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EGYPT: Bumpy Ride to a New Human Rights City

Cam McGrath

CAIRO, Oct 22 2011 (IPS) - The upheaval of the Arab Spring has provided fertile ground to plant the seed of a new framework for human rights that moves beyond monitoring violations. Rights advocates want to integrate human rights into the fabric of daily life and are working at the community level to establish the first Human Rights City in the Middle East.

A Human Rights City is one in which all residents and local authorities accept human rights as way of life and engage in positive planning and actions to achieve economic and social justice for the entire community. The model aims to ensure that all laws, policies, resources and relationships in the city preserve the rights and dignity of its members.

“Everybody in the city is on equal footing and – whether the mayor or a garbage man – they are sitting at the table as equals looking collectively at what needs to be solved through a human rights perspective,” explains Robert Kesten, executive director of the People’s Movement for Human Rights Education (PDHRE), the New York-based NGO that developed the concept.

The guiding principles for a Human Rights City are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a framework for individual rights and freedoms ratified by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. It is important that all residents and local authorities know, own and are able to act upon these rights, and that they apply them to all levels of the decision-making and problem-solving process.

The community-based approach requires a paradigm shift. While national institutions are usually responsible for promoting and protecting rights and freedoms in accordance with the state’s international treaties, Human Rights Cities shifts much of this responsibility to the local level. City authorities and residents are recruited as agents of change.

“Instead of focusing on one particular issue or group of people… we’re working at the community level, targeting every man, woman and child,” explains Omar Aysha, a Cairo-based activist involved in the initiative.

Rosario, Argentina, became the first Human Rights City in 1997. Today there are about 15 functioning Human Rights Cities in Europe, Africa and the Americas. PDHRE initiated the projects, but most are now completely self-determined.

Before the Arab Spring there appeared little hope of the concept taking hold in the Middle East and North Africa region, where authoritarian regimes denied their citizens basic political, economic and social rights. But the popular uprisings that toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have opened a window of opportunity.

“The undercurrents of these revolutions were tied in to the quest for freedom and democracy,” says Kesten. “The desire to be free is a powerful motivator, so when Tunisia fell we knew the other states couldn’t be far behind.”

A fundamental demand of protesters in the uprisings was for the accountability of government to its citizens. Traditionally, government functions as a pyramid with the executive body occupying the top tier. The goal of Human Rights Cities, according to Kesten, “is to invert the pyramid and put people on top so that they have ownership of their rights.”

It was fitting then that PDHRE tapped Alexandria to become the first Human Rights City in the Middle East. It was in this Mediterranean city of four million people that Egypt’s tortuous struggle for human rights and social justice took a fateful turn.

In June 2010, two Alexandria police officers dragged 28-year-old Khaled Said out of a local Internet café and allegedly beat him to death. Police claimed Said died from choking on a bag of marijuana that he swallowed to hide from the plainclothes officers. But when a photo of the young man’s badly disfigured corpse surfaced on the Internet, it sparked public outrage and protests that were instrumental in Mubarak’s overthrow seven months later.

PDHRE hopes to build on the momentum of Khaled Said’s legacy to develop Alexandria as a Human Rights City. The organisation’s leaders say the city is smaller and more manageable than Egypt’s capital, Cairo. Yet it is well-known, historically important and has an international focal point, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

The challenge of transforming a city notorious for political repression and police brutality into a beacon of human rights necessitated a new approach. In August, PDHRE launched the Human Rights Corps of Egypt, a group of individuals from government, business and civil society tasked with “carrying the message to the community.”

Corps members receive training sessions on how to personalise human rights and introduce them to their daily life. They are then encouraged to take this integration process to their home, workplace, and network of social and professional contacts.

“It’s important that people not only know about their rights, but that they integrate them into their life,” explains Aysha, a corps leader. “We all know how to add or subtract because we do it every day. Lessons are forgotten unless you make them an integral part of everything you do.”

The integration process is essential to building a Human Rights City in which residents and local authorities proactively recognise and address human rights rather than merely identify violations. And while the designation carries no legal weight, Kesten points out that a community in which its constituents integrate human rights into the fabric of daily life has the potential to alter the political culture behind most forms of oppression.

As authoritarian regimes continue to crumble across the Middle East and North Africa, PDHRE sees opportunity to facilitate a new understanding of human rights that moves “from charity to dignity.” The organisation is working on a parallel track in Tunisia, where local activists have launched a national human rights corps and are hoping to develop the capital as a Human Rights City.

And with Gaddafi’s brutal regime defeated, Libya may be next in line. [END/IPS/MM/IP/HD/PI/RA/CV/CM/SS/11]

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