and express themselves peacefully.”
“I urge the authorities to amend or repeal this seriously flawed new law,” Pillay said.
The right to freedom of assembly is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is guaranteed by major human rights treaties, in particular, by article 21 of the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, and article 8 of the International Covenant on Social, Cultural and Economic Rights, both ratified by Egypt in 1982.
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