No. 3: The Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council: What is it and how can UNCTs engage in the process?

Article based on input from Elena Ippoliti and Erik Friberg, Universal Periodic Review Team, Research and Right to Development Division of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Zanofer Ismalebbe UNDP Geneva and interviews with Guillermo Fernandez-Maldonado, Human Rights Advisor, OHCHR, Ecuador, and Mohammed Al-Sharif, Assistant Resident Representative, UNDP Bahrain.

Content:

Through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), all United Nations Member States will be reviewed on the basis of universal and equal parameters and standards.“.

—  Louise Arbour, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Background

The creation of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is one of the most significant innovations of the new Human Rights Council (HRC). It was created by the General Assembly under resolution 60/251 of 15 March 2006 as part of the UN Reform. Under this system, for the first time, the fulfilment by each UN Member State of its human rights obligations and commitments will be regularly reviewed through a mechanism of the HRC. In establishing the UPR, the General Assembly acknowledged that all States can improve the human rights situation on the ground.

1- What are the main objectives of the UPR and how does it work?

The UPR is a universal mechanism: all member states of the UN undergo the review on the status of all human rights in their country.   Each state will undergo the review every four years. This means that 48 states are reviewed per year, divided into three sessions of two weeks.

The main objectives of the UPR are to improve the human rights situation at the country level, through:

  1. An assessment of positive developments and challenges faced by the State;
  2. Enhancement of the State’s capacity and of technical assistance needed, in consultation with, and with the consent of, the State;
  3. Sharing of best practices among States and other stakeholders;
  4. Support for cooperation among national stakeholders in the promotion and protection of human rights;
  5. Encouragement of cooperation with the HRC, human rights bodies (treaty bodies and special procedures) and OHCHR.

The review is carried out through an interactive dialogue between the State under Review (SuR) and the Council, in a Working Group composed of the 47 members of the HRC and facilitated by three of them (acting as Rapporteurs/the “troika”)    The Working Group is an intergovernmental meeting, which UN entities and stakeholders (NHRIs, NGOs, members of civil society etc) can attend but during which they cannot intervene.

After the Working Group session, the HRC meets in plenary to consider and adopt the outcome of the UPR; a one-hour meeting is devoted to each SuR. At the HRC plenary, the SuR, Member States, Observers including UN entities, as well as stakeholders including national human rights institutions and non-governmental organizations, have the opportunity to make interventions. The outcome of the review consists of a summary of the proceedings, conclusions and/or recommendations, and the voluntary pledges and commitments by the SuR concerned.

2- What information will the UPR be based on?

The Human Rights Council decided that each country review be based on 3 documents: a report prepared by the State concerned and two reports prepared by OHCHR, i.e. a compilation of UN information and a summary of stakeholders’ input.

  1. State Report

This is prepared by the State concerned, either orally or in writing. States are encouraged to prepare the report through a broad national consultation process. The report must not exceed 20 pages.

  1. Compilation of UN information report

This report is prepared by OHCHR by compiling information contained in the reports of treaty bodies, special procedures and other relevant official United Nations documents, including those published by all UN entities such as national Human Development Reports, MDG Reports, agencies’ flagship reports, CCA/UNDAF etc.   This report must not exceed 10 pages.

  1. Summary of Stakeholders’ input report

This report is prepared by OHCHR by summarizing additional, credible and reliable information provided by other relevant stakeholders to the UPR, including non-governmental organizations, national human rights institutions, academic/research institutes, regional organizations, human rights defenders and civil society representatives. This report must not exceed 10 pages

3- What is the role of UN agencies and UNCTs in the different stages of the UPR process

The UPR mechanism can greatly benefit from the active involvement of the whole UN system, and in particular of UN country presences. The Resident Coordinators, UNCTs and other UN agencies play an important role in ensuring that the state has the information and capacity to produce a solid and representative report, that there is wide national ownership and engagement in the UPR process and that the recommendations are followed up by the state. There are four stages at which UN agencies and UNCTs can support the UPR process:

Stage 1 – Dissemination of information on UPR process
UNCTs and UN agencies can support the state, at its request, in preparing a good-quality report and can encourage wide participation in the reporting process. Specifically, they can facilitate information-sharing on the UPR and advise States on the preparation of state reports, including by sensitizing States on the importance of preparing them in a consultative way.

They can also reach out to national stakeholders (National Human Rights Institutions, NGOs and other civil society actors) to explain the UPR mechanism, the importance of their contribution to the preparation of the State report and the possibility for them to submit additional information to OHCHR for the “Summary of Stakeholders’ input” report.

Stage 2 – Preparation of “Compilation of UN information” report
UNCTs and UN agencies can provide OHCHR with UN public documents that include information relating to human rights issues. These documents can feed into the “Compilation of UN Information” report. UNCTs may wish to coordinate the submission of this information, and submit it through the Resident Coordinator Office to OHCHR.

Contributions to the “Compilation of UN information” reports have varied based on the mandates of the different UN entities. For example, the United Nations Integrated Management Team in Burundi sent a joint submission drafted by BINUB, UNICEF, UNHCR, UNESCO and OHCHR.

UNDP has informed that it will contribute to the “Compilation of UN information” reports by providing relevant publicly-available UNDP information (including National Human Development and MDG Reports and relevant program documents).

Stage 3 – Review process
UNCTs and UN agencies can share information with all stakeholders on the modalities of the review, so that stakeholders are aware of, and able to participate in, the review.

They can also facilitate attendance of all relevant actors (States, National Human Rights Institutions, NGOs and others, including UN system’s representatives) to Geneva to participate in the review sessions. This is through supporting stakeholders in seeking funding from bilateral/multilateral donors and the UPR Voluntary Trust Fund (established by the HRC to facilitate the participation of developing countries) to attend, as well as sharing information to NGOs and NHRIs on the procedures they have to follow to be able to attend the UPR. UN entities can also speak at the HRC plenary session where the UPR outcome for the State under Review is being considered and adopted.

At the country level, they may facilitate local access to the review sessions, web-casted by the UN, by convening a targeted or public screening of the review.

Stage 4 – Follow-up
Even though the outcome of the UPR should be implemented primarily by the state concerned, UNCTs and UN agencies have a critical part to play in the follow-up to the review process, both in supporting the state to do so and in integrating the recommendations into its own work. They can:

  1. Ensure the translation and broad dissemination of recommendations adopted by the Human Rights Council.
  2. Encourage the State to follow-up on the recommendations, including by providing assistance in specific areas, as relevant.
  3. Support States in mobilising resources to implement the recommendations.
  4. Encourage/facilitate the use of the recommendations by all relevant actors at the national level.
  5. Integrate the recommendations in the UN planning and programming instruments, including future CCAs/UNDAFs.


The Experience of the UNCT in Ecuador: Supporting the State Engage and Follow up to the UPR:
Interview with Guillermo Fernandez-Maldonado, Human Rights Advisor, OHRCR, Ecuador

1- Ecuador was one of the first countries that went through the UPR, how did the UN support Ecuador in preparing for the UPR?

The UN Resident Coordinator (RC) viewed the UPR process strategically, believing that the UN should support Ecuador in producing a strong and representative state report, which could provide a solid basis for the UNCT to draw upon in its work. The RC also understood the need for strong national ownership of the state report.
Specifically the UN supported the reporting process in three ways:

  1. INFORMING/PROMOTING WIDE ENGAGEMENT IN THE PROCESS
      • CSO: The UN explained the UPR process to CSOs, human rights organisations and the National Human Rights Institution, and informed them on how they could participate in the process. As a result, several written contributions from these organisations were sent to Geneva.
      • Government: The UN held meetings with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the body originally responsible for drawing up the report, to better inform them on the UPR process. Importantly, it also promoted engagement from other parts of the Government, explaining the UPR process and its significance to various ministries and encouraging them to take part in the drafting of the report. As a result, a powerful and representative State delegation was sent to Geneva, including the Minister of Justice and representatives of other ministries. The RC was also present.
  1. SUPPORTING NATIONAL CONSULTATIONS FOR THE STATE REPORT:

The UNDP and OHCHR funded two consultants to organise the national consultation process and help draft the state report.  They also provided funding for these national consultations, held in Ecuador’s three main cities:  Quito, Cuenca and Guayaquil. 

  1. SENDING UN INFORMATION TO GENEVA:

The UN agencies sent official and public documents, such as MDG reports, CCA/UNDAFs to OHCHR to help them compile the “Compilation of UN information” report.

2- What were the main challenges to engaging with the UPR process?

  1. NEWNESS OF PROCESS: One of the main challenges was that Ecuador was only the second country to be reviewed by the HRC. Even though there were guidelines for preparing the state report, there were still misunderstandings on how to go about this task.
  2. TIMELINE:  the time given for preparing the report was very short. This made it particularly hard to ensure strong civil society participation in the reporting process.

3- What was the result of the Geneva presentation of the State Report to the Human Rights Council and has there been any follow up to the recommendations made by the Council?

The State came back from Geneva encouraged by the meetings and dialogue it had held with the Human Rights Council (HRC) and the UPR Working Group. It was particularly impressed by the interest shown in it by member states. It returned committed to following up on the recommendations. So much so, that it drew up a document outlining the ‘Voluntary Commitments’ that Ecuador would take on.
The RC played an instrumental role in assisting the government to follow up. Whilst in Geneva he held various meetings with UNDP and OHCHR staff on how best to follow up and support the UPR. As a result, both the delegation of Ecuador and OHCHR, appreciated and relied on the support and commitment of UNDP/UNCT to the UPR process.
Some of the main impacts of the UPR process, related to the work of the UN, are as follows:

  1. IT HAS HELPED IDENTIFY THE MAIN HUMAN RIGHTS CONCERNS IN ECUADOR AND FOCUSED THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY’S EFFORTS TO SUPPORT THE STATE IN THESE AREAS:

The UN had an important role in coordinating and strengthening the international community’s support to the priority human rights issues listed in the state report. Once back in Ecuador, the UN jointly with the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights organised a presentation of the UPR state report to the international community. It was thus able to inform them on the state’s priorities and needs for assitance, as well as the recommendations of the HRC.

  1. STRENGTHENING THE UN’S WORK ON HUMAN RIGHTS

A number of new human rights projects have been initiated by the UN, following the state’s demand for support in following up on the recommendations from the HRC; for example, the UN is now working to train the police force on human rights and  supporting the state in its work to improve the prison system.
Moreover, the UNCT is now developing its new CCA/UNDAF, to which it is applying a human rights based approach. The detailed information from the state report and the recommendations from the HRC has provided a valuable contribution to this process.

Overall, the state’s report has been extremely useful in giving legitimacy to the UN in its work on human rights issues.

4- Are there any lessons that you have learned from the process, that you think would be useful for other UN agencies whose host country is  about to go through the  same process?

Overall, in engaging with the UPR process, Ecuador greatly benefited from a supportive environment: a Government informed and open to human rights and a UN Resident Coordinator convinced of the importance of human rights in the work of the UN and a UNCT that has learned to work jointly and understands human rights as one of their key common objectives, on which they can work ‘as one’. .Some of the main lessons we learned were:

  • The need to be clear on who is going to draft the report and to provide clear guidelines for the person drafting the report.
  • The need to keep CSOs informed on the process, so that they can follow up on the recommendations made by the HRC.
  • To provide funding for organising civil society participation in the process.
  • To maintain UN agencies informed of the process and constantly encourage them to send on any public information that may be of use.
  • The importance of the UN RC providing support to the process.

To carefully follow the UPR state report editing roles in term of length and translation (as the Ecuador State report exceeded 20 pages it has not been translated into English)


The Experience of UNDP Bahrain: From the UPR Report to a National Human Rights Action Plan:
Interview with Mohammed Al-Sharif, Assistant Resident Representative, UNDP Bahrain.

1- How did the UNDP support Bahrain in preparing for the UPR?
In December 2007 the Kingdom of Bahrain was selected, through a lot system, to be the first country to undergo the UPR. Bahrain seized the opportunity provided by the UPR to commit to improving the promotion, protection and realization of human rights in the country.
From the beginning of its engagement with the UPR, Bahrain recognized that the UPR is not a single event, but rather a process, comprising several activities and events over a consecutive 4-year time frame.

The first step in this process was preparing the state report. Facing a race against time to prepare the report, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), the body responsible for preparing the report, approached UNDP Bahrain for support. In response to this request, UNDP Bahrain supported the UPR reporting process in three main ways::

  1. ENSURING A TRANSPARENT AND PARTICIPATORY PROCESS: UNDP’s support mainly focused on helping the Government ensure that the UPR process was transparent and participatory. Hence, it assisted the government in:
  • Convening a National Stakeholders Consultation to raise awareness on the UPR and encourage broad participation in the process;
  • Launching a communications and media plan around the UPR;
  • Posting drafts of the Report on a special UPR website maintained by the MoFA and setting up a phone hotline for receiving feedback; and
  • Presenting the Report (in both Arabic and English) to a national audience before submitting it to Geneva.
  1. UNDP INFORMATION:
    UNDP made sure that any relevant public information it had on Bahrain (mainly the Human Development Reports) was available to OHCHR, to draw on.
  1. CIVIL SOCIETY PARTICIPATION:
    UNDP supported civil society to participate in the UPR process, through a variety of activities, including funding NGOs to participate in the Geneva UPR meetings.

2- What were the main human rights concerns covered in Bahrain’s UPR Report ?

The UPR Reports of both nongovernmental organizations and the Kingdom of Bahrain identify the need to further protect the human rights of certain vulnerable groups, including: human rights defenders, children, women and workers (especially foreign and domestic workers). All three of these reports also identify the need to empower women; to address the trafficking in human persons, unemployment and inflation; to respect and protect human rights in counter-terrorism measures and activities; and to promote religious tolerance.

3- What were the main challenges to engaging with the UPR process?

The main challenges faced in engaging with the UPR process included:

  • Meeting the very tight deadline for preparing the report;
  • the lack of previous experiences or good practices internationally to draw upon;
  • the lack of national awareness of the work of the HRC, the UPR system and how to engage with it; and
  • the lack of national capacity to report and engage with the UPR.

4- Has there been any follow up of the UPR outcomes and the HRC’s recommendations to Bahrain?

Follow up to the outcomes and recommendations of the UPR were facilitated by wide national ownership and awareness of the UPR outcomes and strong commitment by the government to follow up to these recommendations.

Bahrain, with the assistance of UNDP, encouraged wide national ownership and awareness of the UPR outcomes and recommendations from the HRC in a number of ways, including:

  • Sending a large delegation to Geneva;
  • Simultaneously broadcasting the interactive dialogue at viewing stations in everyone of Bahrain’s governates, with opportunities for people to provide feedback to the delegation;
  • Publishing and presenting the UPR Outcome Document from the HRC to the public through a national consultation; and
  • Encouraging wide media coverage of the Geneva meetings; and posting all documents relating to the various stages of the UPR on Bahrain’s UPR website.

These steps have provided the public with opportunities to support and monitor the state in implementing the recommendations from the HRC.

Moreover, to underscore the importance in which the Kingdom of Bahrain placed the UPR, it made a number of Voluntary Commitments in the UPR state report: Most importantly, following the outcomes and recommendations from the HRC, it developed a National Human Rights Action Plan to Implement Bahrain’s Pledges and recommendations.A major component of the National Action Plan deals with “Strengthening Bahrain’s Human Rights Information Systems and Data Base”, creating “a National Human Rights Institution in conformity with the Paris Principles”, and “developing the capacity of both NGOs and government organizations to monitor and evaluate the status of human rights enjoyment.

Thus in Bahrain, UNDP’s assistance to the UPR process has proved to be the first step in embarking on a long journey of supporting the government in developing and implementing a National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP). The NHRAP provides the basis for adopting a human rights based approach to development to further the enjoyment of human rights for all in the country.