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Repressive new NGO law deeply damaging for human rights in Egypt – Zeid

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on Thursday said the issuance of a repressive new law further restricting space for human rights monitoring, advocacy and reporting by non-governmental organisations would be deeply damaging for the enjoyment of human rights and leave rights defenders even more vulnerable to sanctions and reprisals than they already are. The law also runs counter to Egypt’s obligations under international human rights law.  

“The previous law (Law 84 of 2002) was already repressive. The new legislation places such tight restrictions on civil society that it effectively hands administration of NGOs to the Government,” said Zeid. “The crucial function of these NGOs – to hold the State accountable for its human rights obligations – has been severely hampered already through asset freezes, travel bans, smear campaigns and prosecutions. This new law further tightens the noose.”

Law 70 of 2017, which was enacted on 24 May, requires NGOs to seek permission to operate from “the competent administrative entity” that will decide whether an association’s work is in line with the Government’s development and social welfare plans. Civil society groups will also be required to report all information on their funding, activities and programmes to the authorities, and to seek permission for activities, including conducting surveys. All NGOs currently conducting any “civic activity” have one year to amend registration. If they do not comply within 60 days of a request to report, they can face closure for one year. Non-compliance with some provisions of the law can result in criminal prosecution, subject to a maximum term of five years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 1 million EGP (around USD 55,000).

Funding from foreign sources is subject to even closer scrutiny than before and requires official approval. NGOs will need government permission before working with foreign organisations and will have to notify the authorities 30 working days before receiving any foreign funds. The national authority for regulation of foreign NGOs includes representations from security agencies.

In recent years, hundreds of civil society groups have been dissolved while others have had their assets frozen and travel bans imposed on their members. More than 37 Egyptian NGO workers and leaders have been accused of “illegal receipt of foreign funding” and “working without legal permission”. None of them have been officially charged, but they remain at risk of criminal prosecution. This is particularly worrying as many Egyptian NGOs that work with international partners provide essential services, including education and health care, in the country. There are also alarming reports of human rights defenders who have been subjected to smear campaigns for their participation in human rights workshops.

High Commissioner Zeid said the new law breaches Egypt’s human rights obligations, including under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Government of Egypt had also committed to a number of recommendations under its second Universal Periodic Review before the UN Human Rights Council in May 2015 to promote and protect the rights to freedom of association and expression and to adopt an NGO law in compliance with international human rights standards.

However, restrictions on freedom of association and expression appear to be continuing. Last week, access to 21 websites and satellite news networks was blocked, with the authorities accusing them of supporting terrorism and spreading false news.

“We do not underestimate the challenges Egypt faces in combating terrorism and violent extremism. I condemn in the strongest terms the latest terrible attack – this time on a bus carrying Coptic Christians last week,” High Commissioner Zeid said. “But muzzling civil society is not the solution. Civil society and media oversight of the Government are essential elements of a strong and stable society, where grievances can be openly aired. Muzzling dissent can only lead to further instability.”

“I urge the Government to repeal Law 70 of 2017 and to seek a new path of dialogue and collaboration with civil society.”

Distributed by APO on behalf of United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG).