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Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination considers the report of Egypt

Committee on the Elimination
  of Racial Discrimination

1 December 2015

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination today concluded its consideration of the combined seventeenth to twenty-second periodic report of Egypt on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Presenting the report, Laila Baha’ Eldin, Assistant Foreign Minister for Human Rights of Egypt, informed that the Government had mandated the Ministry of Transitional Justice with the responsibility to lead the interactions with the public and different parties on various issues of human rights.  The National Council for Human Rights had been established in line with the Paris Principles, and following the Committee’s recommendations.  Constitutional support was provided to that and other human rights-related councils, which enjoyed administrative and financial independence.  Equal representation of the voters was also guaranteed, and specific quotas for young people and women were provided; a number of seats were guaranteed for various governorates.  The National Human Rights Council played a special role in spreading the culture of human rights.  Training sessions were organized for public prosecutors, security forces, diplomats and other public officials on human rights, including on anti-discrimination efforts. 

In the discussion which followed, Committee Experts asked about the condition of various minorities in Egypt, including the Copts, the Nubians, the Bedouins, the Berbers, the Baha’i and black Egyptians.  They asked about the functioning of the Egyptian legal order following the adoption of the 2014 Constitution and how international legal treaties were incorporated in the domestic legal order.  The application of the non-discrimination provisions in practice was discussed at length.  Experts also wanted to know about the treatment of refugees, asylum seekers and domestic workers, naturalization of foreigners, treatment of non-governmental organizations, access to education and how the provisions of the wide-ranging Terrorist Act were being implemented.

Melhem Khalaf, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Egypt, in his concluding remarks, said that the resumption of the dialogue between the Committee and Egypt had been very useful.  It was hoped that the legislative reforms in Egypt would be in line with the Convention’s provisions and contribute to combatting various forms of discrimination. 

Ms. Baha’ Eldin, in her closing remarks, thanked the Committee and said that the delegation had benefited from the Experts’ comments.  The State party took very seriously the issue of combatting racial discrimination and was looking forward to continuing the discussion and benefiting from the expertise of the Committee.

The delegation of Egypt included representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Legal Affairs and House of Representatives, Ministry of the Interior and the Permanent Mission of Egypt to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will next meet in public this afternoon at 3 p.m., to start its review of the combined eighth to eleventh periodic report of Slovenia (CERD/C/SVN/8-11).


Report
 
The combined seventeenth to twenty-second periodic report of Egypt can be read here: CERD/C/EGY/17-22.

Presentation of the Report
 
LAILA BAHA’ ELDIN, Assistant Foreign Minister for Human Rights of Egypt, said that the creation of her position in the Government was the best evidence of the new spirit prevailing and the importance given to human rights in today’s Egypt.  This week, millions of Egyptians were exercising their right to vote and elect their parliamentary representatives.  The House of Representatives was supposed to hold its first meeting in December, when one of the key items on the agenda would be to review the laws introduced during the transition period and to strengthen the national mechanism confronting all forms of discrimination.  The Government had drafted a number of bills in that regard, which would be submitted to the House of Representatives.   Completing the institutional framework in the human rights framework, the Government had mandated the Ministry of Transitional Justice with the responsibility to lead the interactions with the public and different parties on various issues of human rights.

Comprehensive efforts were underway to review Egypt’s international obligations, which was an ongoing process.  Egypt had lifted its reservations regarding child marriage under the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.  The National Council for Human Rights had been established in line with the Paris Principles, and following the Committee’s recommendations.  Constitutional support was provided to that and other human rights-related councils, which enjoyed administrative and financial independence.  The National Council for Human Rights might intervene in civil proceedings in favour of victims and contest rulings on their behalf.   The State’s policies on racial discrimination rested on providing legal guarantees to protect freedoms and guarantee non-discriminatory services to all.  The new Egyptian Constitution of 2014 had been created in the process of Egypt’s democratization and reflected the diversity of the country.  Article 35, for example, provided for the equality of all citizens before the law regardless of their religion, nationality, colour, and political or geographical affiliation.  Incitement of hatred was punishable by law.  The Constitution highlighted that the Government should provide equal opportunities to all of its citizens.  Canonical laws of Jews and Christians were basic guidelines regulating their affairs.

Equal representation of the voters was also guaranteed, and specific quotas for young people and women were provided; a number of seats were guaranteed for various governorates.  The new Parliament would hence witness the highest yet percentage of women parliamentarians; the same would be the case for Christians and regional representatives.  The Penal Code provided for imprisonment of all those who incited to discrimination against any specific category of society, and harm in such cases was putative, the delegation stressed.  Any person who committed a crime of discrimination should be brought to trial, and an aggravated sentence would be imposed; the sentence would be further aggravated if the crime was perpetrated by a public official. 

The Law on Nationality provided for full nationality for sons and daughters of Egyptian nationals and included provisions against discrimination.  The protection of the child and its best interest were given a priority in all judicial and administrative decisions.  Egypt had also been one of the first countries to take legislative steps against trafficking in human beings.  International conventions ratified by Egypt became part and parcel of the Egyptian legal system; national laws had to be adjusted in line with ratified international conventions.  A number of courts at different levels across Egypt had confirmed the principle of non-discrimination on any ground.  Places of worship of any religion enjoyed a privileged status and employees of any religion were to be allowed time off to go for a pilgrimage.

Ms. Baha’ Eldin said that efforts were made to ensure the access of all citizens to all services.  The Ministry of Education, for example, organized workshops for administrative officials to help the enrolment of a wide array of students, as well as training for teachers so that they could keep their skills up to date.  Efforts had also been undertaken to reduce dropout rates, particularly of female students, by establishing new community schools across the country.  Such schools also provided education to persons with special needs. 

The National Human Rights Council played a special role in spreading the culture of human rights.  Training sessions were organized for public prosecutors, security forces, diplomats and other public officials on human rights, including on anti-discrimination efforts.  The Ministry of the Interior was engaged in spreading the culture of human rights, particularly among students at the Police Academy.  Underprivileged areas and vulnerable groups, such as the Nubians, were now being given special attention.

Questions by Experts
 
MELHEM KHALAF, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Egypt, said that Egypt’s report was exhaustive.  He paid tribute to Egypt’s very transparent move to submit a report and engage in an open dialogue after a 14-year hiatus.  Egypt harboured hopes of many people; it was more than a mere country – it was a civilization and a treasure for all humanity. 

Two revolutions had taken place in Egypt – in 2011 and 2013.  The ensuing 2014 Constitution was a sign of hope that minorities in the country would be protected and that there would be a greater equality among Egyptian citizens.  

The Expert said that the substance of the report was not always directly related to matters of interest to the Committee and did not always relate to the Convention.  More structured data was necessary.

The Constitution paid a great deal of attention to disseminating information about human rights and educating the population at large in that regard, which was welcome.  There were provisions for the status of international legal instruments, which was also a positive aspect, he said.

Egyptian nationality was given to every child born to an Egyptian father or mother, which was applauded. 

The creation of the National Human Rights Council in line with the Paris Principles was also welcome.  Which criteria governed the selection of its members, and what follow-up was given to its recommendations, if any?  More details were asked about the body’s prerogatives and competencies.  It would have been desirable to have a Council representative in the delegation.

What measures were taken to compensate victims of discrimination, asked the Expert.

Mr. Khalaf welcomed the adoption of the law against sexual harassment of women, but a number of women and girls still feared to go out alone in many parts of the country. 

Incitement to discrimination against any particular community was punishable by law, especially if it sought to undermine public order.  That provision should be amended, so that the act would be punishable as a serious offence without the condition of undermining public order. 

The Expert stated that the Constitution ought to be accompanied by legal mechanisms in order to fully cover a number of areas.  Did the complimentary laws tend to be submitted to the High Court before entering into force?  What was the legal status of ordinary laws as compared to complimentary laws and which ones had priority?  Could international conventions be in contradiction with complimentary laws?  A question was asked about the schedule of the implementation procedure.

More information was sought on the Law on Discrimination.  If there were no cases of discrimination in courts, the Committee would normally conclude that the reality was quite the opposite.  Perhaps the police did not pay enough attention to such complaints or maybe victims were afraid of reporting their cases or did not trust the police.

The Nubians were discriminated against because of the colour of their skin or because the public saw them as “Africans”.   It was encouraging that the Government had established a plan of action to fight discrimination against the Nubians.  More details were asked about that plan and its application.

The Expert said that the Copts were often marginalized, for example when they applied for an authorization to build religious sites.  He also asked about the status of black people, who were frequently accused of theft, acts of terrorism and other crimes.   Such accusations sometimes appeared in newspaper headlines, and police officers seemed to sometimes refuse to lodge their complaints.

Information was sought on the number and nationalities of refugees in Egypt.  Could their children be enrolled in public schools, asked the Expert?  In some cases, asylum seekers were sent home.

Another Expert asked how the National Human Rights Council would continue to function in the future.

The 2014 Constitution prohibited discrimination on any ground, but those grounds were not listed.  Was such a general wording enough?

A question was asked on how come some civil cases were not subject to the statute of limitations.

It was a criminal offence for parents or guardians not to enrol their children in compulsory schooling or to allow them to be absent without excuse.  Did public officials also carry responsibility in that regard?

An Expert inquired whether the Berbers were recognized in Egypt.  Was there any protection for the Coptic language, he asked.  Some Coptic dialects had already disappeared.

The issue of civil society and human rights defenders was brought up by another Expert, who regretted that no civil society representatives had briefed the Committee.  Could an update be provided on the legislation regulating civil society? Why were non-governmental organizations prohibited from receiving funding from abroad? 

The provisions of the Terrorist Act were very broad and vague, which raised concerns on the principles of legality and the possibility of criminalizing legitimate acts, such as freedom of expression and assembly.  The authorities could use the law’s provisions to silence their opponents, some observers argued.

With respect to refugees and asylum-seekers, the Expert said that they were not allowed to legally work, which left them exposed only to the informal economy.  Private schools were often too costly for refugees and out of reach.

The Expert asked about the State party’s measures to counter the phenomenon of human trafficking.  Were victims sometimes charged with immigration offences, as reported?

An Expert wanted to know about the judicial control before a Khul’ divorce could be finalized.

He raised the issue of the discrimination of the Bahá'í in Egypt, given that it was not one of the three recognized religions in the country.  Were measures being taken to change the existing provisions in that regard?

An Expert said that he would appreciate any further details on the involvement of minority groups in the establishment of the country’s legal architecture.  How were those groups represented in the Government bodies?

What was the State party doing to mark the Decade of the People of African Descent, which had commenced in 2015?

The use of special measures for underprivileged areas was brought up by another Expert, who noted that there were reports on the discrepancy between theory and practice, especially concerning the Bedouins in the Sinai.  More needed to be done to protect and promote the status of those communities.

What was the process through which the provisions of the Convention were transposed in national legislation, an Expert asked?

What was the status of the pharaonic culture in modern-day Egypt?  He also asked for detailed updates and statistics on the situation of Copts, Bedouins and Nubians.

The delegation was asked to provide more detail on how legislation prohibited direct and indirect discrimination.  Was it work in progress or were the provisions already in place?

The Expert was concerned about the use of blasphemy laws to target minorities.

She raised the question of domestic workers and asked whether Egypt was considering ratifying the International Labour Organization’s Convention on Domestic Workers.

The issue of the abduction of Coptic girls and women was also raised.

Had the issues related to the obtainment of the “A” status by the National Human Rights Council been resolved?

How many cases of racial discrimination had the courts seen, another Expert asked.  Even if no cases were reported to courts that did not mean that there were none.  People might not be aware of their rights or might not trust the system. 

Freedom of conscience was not listed as one of the fundamental freedoms in Egypt, noted an Expert.  Should that not be part of the currently ongoing legislative work?

Was the State party seeking to amend the existing law or to adopt a new law on non-governmental organizations?  As many as 26,000 associations were affected by that legislation.  Explanation was sought on the kind of limitations to which such associations were subjected.

There were reports that Palestinian refugees coming from Syria did not enjoy any protection.  Why would that be the case?  How were children of refugees encouraged to go to school?

Entering the State remained a sovereign right, said another Expert, but could prioritizing some foreigners over others not amount to discrimination?

A question was asked about the rules of the naturalization of foreigners living in Egypt for many years, if they were not spouses of Egyptian nationals?

Replies by the Delegation
 
The delegation said that Egypt had adopted a comprehensive approach in dealing with human rights.  With the current discussion, the delegation acknowledged the Committee’s comments and they would be duly considered in the drafting of the next report.

The election of the National Human Rights Council had in the past been done through the State Council, the second chamber of the legislative.  Those elected had to have strong qualifications in the field of human rights.  The National Human Rights Council would now have the power of the Parliament behind it.  The Council had the right to inform governmental authorities of any issues of relevance. 

The President of Egypt had adopted a decree the previous month which amended the number of legal personalities to visit prisons, thus allowing the Council to play that role.  There was a committee attached to the Ministry of the Interior which also aimed at improving the conditions in detention centres.

The Ombudsman’s Office, established several years earlier, was supervised by the President of the National Human Rights Council, who was one of the most dynamic and recognized activists in the field of human rights in the region.

As to the State guarantee of fair compensation to victims, a delegate explained that it was carried out through the judiciary.  There was proportionality between the damage done and the compensation paid. 

It was explained that Article 176 of the Criminal Code covered crimes committed by newspapers and other media.  The article protected individuals from incitement to hatred and other propaganda spread by the media.   All acts of incitement to hatred were punishable by prison.  That article had to be separated from those protecting rights and freedoms. 

Disturbances to public order could be a starting point to open up a discrimination case, but it was important to know that discrimination was an offence per se and did not request any damages inflicted.  There was a need for the accused to be brought before a court and judges based on the evidence provided.  If the crime took place in order to cause discrimination, imprisonment was applied.

As for the laws completing the Constitution, they were published only when approved by two-thirds of the Members of Parliament.  They had to be fully compatible with the principles of the protection of rights and freedoms, and could not run counter to the Constitution. 

Today was the last day of the parliamentary elections, and the new Parliament would begin its work later this month, a delegate informed.  The Parliament would implement the new provisions of the Constitution and made sure that they became a reality.  The Ministry of Legal Affairs, together with the Parliament, had drafted numerous pieces of legislation in that regard, with the view of presenting them to the new House of Representatives once it had been convened. 

Establishment of an anti-discrimination commission had been forecast; it would deal with racial and other types of discrimination. 

In order to counter criminal operations in the north of the Sinai, the State had undertaken a number of temporary measures, relocating some residents, including the Bedouins, who were provided with temporary housing.   Other residents of the area were also affected.  Claims that the Bedouins did not have property rights were baseless; no group in the Sinai was discriminated against.

The culture and the rights of the Nubians were respected; they had been an integral part of the Egyptian people since the dawn of Egypt.  The State was keen to empower the Nubians to exercise their rights and take an active part in society.  There was no discrimination against the Nubians, stressed the delegation.  To date, the State had provided monetary compensation to the Nubians for forced relocation which had taken place over the past 100 years as a part of various development programmes.  A bill on the development of the Nubians had been prepared, and it included the protection and promotion of the Nubian language, which was spoken, but not written.

There were no provisions prohibiting the Copts from taking up certain offices, as those positions were assigned on the basis of merit.  They held some leading roles in the Armed Forces, the judiciary and the diplomatic corps, as well as in a number of governorates.  The State had rebuilt all the churches and places of worship damaged during the acts of violence by the Muslim Brotherhood.  Fair and equitable representation of the Christians in the House of Representatives was guaranteed.

Regarding alleged discrimination against black people, the delegation expressed their surprise at such claims and categorically rejected them.  The Egyptian culture did not condone any discrimination against people with dark skin, as mentioned. 

Responding to the question on Khul’ divorce, a delegate explained that it was applied to both women and men to facilitate the divorce procedures.  For Christians, the church rejected such procedures, and the State did not have the right to impose it on the church.  If a couple were of different denominations, exceptions could be made.

The delegation said that by the end of 2015, a full database would be completed of all non-governmental organizations and community-based associations.  The current number was 48,000, which was likely to increase.  Most of those engaged on the bill on non-governmental organizations were civil society representatives.   In the drafting of the bill, a wide comparative analysis of different laws had been conducted.   The bill would provide for a legal framework under which more than 48,000 organizations would operate. 

Regarding the registration of civil society organizations, it was explained that many had registered since 2011, which showed an increasing trend.  The registration required the approval of the Ministry of Social Affairs and the process took up to three months.  A non-governmental organization needed to declare in which area it wanted to operate, but many of them wanted to cover different sectors, which made their classification more difficult.  The Government frequently coordinated with non-governmental organizations, ensuring that there was no duplication of efforts, as, for example, in the case of relief after recent floods in Alexandria.  Non-governmental organizations had to provide financial reports to auditors.

At present, there were 93 international institutions working in Egypt, most of which were registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs.  Foreign funding aimed at Egyptian non-governmental organizations needed to be reported.

Egyptian laws provided protection for the victims of human trafficking.  Such victims were not criminalized in either civil or criminal law and were always treated as victims and provided with the necessary medical and social care by the State.  There were provisions for the return of the victim to her country of origin, if she was a foreign national.  Personal security, integrity and identity of the victims were always protected.  Victims had the right to be heard and consulted and lawyers were appointed when needed, with the best interests of the victims in mind.  

The United Nations Refugee Agency decided on the status of refugees and asylum seekers without any interference by the Government.  Those persons were naturally protected from refoulement during the process.

The total number of refugee children in schools in Egypt stood at 65,000, half of whom were from Syria and Iraq.  There were some 350,000 Syrian residents in Egypt, followed by Sudanese, South Sudanese and Libyans.

The Anti-terrorist Act contained a great deal of improvements compared to the previous anti-terrorist legislation.  Exceptional courts were no longer allowed and terrorist cases were referred to ordinary courts.  The whistle blower reporting on terrorism was spared from any penalties.  The human rights of those accused of terrorism were not ignored, the delegation stressed. 

There were legal guarantees for all the instruments ratified by Egypt.  No law could be in contradiction with an international treaty ratified by the State party.

Follow-up Questions
 
An Expert reiterated his question on the naturalization of foreign citizens living in Egypt.

Was the Islamic law still used in courts, he asked.

Another Expert asked whether the State party had reapplied for the “A status” for its National Human Rights Council.  The Committee considered that aspect quite important.

A question was also asked about institutional discrimination.

The issue of the kidnapping of Coptic women was raised again by the Expert.

Were non-governmental organizations allowed to engage in activities of a political nature, asked another Expert?

“Besmirching the honour of individuals” and “spreading misinformation” were listed as possible causes for prosecution.  The mere existence of such provisions could limit freedom of expression.

More information was sought about compensation paid to those displaced in the Sinai, which was reportedly quite inadequate.

The Expert asked for clarification on the practical rules on land ownership by the Bedouins.

What was the order of priority between domestic laws and ratified conventions – which took precedence if there was a conflict?

An Expert said that Al Jazeera had extensively reported on the discrimination of black people in Egypt.  That and other media outlets had provided specific cases of discrimination.  Such discrimination did exist and required consideration.

Did civil society organizations at the time of registration need approval or only notification?  Which law was currently applicable in that regard? 

Another Expert asked how the Copts could obtain merits necessary in order to apply for senior posts.

How easy was it to form media outlets in Egypt?

Replies by the Delegation
 
Persons born to an Egyptian mother or a father, as well as anyone living in Egypt for a decade and without a criminal record, could be naturalized.  There were many naturalized Egyptians of Armenian or Greek origin.

General principles of Sharia, which could be found in all religions, provided the essence of the Constitution, the delegation explained.  Those were, however, not equivalent to particular provisions of Sharia.  Egypt did not discriminate against citizens vis-à-vis one another, for which there were guarantees in place.  Sharia law could not contradict constitutional clauses and everything was under the supervision of the Constitutional Court.

Racial discrimination was a phenomenon to be found in all countries in the world.  Discrimination was actively fought against in Egypt, and the delegation did not have any blatant examples to provide.  Cases of friction between communities were minimal.  Systematic breaches of minority rights were totally unacceptable from the legal point of view; judicial and other mechanisms were in place to deal with them. 

All reported cases of abduction had been investigated; the latest one had been three years earlier.  In most cases, it was about young women falling in love with someone from a different denomination.

The National Human Rights Council had applied for the “A status” in 2011, but the decision on that had been postponed because of the ongoing legal changes in Egypt.  It was expected that the application would be completely reviewed in 2016.

There were a number of committees in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture working on the promotion of African culture, in line with the Decade of People of African Descent.  That was being done in cooperation with non-governmental organizations.

Civil society organizations were not allowed to deal with political or religious issues; they could work on social and economic development.  Faith-based organizations could provide social and health services for everyone in communities.  Currently Law 84 of 2002 was still being used to regulate civil society affairs.

If an international convention was accepted, necessary amendments would be made in domestic laws in order to make them compatible with the convention.  The Constitution included a special reference to human rights treaties and instruments.

The delegation was shocked by the information provided regarding discrimination against black people and wanted to know more about the nature of such cases described by Experts.

Concerning refugees and foreigners, the delegation informed that there were two types of refugees: those who came in cooperation with the United Nations Refugee Agency and were present in Egypt legally, and those who entered and lived in the country illegally.  Registered refugees enjoyed all the rights to resettlement; Egypt respected the provisions of the Refugee Convention.  No discrimination could be made towards those who lived legally in Egypt, which was applicable to education as well. 

The delegation stressed that the Copts did not live in an isolated manner and public schools were open to everybody.  There was no institutional discrimination in education.  There were no institutional boundaries of different religious groups to hold high positions in Egyptian society.

There were no limitations to establishing media outlets; the media sector had been liberalized 22 years earlier.  One of the main chapters in the new Constitution dealt with the reorganization of the media sector and promoted the independence of the media.

Concluding Remarks
 
MELHEM KHALAF, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Egypt, said that the resumption of the dialogue between the Committee and Egypt had been very useful.  It was hoped that the legislative reforms in Egypt would be in line with the Convention’s provisions and contribute to combatting various forms of discrimination.  Mr. Khalaf hoped that the period before the next interactive dialogue would not be very long.

LAILA BAHA’ ELDIN, Assistant Foreign Minister for Human Rights of Egypt, thanked the Committee and said that the delegation had benefited from its comments.  The State party took very seriously the issue of combatting racial discrimination and was looking forward to continuing the discussion and benefiting from the expertise of the Committee. It was also hoped that the next dialogue would take place sooner rather than later.
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