The proposed United Nations (UN) regional conference on torture, to be held in Egypt, has been postponed indefinitely after the move was opposed by human rights groups, both within and outside the country. The conference was scheduled for September 4 and 5. Rights groups have decried the choice of Egypt as the venue, given the increasing incidents of the torture under president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government.
The conference, titled “Defining and Criminalizing Torture in the Arab Region”, was to be attended by UN’s special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, along with government officials in Egypt. Rights groups, including the Human Rights Watch, called the conference an attempt to “whitewash” the Egyptian government’s poor record on the issue of torture.
El-Sisi came to power in 2013, following a coup that overthrew the government led by Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ever since, he has unleashed a brutal regime of oppression on all kinds of opposition groups inside the country. The new regime has killed and imprisoned a large number of people from the opposition, leveling charges of terrorism against them.
Public activism has been virtually disallowed in the country, with the media being gagged through decrees such as the draconian Counter Terrorism Laws of 2015, which forbid the publishing of reports that contradict government claims. Consequently, a large number of journalists have been charged with sedition and are languishing in jails.
The el-Sisi government has also undertaken special military operations in which thousands of people have been arrested and charged with aiding “terrorist organizations”. This has led to an unprecedented level of death sentences being awarded in Egypt.
The choice of Egypt as the venue led to the withdrawal of several participants, such as the World Organization Against Torture and other major international rights groups like Amnesty International. Having published scathing reports against the el-Sisi government in the past, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) has claimed that they were not even invited, possibly due to pressure put by the Egyptian government.
The regime under el-Sisi, however, remains unmoved, emboldened by the support of the US, Israel and Saudi governments. Demanding exceptional treatment, el-Sisi explicitly pronounced last February that the “western perspective” on human rights does not apply to Egypt. The brutal suppression of rights and freedom in Egypt has been justified using the excuse of “persistent attempts from evil powers”, inducing regional or local threats.
In the given context, it was surprising to many that the UN chose to organize the conference against torture in Egypt. Ironically, the country is a signatory to all the major international conventions that outlaws torture, including the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 5), the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 7) and the 1987 Convention Against Torture or Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.