New York/Cairo: Egypt has come under the scrutiny of the United Nations human rights system for the first time since the Arab Spring. In its November 14 appearance before the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Geneva, the state was called to account for the lack of action taken to address the pervasive social injustices and marked inequality that fueled the 2011 revolution.
The Committee, which is mandated to oversee compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), firmly criticised the government delegation for not supplying up-to-date information on the situation of a range of human rights. One case in point was the issue of housing rights in the North African country; when called upon to provide details, representatives from Egypt admitted that they didn’t have adequate information to hand. The delegation’s most-recent report to the Committee undercounted the number of slums by two-thirds over the government’s own figure. The failure of successive Egyptian governments to address the unemployment crisis currently besetting the country also came under fire, with one Committee member stating “I don’t see any sign of an employment plan in Egypt.”
As a party to the ICESCR, which it ratified in 1982, Egypt is required to demonstrate every five years what it has done to comply with its corresponding human rights obligations. The last time Egypt reported to the Committee was 13 years ago, however.
Given that social injustice in areas such as employment, housing, healthcare, education and living standards were key elements in causing the revolution, the norms and standards set out in ICESCR are of particular relevance to the country’s fragile transition. Moreover, the failure of successive post-revolution administrations to take meaningful steps in these areas is not only a betrayal of the demands of the Arab Spring, but is also in violation of the Covenant.
Despite the manifest need for social change in the country, a series of transitional administrations has prioritised the demands of international markets rather than those of the Egyptian citizenry. All the while, ordinary people all over Egypt have been suffering soaring unemployment, sky-rocketing food prices and failed social services, such as healthcare, housing, education and water and sanitation. Today, nearly three years after the ousting of 30-year President Hosni Mubarak, one in three children is chronically malnourished, a third of young people are unemployed and a quarter of the population is living in poverty. With the costs of basic foods escalating amid reduced subsidies for the poor, more and more families are finding themselves unable to meet even their most basic housing, energy and nutritional needs.
A detailed analysis of these worrying trends is provided in a joint civil society report, endorsed by a broad coalition of 58 national and international civil society organizations, which was submitted to the Committee in advance of yesterday’s session. As explained in the document, the lamentable state of affairs in Egypt is underpinned by a “business as usual” approach to social and economic policy that ignores the requirements of international human rights law. Investment in key social sectors has remained manifestly inadequate, declining in real terms, and the needs of vulnerable groups have not been addressed. Instead, the report unmasks a dismal record of interim government that has pursued ill-conceived fiscal austerity policies in the hopes of winning foreign loans, rather than exploring fairer options for revenue generation. Regressive taxes on goods and services have also been proposed in a short-sighted effort to reduce the country’s deficit. Indeed, the Committee queried why the government boasted of minimizing contributions to the national social security fund, given that the policy undermines the national system of social protection. The Egyptian delegation was also asked how the state targets social assistance, which is so crucial, especially in transitions and crises. The government representatives were silent on these important questions.
Concrete measures, such as progressive fiscal policy reforms, are needed to finally confront the entrenched social injustices that characterized the Hosni Mubarak era. Moreover, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights questioned whether the country’s transition could prove sustainable if all areas of social and economic policy are not brought into line with its human rights obligations under the Covenant. The Committee’s questions to the government about administrative and violent repression of strikes and public protests indicated that the State of Egypt must take steps to facilitate transparent and participatory systems for civil society engagement in political reform processes.
Following its dialogue with the government, the Committee will issue a set of findings and recommendations that Egypt will be treaty-bound to implement. Those recommendations will also be of particular relevance to the country’s international partners, including donors and international institutions that, by virtue of their extra-territorial human rights obligations, share Egypt’s duty to ensure that trade, investment and development relations serve to respect, protect and fulfill all human rights of the people of Egypt.
- Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR)
- Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR)
- Housing & Land Rights Network (Habitat
- Al Shehab Foundation for Comprehensive Development
- Egyptian Center for Civil & Legislative Reform