Egypt to Host Big U.N. Climate Summit While Muzzling Environmental Activists

COP27 will put Biden’s human rights agenda on a collision course with his climate change agenda.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks during the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 1, 2021.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks during the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 1, 2021.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks during the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 1, 2021. Yves Herman - WPA Pool/Getty Images

In the run-up to hosting a major U.N. climate summit in November, Egypt has publicly touted its commitment to curb carbon emissions and framed itself as a leader in supporting the developing world’s adaptation to new climate shocks. But behind the scenes, the Egyptian government has cracked down on environmental activists in the country through harassment, intimidation, and arrests, according to interviews with environmental experts and a new report from an international human rights watchdog.

Egypt’s role as the host of the 27th U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP27, is expected to shed fresh light on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s widespread crackdown on the country’s civil society, including environmental advocates, posing a vexing foreign-policy challenge for major democratic powers seeking to advance ambitious climate goals even if it means cooperating with some of the world’s most repressive autocratic regimes. For U.S. President Joe Biden, the upcoming COP27 summit puts his human rights policy on a possible collision course with his climate policy.

“There’s this underlying tension between two supposedly different realms: human rights on one side and robust climate action on the other side,” said Richard Pearshouse, the director of environment and human rights at Human Rights Watch (HRW), an advocacy group. “Now we’re seeing that tension really play out.”

In the run-up to hosting a major U.N. climate summit in November, Egypt has publicly touted its commitment to curb carbon emissions and framed itself as a leader in supporting the developing world’s adaptation to new climate shocks. But behind the scenes, the Egyptian government has cracked down on environmental activists in the country through harassment, intimidation, and arrests, according to interviews with environmental experts and a new report from an international human rights watchdog.

Egypt’s role as the host of the 27th U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP27, is expected to shed fresh light on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s widespread crackdown on the country’s civil society, including environmental advocates, posing a vexing foreign-policy challenge for major democratic powers seeking to advance ambitious climate goals even if it means cooperating with some of the world’s most repressive autocratic regimes. For U.S. President Joe Biden, the upcoming COP27 summit puts his human rights policy on a possible collision course with his climate policy.

“There’s this underlying tension between two supposedly different realms: human rights on one side and robust climate action on the other side,” said Richard Pearshouse, the director of environment and human rights at Human Rights Watch (HRW), an advocacy group. “Now we’re seeing that tension really play out.”

Human rights groups have sharply criticized the Biden administration for walking back the president’s stated commitments on human rights, including with Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia in July after initially vowing to make Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a “pariah” for his role in the assassination of journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. Biden has also caught flak from the progressive flank of his Democratic Party for resisting some cuts to a tranche of annual U.S. military aid to Egypt in light of Sisi’s record on human rights—after criticizing his predecessor Donald Trump for gifting Sisi “blank checks.”

“There’s a great deal of hypocrisy from Western democracies and powerful countries in the world when it comes to human rights in Egypt in general,” said one Egyptian environmental activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the Egyptian government.

Even two months out from the upcoming U.N. climate summit, human rights groups have begun quietly lobbying the office of Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, to publicly castigate Sisi’s government over its human rights record and raise the case of detained Egyptian activists during COP27 meetings, according to three people briefed on the matter. (The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.)

HRW released a new report this week accusing the Egyptian government of “severely curtail[ing]” environmental groups’ abilities to do their job, through harassment, arrests, and intimidation, forcing some activists to flee the country. Other environmental advocacy groups voiced concern that the Egyptian government is limiting the number of civil society groups that will be allowed to attend COP27 and tightly controlling planned protests, relegating only limited demonstrations in a cordoned-off area on the margins of the conference, which will be held in Sharm el-Sheikh on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula from Nov. 6 to 18.

“It’s always critically important for civil society to have access to COP meetings and have their perspectives heard both inside the COP and outside of it to really drive governments to take more aggressive action on climate change,” said David Waskow, the director of the World Resources Institute’s International Climate Initiative.

The Egyptian government has dismissed the new HRW report. “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.

Even with a wave of criticism directed at the Sisi government in the run-up to COP27, it’s unclear whether leaders from the United States or other top democracies will publicly raise Cairo’s human rights record or crackdowns on environmental groups during the climate summit.

The Egyptian environmental activist said there is an “opportunity that hasn’t existed for many years” for environmental groups to make gains in Egypt while the global spotlight is on Sisi’s government ahead of COP27 and that there was a time and place for Western governments to raise Egypt’s record on human rights and repression of civil society during the summit. “They should do this, but it should not be in a way that undermines the climate justice agenda or these important negotiations,” the activist said.

Privately, some U.S. officials and diplomats worry that sharp public criticism of Egypt’s human rights records could end up overshadowing the climate summit’s message or upend sensitive negotiations on new targets to reduce global carbon emissions, all without gaining any significant concessions on the human rights front, according to the people briefed on the matter.

Their views point to an open and inconvenient secret in global climate policy that no one seems to want to say out loud: You can’t really tackle climate change without buy-in from the autocrats.

These officials and experts (none of whom offered to speak on record) point to China as the prime example: The same government that has pledged to become a global leader in renewable energy has carried out what the U.S. government has characterized as a genocide against its Uyghur population. But any meaningful international compact on climate change can’t work without buy-in from Beijing, they argue. After all, China is the world’s largest carbon emitter and remains one of the world’s largest exporters of technology and commodities behind most renewable energy industries.

After last year’s COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland, Egypt became one of the first countries to announce that it would expand its pledge to reduce carbon emissions in response to increasingly extreme natural disasters and new global urgency on tackling climate change. Other countries, including Mexico, Indonesia, and Turkey, have followed suit.

In the debate over whether climate change or human rights should come first, Pearshouse argues that you can’t have one without the other. Repressive regimes won’t allow independent journalists, environmental activists, or scientists to raise awareness about shortcomings in those regimes’ environmental policies, he said—particularly in cases of those governments’ often lucrative cooperation with oil, gas, and mining industries.

“We’re not going to be in a situation where benign dictators and eco-friendly repressive regimes hand down the sorts of ambitious climate policies we need at national levels,” he said. “You need robust protection of human rights to get the sort of robust climate action that the world now sees as necessary.”

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the body that oversees COP gatherings, currently has no mechanism in place to assess a country’s political freedoms or human rights record when it comes to picking hosts for major U.N. climate summits.

“The UNFCCC secretariat will maintain the same high standard in the facilitation of conference registration and NGO demonstrations at the COP venue as in any past sessions,” a spokesperson for the UNFCCC said while stressing that COP meetings are open only to registered attendants and not the public as a matter of practice.

The spokesperson said COP27 already has around 10,000 registered participants from some 2,000 organizations—about on par with the previous COP26 meeting in Glasgow. “Thus, we believe that with the variety and great number of admitted observers to the UNFCCC process, the meetings of the Conference of the Parties in Sharm el-Sheikh will continue to be as transparent and inclusive as possible.”

The debate over COP27 is playing out against the backdrop of a summer of record-setting temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere, marked by devastating droughts and environmental disasters, which have added new urgency and importance to COP27. A massive drought that parched much of Europe this summer could end up being the worst the continent has seen in 500 years, according to one senior scientist at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. Historically unprecedented floods in Pakistan killed at least 1,400 people and displaced millions, causing an estimated $18 billion in damages. Both extreme weather events are linked to the effects of climate change.

Waskow said COP27 is an important mile marker for countries to hash out agreements on how the international community should pay for “loss and damage” from extreme weather events caused by climate change, as well as an opportunity to pressure countries to outline more ambitious goals to cutting carbon emissions.

“This COP really matters. It is the place where everyone comes together, in one place in one room, to discuss this pressing global crisis. That is still critically important to do,” he said.

The COP27 meeting follows on the heels of the COP26 meeting in Glasgow in 2021, during which countries agreed to phase out coal and adjust national carbon emission plans with a goal of keeping a cap on increased global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, known as the Glasgow Climate Pact.

In a speech in Cairo on Sept. 7, Kerry said the fight against climate change “is existential—it is about the very future of our civilization. Which is why, this fall and beyond, we must do everything in our power to give life to the Glasgow Climate Pact.”

During the speech, Kerry lauded Sisi as a leader “who has demonstrated critical leadership in mobilizing international climate action and accelerating the clean energy transition.” He made no mention of Sisi’s record on human rights.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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