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UN experts urge review of Egypt’s draft constitution to ensure equality and women’s rights

Head of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and pratice Kamala Chandrakirna.
UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré
Head of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and pratice Kamala Chandrakirna.

UN experts urge review of Egypt’s draft constitution to ensure equality and women’s rights

A group of United Nations human rights experts today voiced deep concern about Egypt’s draft constitution, and called on its Government to ensure equality, non-discrimination and protection and promotion of women’s rights in the final text.

“Key opportunities have so far been missed,” stressed independent expert Kamala Chandrakirana, who heads the UN Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice.

The group, established by the UN Human Rights Council in 2010, is charged with identifying ways to eliminate laws and practices that discriminate against women, and making recommendations on implementation of the law and empowerment of women.

“We are concerned that almost no women were represented in the Constituent Assembly charged with drafting the new constitution and that women’s perspectives were grossly under-represented in the final draft,” said Ms. Chandrakirana said, in a news release from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

The final draft of the new constitution was approved by the Constituent Assembly on 30 November and is due to be put to a referendum tomorrow.

“Political transitions offer a unique opportunity to address inequalities of the past, advance women’s human rights and ensure that equality between women and men is one of the foundations on which the new legal system is built,” Ms. Chandrakirana stated.

However, she noted, “despite offering unprecedented opportunities for progress, political transitions can result in regression and bring new forms of discrimination.”

The expert group is of the view that “critical review” of the draft constitution is still necessary, according to a news release. It called on the Egyptian Government to abide by commitments made through the ratification of international instruments to which it is a party, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights.

Last week, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, voiced her concerns about the draft constitution, noting some “very worrying omissions and ambiguities” in the text.

“The haste with which the Constituent Assembly adopted the final text for presidential action, and many of the surrounding circumstances, have put into question the credibility of the process, and contributed to the chaos in Cairo and other cities,” she stated, calling for urgent steps to restore confidence in the process, and in the new constitution.

Like Ms. Pillay, the expert group welcomed a number of positive provisions on human rights in the draft text, including free maternal and health services. At the same time, it drew attention to issues relating to equality for women that need to be brought in line with international human rights standards.

Among these issues, the text does not include in its substantive provisions the guarantee of non-discrimination based on sex necessary to give effect to the principle of equality between men and women in the preamble and in accordance with Egypt’s international human rights obligations.

According to article 2, Islam is the religion of the State and the principles of Islamic Sharia are the principal source of legislation.

The experts noted that although article 6 espouses democratic principles, including citizenship on an equal basis, political pluralism, separation of powers, and the rule of law, as well as respect for human rights and freedoms, the experts expressed concern about the absence of a provision incorporating international law, including on women’s human right to equality, into the domestic legal order and stipulating its primacy.

While article 2 provides that Islam will be the principle source of legislation, article 3 provides that the personal status of Egyptian Christians and Jews will be regulated under their religious laws. However, there is no provision that women’s right to equality in the family will be respected, protected and fulfilled by the State in accordance with international human rights standards.

“We urge the Egyptian Government to ensure women’s full and equal participation in all processes related to the political transition, to guarantee their freedom to express their views, to be protected against violence in their political and public activities and have their voices incorporated in public discourse and in shaping the society,” said Ms. Chandrakirana.

“Further, the Government should ensure that the constitution provides the strongest guarantees to advance equality and women’s human rights in line with Egypt’s obligations under international law,” she added.

In addition to Ms. Chandrakirana of Indonesia, the working group is currently composed of Frances Raday of Israel/United Kingdom, Emna Aouij of Tunisia, Eleonora Zielinska of Poland, and Patricia Olamendi Torres of Mexico. They are independent from any government or organization, and serve in their individual capacities.