Egypt, human rights and being caught on the wrong side of history

The people of Egypt continue to show extraordinary courage in taking to the streets en masse – and in the face of apparently orchestrated violence – to demand the human rights which have been denied them for so long.

Countries like the US (and the UK) have been well aware of these human rights violations by the Mubarak administration for many years. Indeed, the US State Department compiles its own annual human rights report for Egypt. Pick any particular year you like. It makes for pretty damning reading, detailing the systemic use of torture and a suppression of the will of then people.

In the Belfast Telegraph, Eamonn McCann quotes a summary from the February 2009 report which is highly relevant to the events of the past nine days:

The Government limited citizens’ right to change their government and continued a state of emergency that has been in place almost continuously since 1967. Security forces used unwarranted lethal force and tortured and abused prisoners and detainees, in most cases with impunity … Security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained individuals, in some cases for political purposes, and kept them in prolonged pre-trial detention. The government’s respect for freedoms of Press, association and religion declined during the year.

Of course, it is that approach which has been key to keeping Mubarak in power for the past 29 years and, as previously noted on Slugger, making Egypt a destination for US “torture flights”.

While knowledge of the human rights violations is not in doubt, concern for them from the upper echelons of Washington certainly has been. As noted by Craig Scott on OpenDemocracy, in an interview in March 2009, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton practically dismissed the relevance of the just-published annual Department of State’s country report on human rights in Egypt:

We issue these reports on every country. We consider Egypt to be a friend and we engage in very forthright conversations with our friends. And so we hope that it will be taken in the spirit in which it is offered, that we all have room for improvement

It is an annual report. It is not in any way connected [to an invitation to Mubarak to visit the US]. We look forward to President Mubarak coming as soon as his schedule would permit. I had a wonderful time with him this morning. I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family. So I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States.

Right now the ordinary people of Egypt are demanding the right to exercise Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country… The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government…”

To do so they must be permitted to exercise their universal rights to “freedom of opinion and expression…” (Article 19) and “to freedom of peaceful assembly and association” (Article 20). As global citizens, perhaps we can all play a small role in standing in solidarity with them.

It may be late in the day but it’s still not too late for the US, UK and other governments also to stand up meaningfully for the Egyptian people and their rights.

Even if it’s for no better reason than not wanting to be caught on the wrong side of history.

I am the Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International UK and an occasional human rights blogger at Amnesty Blogs: Belfast & Beyond.

I’m on Twitter at @PatrickCorrigan

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