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  • Thursday, August 24 2017
  • Daniel Jiménez
  • Analysis
  • Human rights
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Before the summer, Egypt’s President Abd El-Fattah El-Sisi ratified a new law that imposes harsh restrictions on civil society organizations and their activities in the country. The new bill gives the government extraordinary power over the work of NGOs, which can incur sanctions and punishments. After it was passed by the Egyptian Parliament in November 2016, Amnesty International (amongst the organizations that have advocated against the new legislation) called on President El-Sisi not to sign it, in reason of it being unconstitutional and inconsistent with Egypt’s international obligations. However, without further consultation with civil society organizations, El-Sisi signed it. According to Amnesty International, the new law could be “a death sentence for Human Rights groups in the country.[1]” The law allows authorities to dissolve NGOs, dismiss their board of administration and subject their staff to criminal prosecution whether they are considered responsible of “harming national unity and disturbing public order”. In an open letter to the EU institutions, 16 international organizations warned the new law  “aims to destroy Egypt’s foundation for peaceful, civic engagement at its very roots” and “it would devastate civil society not only in the short term, but possibly for generations to come.[2]

 

The law caused outrage and reactions from international stakeholders. The European Union released a statement at the end of May, to highlight the importance of freedom of expression and assembly.[3] The right of association and peaceful assembly is protected by International Law provision.[4]

 

The EU statement arises some questions about the Union’s action in foreign policy. The 2012 EU Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy affirms that the EU will protect fundamental rights in all external relations. In some instances, the EU has imposed sanctions for Human Rights breaches.[5] However, the European Union’s reaction to the new legislation seems too mild when the future of NGOs’ work in Egypt is at stake. In the statement, one last paragraph is dedicated to the Union and Egypt’s partnership, reaffirming the European Union will “stay committed to strengthening bilateral cooperation and pursuing a constructive dialogue in all fields of cooperation.[6]” What justifies such light touch in external relations with Egypt?

 

When one turns to the European Union’s relations with Turkey, the difference is striking. In the wake of the Turkish constitutional referendum in April 2017, EU authorities made it clear that the vote had undermined the accession talks between Brussels and Ankara.[7] Moreover, several European states have opposed the idea of Turkey hosting a NATO summit next year in Ankara.[8] Whilst Erdogan is trying to re-frame the most recent events as counter terrorism measures that are necessary for security, Turkey is not aligning with EU fundamental values and standards and as long as it does not, the Union will keep it out the door.

 

The European Union is aware that Turkey is extremely appealed by the possibility of joining the twenty-eight member states in the European Union. Ending the talks would be an enormous mistake,[9] whilst taking advantage of the situation seems politically smart. The heads of European states are able to put forward their demands with respect to Human Rights and civil society activists.[10] Leaving their business aside (the accession talks, the March 2016 migrant deal), the European Union is on the good track of using its geopolitical influence in order to ensure the protection of Human Rights outside its borders, acting as a global champion of civil and political rights. When it comes to Egypt, though, their attitude is more appeasing.

 

Certainly, the 2014 Trade Agreement allowed economic cooperation between the Union and the country, and Egypt can play an important role in the fight against terrorism, being an ally of European countries. Nevertheless, such gentle foreign policy is susceptible of leaving room for further abuses on civilians. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel ought not to pay a friendly visit to a country with such Human Rights record, and donate $500 million to support the country’s finances, for the simple reason it sends out the wrong message.[11] The world is left wondering whether EU member states really want to live up to the standards they have set in the Union’s founding treaties and the 2012 Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy.

 

When it comes to its external action, the European Union can play a crucial role in stabilizing the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. In order to do so, the Union needs to prioritize the protection of Human Rights and compliance with International Law provisions, that prevent abuses against the population.

 

Written by Roberto Scrivano

 

[1] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/05/egypt-ngo-law-threatens-t...

[2] https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/statement-report/joint-letter-sile...

[3] https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headQuarters-homepage/27183/statemen...

[4] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 22; UN Declaration of Human Rights, Article 20.

[5] Council of the European Union, EU Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy, page 3.

[6] Ibid. 3.

[7] http://carnegieeurope.eu/2017/04/30/how-turkey-and-europe-lost-that-lovi...

[8] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/31/germany-leads-eu-plan-block-t...

[9] http://stockholmcf.org/turkish-fm-cavusoglu-europeans-have-understood-th...

[10] http://www.panarmenian.net/eng/news/240613/

[11] https://egyptianstreets.com/2017/03/03/merkel-in-egypt-germany-donates-5...

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