In the end, better sense prevailed. The United Nations says it has postponed plans to hold an anti-torture legislation conference in Egypt after facing backlash from human rights groups.
Thousands of political opponents and human rights activists have been detained and tortured in Egypt since President Abdel Fattah el Sisi came to power in a 2013 coup which removed the elected government of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi.
Perhaps the UN thought Egypt’s experience could be mined for insight into the world of torture?
Human rights groups have documented dozens of cases in which police and security forces have tortured and killed people in prisons and secret detention centres, many of them Sisi’s political opponents.
The September 4-5 conference was focused on beefing up laws that criminalise torture in Arab countries. But the selection of Egypt as the host country hit a raw nerve.
Egyptian authorities have particularly targeted organisations that help torture victims - for instance, the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture was forcibly shut two years ago.
The torture by Egyptian authorities “involves beatings, stress positions, suspending people by their limbs, electric shocks, and sometimes rape or rape threats” according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report.
At least 179 people have been executed in Egypt between 2014 to May 2019, up from just 10 in the previous six years, according to Reuters.
Some NGOs had already boycotted the event while HRW and Amnesty International said they weren’t invited in the first place.
For the Egyptian government, international conferences such as this one are important as they help deflect criticism away from its poor human rights record and raise the international stature of the government.
In February this year, Egypt hosted the EU-Arab States summit, which raised questions about the EU’s commitment to human rights, especially its staunch opposition to capital punishment.
“We cannot deny the fact that holding of the summit in Egypt at the court of the Pharaoh Al Sisi, has recognised, by default, the authority of the Egyptian dictator,” Pier Antonio Panzeri, a member of the European Parliament, told TRT World at the time.
Sisi’s government has reacted harshly against any sort of dissent in its attempt to hold on to power. In one instance, a women’s rights activist was jailed simply for criticising the government for not doing enough to stop sexual harassment.
Egypt’s military is accused of severe human rights violations including burning down thousands of homes in the volatile Sinai region, where the government says it’s fighting Al Qaeda militants.
In the month of February alone Egypt executed 15 men after trials which the United Nations and other human rights organisations termed ‘unfair’.
EU leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron consider Sisi’s government as vital in the fight against terrorism (never mind that Sisi’s policies have resulted in a surge of terror attacks) and stemming the flow of refugees.
Many European countries have toned down their criticism of Egypt, which has helped stem the flow of migrants to Europe from African countries.
Egypt has even detained US citizens, which gives over a billion dollars in military and economic aid to Sisi’s government every year.
Hosam Khalaf and Ola al Qaradawi, both from the United States, have been in an Egyptian prison since June 2017 without any charges.