Words by Yessenia Funes
This year, international climate negotiations are set to take place in Egypt, which has a flagrant record of violating human rights. The Frontline talks to advocates who share their responses.
This year, international climate negotiations are taking place in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Commonly known as COP27, the climate conference happens every year to discuss the specifics around how countries must respond to the climate crisis. Organizers decided on Egypt during last year’s conference in Glasgow, Scotland, as the United Nations has sorely failed to adequately platform low-income countries in the conference’s nearly 30-year history.
Hosting COP27 in an African country was meant to represent a win for climate justice as it should make attendance more accessible to activists and advocates from the region. However, the Egyptian government’s history of violating human rights, as well as its disregard for other African countries, complicates any sense of victory climate justice might’ve felt. Egyptian advocates, meanwhile, are grateful that the summit has finally given their country the sort of international spotlight that may help them seed freedom in a country that’s often called a giant prison for its travel ban on local activists.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re getting critical of COP. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the body behind the summit, has previously come under fire for concerns that the climate conference isn’t accessible to those who are most vulnerable to climate change. Now, those concerns echo again as a pair of gay climate advocates who are in a relationship pledge they won’t attend the summit unless it’s moved out of Egypt out of fear they’ll be targeted. And they’re not the only ones alarmed: Egyptian human rights advocates want Egyptian environmental voices to join the conversation at COP27, too.
As climate couple Elijah Mckenzie-Jackson and Jerome Foster II began looking into the logistics of traveling to Egypt for COP27, reality slowly dawned on them. They couldn’t safely attend COP27—not if it’s held in Egypt. Human Rights Watch has documented several instances of detainment, torture, and assault against LGBTQIA+ people by Egyptian law enforcement. The country is wildly homophobic, which poses a very real threat to members of the LGBTQIA+ community who wish to attend COP27 openly and proudly.
“It’s a fundamental human right to be able to express yourself in an open space,” said Foster, a White House environmental justice adviser and cofounder of Waic Up, a news organization dedicated to giving a voice to the movement that the couple is planning to launch later this month. “I just had the courage to come out to my parents this year, and it’s terrifying for me to have to go through that experience again of trying to hide myself to conform to society.”
The pair is one of many in the climate world that have called out Egypt’s human rights abuses. After all, homophobia and discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people is just one example. Egypt also has a history of stifling protest and discriminating against women and girls. With all this in mind, Foster and Mckenzie-Jackson wrote a letter, signed by four others, to the UNFCCC asking it to move the conference to another safer African country.
Still, many human rights organizations critical of the Egyptian government don’t want the conference moved. Instead, they want the government to release its political prisoners and create a safe environment for advocates long after COP27 ends. They see COP27 as a rare opportunity to find solutions to the country’s human rights crisis. They recognize how dangerous Egypt can be, especially for queer people, so that’s why they want to raise attention so that no person in Egypt has to live in fear any longer.
The situation—and the multiple opinions around how to address—raise an urgent question: who are these climate conferences actually for? The people or the governments that claim to have their best interests in mind?
“It’s a fundamental human right to be able to express yourself in an open space.”
“This is betraying an entire community that feels left out,” Foster said, speaking of the LGBTQIA+ community. Civic artist Mckenzie-Jackson later added, “This is inherent discrimination.”
They still want to see those privileged enough to safely access the conference attend, but the reality is that the space doesn’t feel accessible to them given their queer identities. Their intention is to not only raise concerns about their own personal safety, but also raise concerns about the lived reality queer people, women, and activists experience every day inside of Egypt. Indeed, most Egyptians can only safely speak out once they live beyond their country’s borders. That’s certainly been the case for Yasmin Omar, the United Nations and regional mechanisms manager at the Committee for Justice, a human rights group focused on the Middle East and North Africa. She moved to the U.S. five years ago, which allows her to be outspoken.
With all eyes on Egypt, her organization in partnership with others has been asking for Egypt to release political prisoners ahead of the conference. However, time is running out, and the government has done very little to suggest it’s willing to work with human rights organizers to either release the advocates it’s already detained or make COP safe enough for those the government has yet to sink its claws into. In fact, its actions so far signal otherwise.
“Now, we are believing that this chance will not really give us the exposure we needed,” Omar said. “We had hoped to see more people released from prisons.”
They won’t quit pushing, though. COP27 presents a singular opportunity for activists who have been banned from leaving the country to speak out in front of a global audience. That’s why the committee isn’t calling for the summit to move. Omar is sympathetic, however, to why queer advocates want to see the conference happen elsewhere. The country is simply not safe for queer folks.
“I support this call. However, as an Egyptian human rights activist who has suffered from so many reprisals and from the world turning a blind eye to the violations we are facing, this is a unique opportunity for us to raise our voices and to be heard and also to support these allegations of not being safe on Egyptian ground if you belong to a certain minority or if you are a human rights defender,” she said. “It’s not over when COP is over. It’s a continuing situation for Egyptian people.”
Hussein Baoumi, the Egypt and Libya researcher for human rights group Amnesty International, shared her sentiment. Amnesty International isn’t calling for a boycott of the conference. It wants to see the end of these human rights violations so that people are able to express themselves freely year-round. Amr Magdi, a senior researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division with Human Rights Watch, echoed the same thoughts. Magdi wants Egypt to feel the heat and pressure as international players look to it ahead of the climate negotiations.
“It’s not over when COP is over. It’s a continuing situation for Egyptian people.”
Pakistani-American climate activist Ayisha Siddiqa, who cofounded climate justice group Polluters Out, doesn’t believe skipping COP27 will serve the people of Egypt. She raises an interesting point: why should we only call out Egypt when other governments like France or the U.K. violate human rights every day by ignoring the climate crisis?
“Is that also not a violation of human rights and safety of present and future generations?” she asked.
Siddiqa is doing all she can to attend the conference come November. She recognizes that her privilege as someone who can leave after the conference ends calls for her to stand with the Egyptian people who cannot. That doesn’t mean she won’t face risk while on the ground—being an outspoken woman in Egypt is no little thing. Neither is being an out gay couple.
“I, as someone from the West with privilege, support all groups on the ground with their opinions and perspectives as they have living context, experience, and knowledge that we lack,” said Mckenzie-Jackson in response to the human rights groups that want COP27 to remain in Egypt. “The government should continue to be scrutinized and act—regardless of public attention and COP27.”
Until the international community condemns Egypt’s attack on human rights, the only people who will be safe at COP27 are cis straight men who keep their opinions behind closed doors and out of the streets. How does that foster the sort of change we need to solve the climate crisis?