Stronger EU-Egypt ties must not come at the expense of human rights

By By Philip Luther Amnesty International’s Director for the Middle East and North Africa

Hours after the tanks rolled onto Cairo’s streets on 3 July 2013 and President Mohamed Morsi’s ousting from power was declared, the EU firmly stated it would hold the new administration to account over respect for “fundamental rights, freedoms, and the rule of law”.

Four years later, Egypt is facing one of the worst human rights crises the country has seen in decades. Yet, despite this, on Tuesday 25 July the EU is set to hold high-level talks with Egypt in Brussels for the first time in years.

The annual Association Council meetings to discuss co-operation between the EU and Egypt had been suspended after the 2011 uprising. Their resumption next week is an alarming signal the EU and its member states are increasingly willing to turn a blind eye to the human rights disaster that has engulfed the country in a bid to enhance co-operation on security and migration control, and boost trade.

The EU’s move to strengthen its partnership with Egypt marks a clear shift in its stance on the country, which many member states view as a key strategic ally in a region beset by conflict and crisis.

The EU’s move to strengthen its partnership with Egypt marks a clear shift in its stance on the country
Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International

 While the EU-Egypt country report published ahead of the meeting acknowledged “substantial challenges” around the rule of law, human rights, fundamental freedoms and the space for civil society, it failed to include any mention of human rights violations such as enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and widespread impunity for the security forces.   

Indeed, the EU-Egypt meeting is set to take place against a backdrop of mass violations. It will go ahead despite the fact that not a single Egyptian official has been held accountable for the killings of up to 900 people during the dispersal of a sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya in Cairo in August 2013.  It will go ahead despite the Egyptian authorities’ arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment of journalists, activists, workers, trade unionists and others on overly broad “national security” charges. It will also go ahead despite the fact that Egyptian security forces continue to carry out unlawful killings and subject children as young as 14 to enforced disappearances and torture.

Ironically the EU report maintains that “support to civil society” remains a priority, yet it fails to explain how it plans to protect peaceful activists from an unprecedented crackdown – which has seen dozens of human rights defenders arrested, interrogated or facing travel bans and assets freezes – or from a draconian NGO law that threatens to annihilate independent human rights groups.

Europe’s complicity is not limited to its silence. In August 2013 following the Rabaa massacre, the EU Foreign Affairs Council condemned the “disproportionate” use of force by Egyptian security forces and announced that member states had agreed to suspend export licences to Egypt of any arms which might be used for internal repression. However, today, almost half the EU member states continue to flout this agreement by supplying such arms to Egypt’s security forces.

Make no mistake, these are dangerous times for Egypt and the EU’s softened stance is a major victory for perpetrators of human rights abuses that will pave the way for further violations. The EU cannot afford for human rights to take a back seat.

Now more than ever it is crucial for leaders to stand up for human rights and the rule of law.  

Now more than ever it is crucial for leaders to stand up for human rights and the rule of law
Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International

This is an appeal to EU leaders who repeatedly profess allegiance to the principles of human rights and expound on the importance of the rule of law. It is an appeal to Italy, whose citizen Giulio Regeni was abducted and tortured to death in Egypt with no justice in sight. It is an appeal to Ireland, whose own national Ibrahim Halawa has languished in an Egyptian prison for four years while being subjected to a grossly unfair mass trial. It is an appeal to all other EU countries that promote human rights in Europe and beyond.

The leaders of EU member states must start by publicly condemning the government’s gross violation of human rights. They must make it abundantly clear to the Egyptian government that protecting rights and fundamental freedoms remain core values of this partnership. And they must take concrete action to suspend transfers to Egypt of the types of arms that can facilitate human rights violations, to send a clear signal that security forces must be reined in, perpetrators must be brought to justice, and that counter-terrorism should not be used as an excuse to justify crushing civil society and jailing human rights defenders.  

The EU’s apparent willingness to water down its stance on human rights in Egypt to bolster security, migration control and trade ties could seriously compromise its credibility and have far-reaching consequences for its relations with other countries in the region.  Most importantly it would be devastating for what remains of independent civil society in Egypt. 

Next week’s meeting represents a defining moment for the EU. It must decide whether to stand up for human rights, or forego its principles for the sake of political expediency.

This piece was first published by the EU Observer here