Human rights concerns in Egypt prompt ‘step-change’ in UK government attitude
Foreign Office concerns over Egypt’s human rights record have led to a “step-change” in the UK’s approach to that government, according to a new FCO human rights report.
The shift comes days after Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson sparked surprise when he insisted at a press conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry that a “burgeoning crisis” in Egypt was now a priority for the UK.
In series of updates to the FCO’s annual human rights report released yesterday, the UK government described how in the first half of 2016, “the human rights situation in Egypt continued to deteriorate”, with death sentences handed down to several journalists; prevalent police torture – including in the case of Italian student Giulio Regeni; and “lengthy proceedings and delays” in the mass trial of Ibrahim Halawa, an Irish juvenile who faces a potential death sentence.
The report said there had been “a step-change in our approach” to the government of President Sisi, “commensurate with our growing concern” over abuses that included “torture, police brutality and enforced disappearance.” Britain has previously faced criticism for supporting President Sisi’s rule, particularly during his visit to the UK last year, and what the FCO described as “a strong security partnership.” According to the new report, the UK has recently asked the UN Human Rights Council to focus its attention on Egypt.
Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee (FAC) is currently conducting an inquiry into the Foreign Office’s human rights work overseas, and in Egypt has focused on Ibrahim Halawa as a case study. Mr Halawa, who was a juvenile when he was arrested in 2013 in the wake of protests, faces the death penalty alongside 493 others, in a mass trial that has been repeatedly postponed. He has reported both suffering and witnessing torture throughout his detention.
Speaking in April, the head of the FAC, Crispin Blunt MP, said that “designation of a country on list sends an important message to countries with poor human rights records”, and criticised the FCO for initially failing to include Egypt on the list. The FCO subsequently added Egypt.
Maya Foa, director of the death penalty team at human rights organization Reprieve, which assists Ibrahim Halawa, said: “It’s welcome to see the government stepping up the pressure on Egypt, which has seen a huge wave of repression under President Sisi. This ‘step-change’ in the FCO‘s approach couldn’t come soon enough, given the countless reports of torture, disappearances, death sentences, and mass trials in Egypt – including in relation to juveniles like Ibrahim Halawa. Sisi must take note, and bring an end to these terrible abuses – this also means releasing Ibrahim and the many other prisoners like him.”