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Egypt: Change system that bred rights abuses, says Pillay

Egypt: HC calls for change

01 February 2011

عربي| English

GENEVA (1 February 2011) – The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Tuesday praised the extraordinary popular movement in Egypt, said she was deeply alarmed by the sharp rise in casualties over the past few days, and urged the authorities to listen to the demands of the Egyptian people for fundamental reforms to improve human rights and democracy.

“The popular movement in Egypt, unprecedented in recent decades, has for the most part been carried out in a courageous and peaceful manner,” Pillay said. “The whole world is watching how the President and the reconfigured government will react to the continuing protests demanding a radical change to a wide range of civil, political, social, cultural and economic rights.”

Pillay noted that Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly lays down the political rights of the people, stating that “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.”

“Casualties have been mounting on a daily basis, with unconfirmed reports suggesting as many as 300 people may have been killed so far, more than 3,000 injured and hundreds arrested,” Pillay said. “I urge the Egyptian authorities to ensure police and other security forces scrupulously avoid excessive use of force, and there needs to be a full investigation into the role of security forces in the violence that occurred over the past few days.”

“The authorities have a clear responsibility to protect civilians, including their right to life, and to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression,” she said. “People must not be arbitrarily detained, simply for protesting or for expressing their political opinions – however unwelcome those opinions may be to those in power.”

Egypt’s longer-term record on human rights is a key factor in the protests, Pillay said. “The population appears to be clearly rejecting a system that has deprived people of fundamental rights, and has committed a range of serious abuses, including widespread acts of torture.” Under international law, torture is illegal under all circumstances, including during a conflict or a state of emergency.

The High Commissioner quoted the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states: “‘It is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by rule of law.’”

“I believe the Egyptian Government, by maintaining an emergency law for thirty years, has clearly shown that human rights have not been one of its prime concerns,” she added. The emergency law was enacted in 1981, in the wake of the assassination of President Sadat, and has never been lifted, even though Egypt has not experienced a war, or serious civil strife, in the three decades since then.

“The emergency law has enabled key checks and balances regarding human rights to be circumvented and abused by security forces and other state institutions,” Pillay said.

“Respect for human rights is fundamental to democracy,” she continued, “and it is therefore not surprising that large segments of the population are combining calls for their rights to be observed at the same time as they demand political change.”

The High Commissioner said she was deeply concerned about the security vacuum that developed over the weekend after the police were withdrawn from the streets.

“This allowed free rein to looters, and made the advent of chaos – which President Mubarak said he was keen to avoid – far more likely,” she said. “It is unheard of for the national police to completely disappear like this. I believe there should be a clear investigation into why the authorities took the decision to expose the population to considerable risk in this way, and who was responsible for such a grave breach of the people’s right to safety and security.”

Pillay welcomed Monday’s announcement that the Egyptian army would never use force against the people. “The army’s primary function is to protect the nation and its people, and as such it should remain above the political fray,” she said. “In this context, I call on the air force to refrain from further low-level over-flights by jet fighters, which is an extraordinarily intimidating way to deal with civilian street protests.”

“With a million people expected to be out on the streets on Tuesday, I urge both the army and the police to act with the utmost care and restraint,” she said. “I also urge the protesters to avoid any acts of violence that might tarnish their extraordinary achievements so far. Tuesday’s march seems likely to be a pivotal moment in Egypt’s transition to a freer, fairer and more democratic society.”

Pillay also called on the Government to stop interfering with communications, internet and transport systems, as well as individual journalists and media organizations such as Al Jazeera which are trying to report on the situation. “People have a right to protest, and freedom of information is especially important at times like these,” she said.

“I urge all governments, both in this region and elsewhere to reflect on the fact that, in the long term, genuine and lasting stability does not depend on a ruthless security apparatus, or a ring of military steel, but on the development of human rights and democracy,” Pillay said. “These are the principles on which the United Nations was founded. Stability cannot be approached solely through a security lense. This is a short-sighted method that, in the end, is bound to fail.”

Watch Pillay deliver her statement on Egypt:

To see the earlier press release issued on 28 January 2011 on Egypt, please see:

For media requests, please contact OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 9310)

Learn more about the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay:

OHCHR Country Page – Egypt: