The Egyptian regime has successfully silenced the country’s independent environmentalists in the run-up to hosting this year’s UN climate talks, as part of a wider strategy to repress human rights that also threatens to derail meaningful global climate action, according to a leading advocate.
In an interview with the Guardian, Richard Pearshouse, environment director at Human Rights Watch, said failing to address abuses by Egypt and other authoritarian regimes will obstruct the rollout of ambitious climate policies needed to transition away from fossil fuels and curtail global heating.
“It will be a fundamental mistake if diplomats go to Cop27 thinking they need to go softly softly on human rights in order to make progress in the climate talks. We will not get the urgent climate action needed without civil society pressure, the situation in Egypt shows us that.
“Human rights versus climate action is a false debate, it’s not either or. We need people in the streets, independent environmentalists and human rights activists, strategic litigation and independent courts to generate change,” said Pearshouse.
Cop27 takes place in November in Sharm El Sheikh, an upmarket resort city between the desert of the Sinai Peninsula and the Red Sea. It’s a place where some of Egypt’s most pressing climate and environmental problems – rising sea level, water scarcity, and over development – can be found, yet delegates are unlikely to hear from Egyptian scientists, advocates or journalists on these topics.
A recent HRW report found that these and other sensitive topics such as environmental harms caused by corporate interests (tourism, agribusiness and real estate) and military businesses (water bottling plants, cement factories and quarry mines) have become “no-go areas” for academics and environmental groups. Also off limits is industrial pollution, which contributes to thousands of premature deaths every year in Cairo – one of the world’s most polluted cities.
Those working on these issues have been arrested, forced into exile or silenced through a slew of bureaucratic restrictions that make research impossible.
Instead, a new cohort of environmentalist groups working on issues palatable to the government such as trash collection, recycling, renewables and international climate finance has emerged.
“Outspoken, independent, strident voices have by and large been silenced, exiled, or coralled into working in safe, less damaging environmental spaces that match the government’s priorities. Topics the government considers sensitive are now environmental red zones or no-go areas in Egypt – and in other repressive regimes,” said Pearshouse.
For the recent report, HRW researchers spoke with 13 activists, academics, scientists, and journalists – all on the condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisals. Another six declined to be interviewed, citing security concerns or because government restrictions had forced them to abandon sensitive environmental issues including the impact of national infrastructure projects, many of which are associated with the president’s office or the military.
The Egyptian government rejected HRW’s findings. “It is deplorable and counterproductive to issue such a misleading report, at a time where all efforts should be consolidated to ensure the convening of a successful Cop that guarantees the implementation of global climate commitments,” Ahmed Abu Zeid, the spokesperson for Egypt’s ministry of foreign affairs, said in a statement last month.
Egypt is not the first country to restrict environmental critics or civil society participation at the UN climate talks, and it won’t be the last given next year’s will take place in the United Arab Emirates – another country with an inglorious record of human rights abuses and urgent climate and environmental challenges.
Last year at Cop26 in Glasgow the legitimacy of the talks was questioned due to the exclusion of civil society and Indigenous peoples from the negotiating. Still a counter people’s summit and huge protests across the UK gave communities and activists numerous platforms to share stories, complaints and alternative solutions.
None of this is likely in Egypt, where the right to protest and free speech has been violently quelled by the authoritarian regime since the Arab spring. Tens of thousands of political prisoners including human rights and environmental activists like Alaa Abd El Fateh have been locked up and tortured in the past decade.
So far this year, there have not been reports of any would-be critics being denied visas, but Egypt’s foreign minister has said that activists and protesters will be restricted to a separate designated facility away from the UN negotiations. “The environmental space in Egypt is already tightly controlled. The Fridays for Future and Greta Thunbergs of Egypts have been exiled or silenced. But this was a warning sign that we’ll likely see tight restrictions on how and where people can express dissent at Cop27,” said Pearshouse.
The need to put human rights front and centre of the UN talks is not just about addressing the unequal harms caused by the climate crisis and extractive industries, it’s about ensuring a just transition away from fossil fuels to renewables.
Africa is at the forefront of both: it’s the continent most affected by global heating despite contributing to less than 4% of greenhouse gas emissions. And it will play a crucial role in the race to zero emissions thanks to its richness in transition minerals and the boom in renewable energy.
“There is an urgent need for human rights to be embedded in the renewable energy value chain … if not, the just transition is likely to be derailed and global net zero targets are at risk,” warned the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, a non-profit tracking the human rights impacts of companies across the globe.
With less than a month before the 27th round of climate negotiations, Pearshouse fears that the UNFCCC still doesn’t properly understand that effective climate action is a human rights issue. “What’s happening to the environmental movement in Egypt should be a wake-up call, and delegates must talk about human rights in Sharm. Having blind faith that the world’s authoritarian regimes, many of which have fossil fuel industries, will somehow come round to a just transition is profoundly naive.”
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