14 November 2013
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights today considered the combined second to fourth periodic report of Egypt on how the country implements the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Introducing the report, Mahy Hassan Abd El Latif, Deputy Assistant Foreign Minister for Human Rights and Non-Governmental Organizations of Egypt, said that an independent human rights mechanism had been set up in accordance with the Paris Principles. The number of registered non-governmental organizations had increased and a draft law had been prepared to regulate their work. Trade unions were recognized as legal entities aiming to implement the rights enshrined in the Covenant. Egypt was undertaking efforts to promote gender equality and employment rights, and the new Labour Act of 2003 protected the right to work. National legislation also protected health and safety in the workplace, and guaranteed the right to form trade unions.
The Committee noted the long delay in submitting this combined report and wondered whether that was due to a lack of commitment on the part of the State party. Committee Experts thanked the delegation for their detailed answers to their questions and raised issues concerning the direct application of the Covenant in national courts and its status in the new draft Constitution, the extent to which the National Human Rights Council was independent and autonomous, the participation of women in public life and gender equality in employment, and religious minorities’ freedom of expression and belief. Questions were also asked about the freedom of employees to form and join trade unions, the right to strike, and measures taken to tackle housing problems, unemployment and adult illiteracy.
In concluding remarks, Ms. Abd El Latif thanked the Committee for a very enriching discussion and for the valuable insights of Committee Members. Egypt was more than willing to take on board the recommendations made and would do its utmost to convey them to the competent authorities with a view to adopting them.
Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Egypt, said that the interactive dialogue had been constructive and timely. The Committee highly appreciated the assurances received from the delegation that this dialogue would make a significant contribution to the process of drafting the new Egyptian Constitution.
The delegation of Egypt included representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Education, and the Permanent Mission of Egypt to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The next public meeting of the Committee will take place at 10 a.m. on Monday, 18 November, when it will hear from stakeholders on the situation of economic, social and cultural rights in Gabon, Austria and Norway, whose periodic reports will be considered during the current session of the Committee.
The combined second to fourth periodic report of Egypt can be read here: E/C.12/EGY/2-4.
Presentation of the Report
MAHY HASSAN ABD EL LATIF, Deputy Assistant Foreign Minister for Human Rights and Non-Governmental Organizations, said that Egypt had set up a number of mechanisms to promote the rights covered by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. A network with specific powers at the Governmental and community level allowed for the continuous review of the human rights situation. An independent human rights mechanism, the National Human Rights Council, had been set up in accordance with the Paris Principles, following the recommendations issued by the Committee in 2000. Other national councils and specialized departments had also been established, including the High Council for Women and the High Council for Motherhood and Childhood.
The number of registered non-governmental organizations had increased and a draft law had been prepared to regulate their work. Trade unions were recognized as legal entities aiming to implement the rights enshrined in the Covenant. They were independent and autonomous and protected the rights of their members.
Human rights were protected by the Constitution and the law. The Covenant was part of domestic legislation and ensured full compliance with the principles of equality and non-discrimination. The Supreme Constitutional Court guaranteed the respect of those principles and defined the framework in which the legislator could regulate the enjoyment of human rights. Legislation could not impose any restrictions which were contrary to the country’s democratic regime, and the Covenant was directly enforceable before Egyptian courts.
Egypt was undertaking efforts to promote gender equality and employment rights. Egyptian women had made important achievements in their respective areas, including taking up leadership positions which culminated in the full participation of women in the revolutions of 2011 and 2013. The new Labour Act of 2003 protected the right to work. It also provided that employers could freely choose their employees and employees had a free choice of employment, and included penalties for violations of the right to work.
Egypt was also taking measures to tackle unemployment, and recent statistics had shown that unemployment had fallen to 10.6 per cent. National legislation protected health and safety in the workplace, and guaranteed the right to form trade unions and professional associations. A minimum wage had been fixed at 1,200 Egyptian pounds. Through its social security system, Egypt provided social protection to the poor and vulnerable so they could meet their basic needs. It also provided social care to children with disabilities, widows and the elderly. New laws had set up family courts and a family insurance fund, while the law on marriage had been amended in order to raise the minimum age of marriage for girls. Assistance with housing was given to low-income groups. In 2013-2014, 175,000 housing units were being constructed for persons with a low income.
Natural resources had been mobilized to ensure the right to food and steps were taken to boost wheat production. Egypt had achieved a relative self-sufficiency for several foods. Food subsidies were provided to vulnerable groups. Eight million food rations and 2.1 million partial food rations had been provided to the population, covering approximately 40 million persons. Health expenditure had increased by 3.4 per cent, and up to 2.8 billion Egyptian pounds were allocated to State-sponsored treatment for the most vulnerable in Egypt and abroad. Health units had been set up in rural areas, and 320 hospitals had been refurbished or fitted with new machines.
Protecting the right to education was a priority for Egypt, and steps had been taken to improve the performance of teachers and school workers, re-adopt the full school day programme, expand the use of technology and electronic-education, and refurbish schools. Concerning higher education, there were 23 State universities and 27 private universities operating in the country.
Egypt was going through a defining moment and was facing important challenges during this transitional period. Nevertheless, it remained determined to benefit from the Committee’s expertise in order to strengthen democracy and the protection of human rights in this new chapter of its history.
Questions by the Experts
CHANDRASHEKHAR DASGUPTA, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Egypt, asked to what extent and in what manner civil society had been involved in the preparation of the report. Were there any specific cases in which the Covenant had been directly enforced in the courts? What had been done to ensure the full compliance of the National Council for Human Rights with the Paris Principles? What was the selection and appointment process for Members of the Council, what was the duration of appointment, and what did its mandate to protect and promote human rights consist of?
Mr. Dasgupta said that it was encouraging to hear that expenditure on health had increased, but as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product expenditure on health, education and other social services appeared to be declining, even though the Egyptian economy was not in recession. He wanted to know what steps the State party had taken to utilize to the maximum available resources for the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, such as adopting progressive taxation policies to enhance tax collection. Had Egypt accepted conditionalities by the International Monetary Fund in the hope of securing its support?
Bearing in mind that Egypt was in the process of drafting a new Constitution, Mr. Dasgupta asked whether the new Constitution would expressly list all the prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Covenant. Would it expressly prohibit all forms of gender discrimination and ensure equal rights for women and men in all areas, including inheritance and divorce?
An Expert asked what was the real situation concerning national and international non-governmental organizations in the country because criticisms had been raised that the activities of non-governmental organizations were severely restricted. In the situation which the country had been experiencing in recent years, was there equal treatment of men and women? Information had been received about Egyptian women married to foreigners being unable confer the Egyptian citizenship on their children. Female genital mutilation had not been eliminated yet. What campaigns had been organized and what legal measures had been taken to address those issues?
There appeared to be no quotas for women in the People’s Assembly. Could the delegation explain the severe imbalance between men and women in the Government? The large number of rapes occurring in the country, both of women and men, was alarming, especially since many of the rape victims were involved in protests as representatives of civil society organizations. What was Egypt doing to deal with that problem?
An Expert said that certain religious faiths, such as the Copts, faced discrimination. For example, they experienced difficulty constructing religious buildings and places of worship. Was there a law tackling discrimination on the ground of religious belief?
An Expert noted that Egypt’s per capita income was still low and said that more attention should be paid to the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights. He also said that Egypt was a major recipient of foreign aid, and asked to what extent foreign aid money was used to enhance the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. Was that matter discussed with foreign donors? Was Egypt receiving special assistance so as to guarantee those rights through foreign assistance?
An Expert said that the Government structure showed Egypt’s political will to engage with non-governmental organizations, whose input was very important and constructive. Was there a systematic engagement with civil society? Were regular meetings held with civil society representatives, including those working in economic, social and cultural rights? Concerns had been raised about the draft Constitution and the extent to which it would guarantee equality and non-discrimination. What could be done to ensure that those principles were fully covered by the new Constitution?
An Expert said that the long delay in submitting the combined periodic report was a sign of procrastination and may be taken as indicative of Egypt’s lack of commitment to the Covenant and its provisions. As Egypt had not completed its constitutional reforms yet, it was appropriate to take into consideration at this stage the provisions of the Covenant. What assurances could the delegation give that the Covenant would be considered in the drafting of the new Constitution?
An Expert said that there was a high rate of unemployment among young persons and women, and asked what had been done to tackle the problem and create jobs. Had Egypt considered creating public work for the low-income classes and introducing an internship system to help ease young graduates into the world of employment? Did the minimum wage apply in the private sector, too, or only in the public sector? There appeared to be restrictions on the right to strike and on the employees’ right to freely join trade unions. Would Egypt consider repealing the regulations which restricted those rights?
Responses by the Delegation
In response to these questions and comments and others, the delegation said that the timing of this dialogue was important since Egypt’s new Constitution was currently being drafted. International treaties were considered equal in status to domestic law, so they could be directly invoked in court as national law. For example, the Covenant had been invoked in the case of the railroad workers who had been indicted because they had gone on strike. The rights to equality and non-discrimination had also been invoked in court cases. National laws were carefully monitored to ensure that there was no clash with the provisions of the Covenant. Appeals by individuals on the non-constitutionality of laws on equality and discrimination were also accepted. There had been many court decisions which showed that the provisions of the Covenant were taken into account.
Corruption was an obstacle to development and undermined productivity. Several laws were recently adopted to fight against corruption, including legislation about banking regulations, administrative courts and consumer protection. Egypt had also acceded to a number of international instruments on corruption. Several corruption cases were currently awaiting trial.
With regard to violence against women, the issue had been given a lot of attention and attacks against political activists were being investigated. In 2011 legal amendments were adopted to raise the gravity of sanctions in such cases, with sentences going up to capital punishment. A draft law on violence against women had been drawn up with the active participation of civil society representatives. The definition of rape had been expanded and all types of harassment, including harassment in the workplace, had been included in the draft law.
The children of Egyptian women married to foreign nationals could obtain the Egyptian citizenship thanks to a new law passed in 2004. The High Council for Women and the High Council for Motherhood and Childhood had taken measures to combat discrimination and much progress had been achieved since 2011. Important steps had been taken to fight against female genital mutilation, including criminalization of the practice and awareness-raising campaigns, and some provinces had already been declared free of female genital mutilation. Collaboration with civil society organizations had been very useful in terms of informing the population that female genital mutilation had nothing to do with Islam or Christianity but was a cultural practice imported from sub-Saharan Africa.
Concerning the new Constitution, the delegation said that it would contain a separate chapter on economic and social rights in full compliance with the provision of the Covenant. Egypt was fully committed to international human rights instruments, including the Covenant, and its efforts were guided by the principles of democracy and human dignity. Corruption and discrimination would both be criminalized in the new Constitution.
Women were highly valued both in Islam and in Egypt. In the area of healthcare, several family care units were being established across the country in order to combat women-specific diseases, such as breast cancer, and enhance the early detection of such diseases. In employment, women occupied high-ranking Government positions. There were three female Ministers, 41 women judges, and in 2012 there were 12 women Members of Parliament. The idea of introducing a quota system for a minimum percentage of women employed in the public sector had been discussed extensively. The proposal had received support from some people but there were also many who opposed it because it discriminated in favour of women, so in the end the plan was not adopted.
Questions by the Experts
An Expert said that the Committee had received information that approximately 40 per cent of the population lived on approximately $2 a day and that many people could not meet their basic food needs. Could the Committee explain what were the results and remaining challenges of the Poverty Reduction Strategy and the Food Security Plan which had been implemented since 2011?
The situation in the area of housing remained dire and little or no progress had been made in that respect. What policies had been implemented recently to address those problems, which affected a huge part of the population? Forced evictions constituted another major problem, said an Expert, and needed to be tackled in accordance with international law. What regulations and laws could Egypt adopt to address that issue?
The healthcare system was fragmented, complex, geographically imbalanced and increasingly privatized. As a result, a large part of the population could not afford adequate healthcare. An Expert asked the delegation to provide disaggregated data on health and to explain how Egypt would go about allocating 25 per cent of its State budget to health.
Concerning education, an Expert wanted to know whether Egypt was planning to continue its education reform programme. What specific strategies, such as improving wages for teachers and facilitating access to education, could help the implementation of that programme?
An Expert wondered whether there were any groups which had requested recognition by the State as religious or other minorities, and wanted to know how Egypt intended to implement the recommendations of the Committee about facilitating the construction of places of worship for religious minorities such as the Christians. Recent reports about the suppression of the Copts’ right to freedom of religion were alarming. What was Egypt doing to protect the right of Copts to exercise their religious beliefs?
The school drop-out rates and adult illiteracy needed to be drastically reduced, said another Expert. What measures could Egypt take in that regard? Was it true that the public education system was becoming worse and parents were increasingly turning to the private sector for their children’s education? Egypt did not appear to respect or protect the right to higher education. The Committee had received reports about university students who had been punished by being either suspended or expelled because they had held peaceful protests against the authorities. How were human rights training and education combined at the primary, secondary and tertiary level in a transitioning country such as Egypt?
Responses by the Delegation
The delegation said that there were at least 200 non-governmental organizations active in the field of human rights, and the number had significantly increased since the revolution. Non-governmental organizations carried out very important work and the citizens’ right to hold peaceful public gatherings and parades was fully respected and upheld by the Constitution. Restrictions which impeded the work of civil society had been done away with, and the new draft law, currently under examination, had been designed in such a way as to protect the rights of the civil society, whose representatives had practically drafted the bill.
The law simplified the registration of civil society organizations, and international non-governmental organizations had the same rights and obligations as national non-governmental organizations. If the administrative authority refused the registration of a new non-governmental organization, then the organization in question had the right to go to court and challenge that decision.
The delegation said that water and the Nile were of crucial importance to Egypt. The country recognized that there were eleven countries in the Nile basin and that all of them had the right to development.
The National Council of Human Rights should be at least semi-independent, if not entirely independent, which was not currently the case. The Council in its current form was only a transitional body and its membership would be reconsidered once the new Parliament had been elected. The current members of the Council were internationally known experts in the field of human rights. The Council had benefited from an A status but its accreditation had been suspended since May 2013 because of its transitional nature.
Egypt had entered into negotiations with the International Monetary Fund to obtain a loan but also gave serious consideration to the conditionalities attached to such a loan. Concerning food security, the delegation said that Egypt kept rising prices in check by controlling inflation. It also tried to improve competitiveness and promote employment for vulnerable groups, while also increasing subsidies for basic goods. Egypt had plans to increase production and improve the quality of wheat and provide appropriate storage space. The aim was to relieve the burden on the national economy by reducing the import of wheat goods. A system of “smart cards” for fuel was in place to ensure that fuel prices were stabilized, and taxes had been imposed on fuel used for luxury cars.
Poverty was one of the major problems facing developing countries and its reduction was one of Egypt’s main targets. To measure and monitor poverty, unemployment rates and illiteracy were used, among other things, as indicators. The Government identified 6 million families who were given priority for aid and took measures to increase efficiency in the distribution of aid. Poverty rates were currently around 25 per cent, and statistic showed that families led by men were poorer than women-led households.
The Egyptian Food Bank had started a campaign to rescue 19 villages from famine, targeting specific families in one village and 136 families in two other provinces. The Central Authority for Food had indicated that food insecurity affected 4.8 per cent of the population. The definition of extreme poverty was an income of around 175 Egyptian pounds per month, while average poverty was around 275 Egyptian pounds per month. The poverty rate was higher in Southern Egypt, where there were people who could not meet their basic needs. A low level of education was considered one of the main factors contributing to poverty.
To relieve housing problems, Egypt had put in place a national housing programme, which would see one million housing units built within the next few years. The programme took into account the main housing priorities of citizens: living in urban areas and near their work. The private sector had been encouraged to play its role in that venture, while the Government would focus on securing basic infrastructure, such as water and electricity. Housing problems were also dealt with through the National Building Programme “Build Your House”.
Responding to the questions about minorities, the delegation said that Christian Egyptians did not like to be called a “minority” because they felt that that term reduced their status in society. Christians had always been and would always be part of Egypt. The Copts did not see themselves as a minority. If the international community wanted to describe them as a minority, then it would have to convince them to determine themselves as a minority first.
All problems of religious discrimination were due to extremism. Egypt as a country rejected violence, discrimination and extremism and any kind of segregation between Christians and Muslims. The Constitution guaranteed the right to freedom of religious belief and practice, a right which was indisputable. Destroying churches were violent acts of extremism and were not the norm but only occurred sporadically. Egypt had initiated a programme which would oversee the reconstruction of churches which had been destroyed by acts of terrorism last year.
Concerning the construction of places of worship, there had indeed been problems in that respect, but those were either administrative problems or problems to do with the ownership of land. The Government had held a community dialogue with religious leaders in order to resolve the issue. The delegation pointed out that there were already 3,200 churches in Egypt, which was a large number, given the total number of Christians living in the country.
Independent trade unions had always operated freely in Egypt. There were currently more than 12,000 trade unions and the number was constantly increasing because they could be formed by simple notification. A new draft law addressed the right of association and the right of trade unions to manage themselves. The draft law had been submitted to the Cabinet of Ministers and had been sent to the International Labour Organization for further review. It was expected that it would be adopted soon.
The minimum wage mentioned in the presentation of the report would be applied in the public sector as of January 2014. Concerning the private sector, the delegation said that consultations between social partners and employers were taking place so that agreement would be reached on a minimum wage for the private sector.
Concerning the questions asked about the right to strike, the delegation said that workers were free to take labour action and strikes were not suppressed in any way, but the law required employees to give notification before going on strike. The Labour Code was currently being reviewed by a committee which comprised, among others, workers. Strikes were only prohibited in places where they might pose risks to the public, for example in hospitals.
Under Egyptian law, child labour was criminalized in compliance with the international conventions to which Egypt was party. A survey carried out in 2010 had shown that the number of working children had dropped to 1.5 million from 2.8 million in 2001. Fifty-two per cent of working children worked within their own family, for example in the fields, and were not externally employed.
In 2012 the unemployment rate was 12.7 per cent, which was slightly higher compared with previous years. This was mainly because of the global economic crisis and the instability in the country caused by a transitioning economy. Egypt had a number of programmes underway to invigorate the economy and reduce unemployment.
Concerning public expenditure, the rate of Gross Domestic Product growth for 2010-2011 was 1.9 per cent. Spending on school education amounted to 10.4 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product, 2.5 per cent was spent on university education, and 5.4 per cent was spent on health. These expenditure percentages had gone down only slightly in 2011-2012, mainly because expenditure in other sectors had to be increased. Overall, however, total public expenditure had increased from 42 billion to 46 billion Egyptian pounds.
Egypt was proud of its cultural diversity. A large number of festivals and cultural and other events were organized in cultural palaces across the country. There were many folkloric cultural groups, some of which toured the country and even went abroad, and there was a large number of concert halls, theatres, and cinemas in the country. Egypt encouraged the active participation of Egyptian and foreign artists in all those cultural events.
The delegation said that there was no legislative vacuum at the moment but, rather, that improvements were being made to existing legislation in the new draft law, which would come into effect soon. Crimes such as rape and other acts of violence against women were not permitted under current laws, but the draft law provided for harsher punishments for such crimes.
MAHY HASSAN ABD EL LATIF, Deputy Assistant Foreign Minister for Human Rights and Non-Governmental Organizations of Egypt, thanked the Committee for a very enriching discussion and for the valuable insights of Committee Members. Egypt was more than willing to take on board the recommendations made and would do its utmost to convey them to the competent authorities with a view to adopting them. Egypt remained committed to continuing its constructive dialogue with the Committee and was very appreciative of the input of Committee Experts in the context of international cooperation.
CHANDRASHEKHAR DASGUPTA, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Egypt, said that the interactive dialogue had been constructive and timely. The Committee highly appreciated the assurances received from the delegation that this dialogue would make a significant contribution to the process of drafting the new Egyptian constitution.
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