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UN human rights chief calls on Egypt’s president to roll back powers of recent decree

President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt.
UN Photo/Marco Castro
President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt.

UN human rights chief calls on Egypt’s president to roll back powers of recent decree

The top United Nations human rights official today called on Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to reconsider a Constitutional Declaration he issued last week, saying parts of the measure conflict with international human rights law.

Expressing her concerns in a letter to Mr. Morsi, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said that the Declaration put Egypt at risk of reneging on binding principles laid down in two overarching international human rights treaties – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

“The three slogans of the Egyptian Revolution were liberty, freedom and social justice,” Ms. Pillay wrote in the letter, which she sent to Mr. Morsi on Tuesday, according to a press release from the Geneva-based Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

“These same principles underlie all international human rights law,” Ms. Pillay added.

Mr. Morsi, who became Egypt’s first elected president in June after the 2011 fall from power of President Hosni Mubarak, set off a political crisis in the North African country when he issued the Declaration last Thursday, according to media reports. While Mr. Morsi said the decree would enable him to safeguard the country’s transition to a constitutional democracy, his critics reportedly accuse him of seizing a broad swath of powers that rendered his office free from judicial review.

The President later moved to quell the crisis by meeting with senior judges and political parties, reports added.

While OHCHR said Ms. Pillay welcomed those efforts, she added they were “not yet sufficient” to prevent the country from missing the mark on its obligations to the two Conventions, which Egypt ratified in 1982.

According to media reports, Mr. Morsi has said he intended the decree to be temporary, and contends that it was mainly aimed at preventing Mubarak-era judges from dissolving the country’s Constituent Assembly, which has been writing a new Egyptian constitution.

For her part, Ms. Pillay said that approving a constitution in these circumstances could be a “deeply divisive” move, OHCHR noted. Reports today said the Constituent Assembly had approved a draft, which would be sent to Mr. Morsi, who is expected to call a referendum.

OHCHR highlighted three parts of the Declaration that Ms. Pillay, in her letter to Mr. Morsi, said contravened provisions in the Civil and Political Rights Covenant.

One provides for the re-trial of members of the former regime, while the others bar new legal challenges and annul present ones to Mr. Morsi’s decrees as President – until the approval of the constitution-in-making.

Media reports say that Mr. Mubarak is among those already tried and convicted, and who could face re-trial under the Declaration. While Ms. Pillay said she understood the need to “address past human rights violations and the public dissatisfaction,” she pointed out that the Covenant rejected that an accused person could face re-trial for the same offences.

Ms. Pillay said the Covenant also guaranteed judicial independence and people’s access to courts – both of which would support the right of people to challenge the Egyptian President’s decrees.

“It is within the legal prerogatives and political responsibility of President Morsi to address these concerns in conformity with international human rights principles,” Ms. Pillay said, in addition to questioning the suitability of the Assembly’s composition.

“Any proper constitution-making process must include adequate representation of the full political spectrum, men and women, minorities, and civil society,” she noted, adding that was “not seen to be the case” with the present Assembly.