Wednesday, September 10, 2014
By Risa E. Kaufman, Executive Director, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute
With three major human rights treaty reviews happening in rapid succession this year, some U.S. advocates may be experiencing human rights reporting fatigue. And some may find themselves wondering whether they should participate in yet another human rights review, the upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR). It’s a good question. And the answer is yes. The UPR is different from the treaty reviews in important respects, and it offers distinct advantages for U.S. social justice advocates.
The UPR, a "peer review" conducted through the UN Human Rights Council, requires that the human rights record of each country belonging to the UN be reviewed once every four years. As a "peer review," representatives from every member of the UN have an opportunity to ask questions of and make recommendations to the country under review. The U.S.’ first UPR occurred in 2010. Round two is scheduled for spring of 2015.
U.S. civil society actively engaged in the U.S.’ first UPR. Advocates filed 103 stakeholder reports, similar to shadow reports submitted in conjunction with the treaty reviews. Advocates from over 70 NGOs traveled to Geneva for the review, at which more than 50 UN member countries engaged the U.S. government delegation on issues ranging from U.S. detention policy and the death penalty to the United States’ failure to ratify key human rights treaties and establish an independent human rights monitoring body. The review culminated in 228 recommendations for ways in which the U.S. can improve human rights conditions at home, many reflecting advocates' input.
But what’s really different about the UPR? After all, robust and effective engagement by U.S. civil society has become a hallmark of the human rights treaty reviews, as well.
One important distinction is that the UPR is based on the UN Charter and the UDHR, in addition to the human rights treaties a country has ratified and any voluntary pledges and commitments it has made. The U.S. UPR isn’t limited to issues that arise under the few human rights treaties the U.S. has ratified. For example, the UPR offers an important opportunity for U.S. advocates to raise issues related to housing, health care, education and other economic, social and cultural rights, regardless of whether and how they relate to the non-discrimination provisions of the CERD and ICCPR.
Also unlike the treaty body reviews, which are conducted by committees of independent experts, in the UPR, countries themselves get to ask questions and offer recommendations. The political nature of the review certainly has some downsides, opening the U.S. government to critique from those who see little value in its subjecting itself to a human rights review by some of the world’s worst human rights violators. Still, the process can place a different type of pressure on the U.S. and may uniquely influence the government’s actions and policies with respect to certain issues. Thus, the UPR can supplement the pressure that the expert treaty bodies exert when reviewing U.S. compliance with its human rights commitments.
Another important feature of the UPR is its requirement that governments engage “all relevant stakeholders, including non-governmental organizations” in the preparation of its report. The U.S. report is due on January 19th. In preparation, the United States has already conducted several thematic civil society consultations, including on access to justice, domestic implementation of human rights treaties, and indigenous issues. More are on the horizon, including a consultation on September 12th on immigration and labor issues and one on October 7th on the environment and human rights. Through these consultations, advocates can participate in substantively focused exchanges with relevant federal agency personnel to raise issues that have not been covered in the treaty reviews, to reinforce concerns recently voiced by the treaty bodies and other experts, to urge the government to address concerns that were raised in the 2010 UPR, or to address human rights concerns that have since emerged.
As with the treaty reviews, reports by U.S. civil society play an important role in the review. The UPR itself is based in part on a document prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights summarizing these “other stakeholder” reports.
But U.S. advocates who want to participate must act quickly. The deadline for filing a UPR stakeholder report for the U.S. review is this Monday, September 15. The good news is that the submissions are necessarily short, and there are many resources to assist advocates who wish to contribute. The US Human Rights Network has created a useful submissions template, and hosts a UPR listserv for interested advocates. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has developed guidance for NGOs participating in the review.
In addition to filing reports, organizations can work more informally to encourage UN representatives to question the U.S. on particular issues during the in-person review, for example by reaching out directly to UN mission representatives based in New York. Here, too, the UPR offers an advantage, since these representatives may be more accessible than the experts comprising the UN treaty bodies.
Finally, a distinct advantage of the UPR is that, at its conclusion, the U.S. is required to affirmatively accept or reject each recommendation that emerges from the review. These commitments, made on a very global and very public stage, offer unique and potentially powerful hooks for future advocacy efforts.
It’s been an extraordinary year of U.S. human rights reviews. Advocates have devoted a tremendous amount of time, energy and other resources to submitting civil society reports and, in some cases, traveling to Geneva to participate in the reviews. The UPR offers an important capstone. The challenge, as always, is making it relevant once everyone comes home.