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UN Rights Official Slams Credibility of Egypt’s New Constitution

  • Lisa Schlein

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay

GENEVA — The U.N.’s top human rights official is expressing alarm at the violence and deaths of people opposed to Egypt’s new draft constitution. Navi Pillay says she has numerous concerns about the text, which she believes weakens and undermines many of the human rights and freedoms of the Egyptian people.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay questions the haste with which Egypt’s largely-Islamist constituent assembly adopted the final text of the draft constitution for presidential action. She says this and many of the surrounding circumstances have put the credibility of the process into doubt and contributed to the chaos in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, and other cities.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s call to hold a constitutional referendum on December 15 has sparked the most violent protests since he assumed power in June.

In the past two days, at least seven people have died and nearly 700 been injured in clashes between supporters and opponents of the president. Speaking on national television Thursday, Morsi said he will not tolerate killings or sabotage.

Protestors are demanding the referendum not go ahead. They say the constitution does not adequately represent them or protect their rights. High Commissioner Pillay says she shares many of these concerns.

Her spokesman, Rupert Colville, says Pillay believes this disastrous situation has been developing in Egypt because most segments of Egyptian society have been locked out of the drafting process and too many of their concerns are not represented in the new draft constitution.

“The draft constitution does provide some guarantees to some human rights," said Colville. "But there are also some very worrying omissions and ambiguities, and in some areas the protections in it are even weaker than in the 1971 Constitution it is supposed to replace. The High Commissioner is highly concerned, for example, by the absence in the current draft of any reference to the international human rights treaties, which Egypt has ratified, and is bound to uphold. The 1971 Constitution, by contrast, stipulated the legal standing of these treaties.”

Egypt has ratified most of the important human rights treaties. These include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Pillay notes many of the provisions in the draft constitution are at odds with international human rights norms. She says its provisions should be clearly stated so that national laws do not undermine or conflict with international law.

For example, she notes the draft constitution guarantees equality before the law, but does not explicitly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender, sex, religion and origin.

Mona Rishmawi is chief of the Rule of Law and Equality Branch of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. She says the text must clearly spell out provisions for protecting human rights.

“You enforce these rights when you have a constitutional provision and you have a judiciary that are much more able to actually enforce these constitutional provisions," said Rishmawi. "But if you, on the one hand, limit the role of the judiciary and, on the other hand, minimize the constitutional provisions, then you have a real problem in the implementation, and that’s really our concern here.”

High Commissioner Pillay says human rights must be guaranteed by law and enforced by independent courts. She says a provision of the draft constitution marks a serious step backwards from the 1971 constitution, which states that judges of the Supreme Constitutional Court cannot be removed from their positions.

After Egyptian President Morsi granted himself near absolute power on November 22, he stripped many judges of their ability to make judicial decisions. This prompted the judges to go on strike and refuse to oversee the constitutional referendum.
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