Journalists protest in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo against press restrictions and for the release of detained journalists, May 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters

(Brussels) – The European Union and its member states should insist on including human rights concerns on the agenda for an upcoming EU-Egypt Association Council meeting and in EU public messaging about the meeting, Human Rights Watch said today.

EU foreign policy officials recently told human rights organizations based in Brussels that the EU had proposed several mid-July 2017 dates for the high-level meeting, the first EU-Egypt Association Council gathering since the military removed former President Mohamed Morsy in 2013. The EU should live up to its commitment to “place human rights at the centre of its relations with all third countries” – a pledge it has yet to fully apply to its relations with Egypt, Human Rights Watch said.

“For Egypt’s abusive government, what’s not to like about a high-level EU meeting that doesn’t raise pesky human rights questions,” said Lotte Leicht, Brussels director at Human Rights Watch. “The EU needs to put itself squarely on the side of Egyptians who courageously stand for basic rights when meeting with a government known for mass killings rather than respect for those rights.”

The meeting comes at a time when the Egyptian government has intensified and escalated its abusive policies and conduct. New legislation ends the ability of nongovernmental organizations to work independently and puts them under security agencies’ supervision. Security forces routinely disappear and torture people suspected of supporting opposition parties, Islamist or otherwise. Prosecutors have sent thousands of civilians to be tried before military courts, and tens of thousands of people are imprisoned in terrible conditions following unfair trials.

The EU and its member states should firmly address Egypt’s brutal repression of dissenting and critical voices and set out clear and public benchmarks for improvement, Human Rights Watch said. Those should include bringing to justice officials responsible for torture and extrajudicial killings and releasing journalists, political opposition members, and human rights activists who are behind bars solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

In November 2015, the EU revised its European Neighborhood Policy, downplaying discussion of rights and freedoms. The new policy, in the EU’s words, reflected a “new type of assessment, focusing specifically on meeting the goals agreed with partners.” The EU communique went on to say: “For those partners who prefer to focus on a more limited number of strategic priorities, the reporting framework will be adjusted to reflect the new focus.”

The EU’s public silence about abuses under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has brought about no positive change in Egypt. The EU and its member states should boldly raise human rights issues with Egypt because the people who work for freedom of expression, association, and assembly in Egypt need to hear the EU’s voice, not silence or generalities, Human Rights Watch said.

The Association Council meeting comes after Germany and France, two EU leaders, have sent high-level delegations to Cairo. German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited in March 2017 and the French defense and foreign affairs ministers visited in early June. Human rights appeared to be absent from those meetings, at least as reflected in their public statements.

At the June regular session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Greece and Hungary objected to a mention of Egypt in the EU’s Item 4 statement on “countries of concern.” Though Hungary’s delegation ultimately relented, the EU never delivered its statement as Greece refused to join a consensus because of a reference to human rights concerns in Egypt and China.

“In the face of escalating arrests, killings, torture, and enforced disappearances, it borders on the obscene for the EU and its member states to be signaling to Egyptians and the world that human rights are off the agenda,” Leicht said.