In 2006, the United Nations Human Rights Council established the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a mechanism that assesses the degree to which each of the 192 UN member states are fulfilling their international human rights obligations. The UPR falls under the Council's authority and is made up of a Working Group of 47 members, which are elected by secret ballot. Each state is individually reviewed once every four years. In the review session, UN member states ask questions and make recommendations to the government of that country in an interactive dialogue. An “outcome statement” is then adopted, which lists the recommendations made, and indicates which ones have been accepted by the state. The process offers constructive ways for states to redress abuses and requires governments to publicly and internationally reveal which recommendations they will implement. Non-government organisations (NGOs) can use outcome statements to hold governments to account on the specific actions they have promised to take to protect human rights. It is the responsibility of the government to follow through on its UPR commitments; however, the UPR has some authority to intervene if states fail to make improvements.
In the six to eight months before a state is scheduled for review, several documents are compiled. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) prepares its own document on the state concerned, which is based on information from UN Rapporteurs, treaty bodies and other UN reports. The OHCHR also compiles a separate, 10-page document that summarises the information submitted by NGOs and other interested parties, either from within or outside of the country. Thirdly, state representatives must submit a 20-page report to the UPR, which outlines its efforts to fulfill its international human rights commitments and the challenges faced.
In addition to gathering information and reports on a state for member states to review, the review process involves a three-hour interactive dialogue. In this dialogue, any UN member state can ask the review country questions. Member state representatives also put forth specific, actionable recommendations to the government on how it can remedy past wrongs and prevent future injustices. Only UN member states, including the state under review, are permitted to speak during this period. Member states and states under review can also ask the UPR to coordinate capacity building and technical assistance to aid the governments in fulfilling the recommendations. Approximately two to three days after the interactive dialogue, a half hour is allocated for state representatives to identify which of the recommendations the government will follow. Three to six months later, the “outcome statement” is officially adopted by the Human Rights Council in an hour-long plenary session. At this time, member states, the state under review and accredited NGOs are invited to speak.
In subsequent reviews, which occur every four years, the UPR will investigate each state's progress in implementing recommendations and the Council may address uncooperative cases. The legal framework for the UPR (Resolution 5/1) provides that other relevant stakeholders, including civil society actors, have an active role to play in the implementation of recommendations through advocacy, technical support and other means. The UPR Council can also help to coordinate financial and technical support to aid in implementation.
Submitting a report
Free expression organisations are invited to send submissions that inform member states of both progress made in human rights promotion as well as areas in which the country has failed to live up to its international human rights obligations. These reports should also suggest measures the states can take to better protect and promote media independence, freedom of expression and access to information. NGOs can also form coalitions to submit reports that have a broad-based backing.
Any individual, NGO or civil society member can submit factual details and recommendations regarding the human rights situation in any country. The civil society organisation does not have to be UN accredited, nor does it have to be based in or operating in the country under review. However, the OHCHR will only use credible and reliable information from identified and trusted sources in its report.
Leading up to the review, NGOs can lobby individual member states to ask questions and put forward recommendations to the country under review. Individuals or organisations can meet with or otherwise contact any or all of the following state representatives when lobbying:
-delegates of member states in Geneva
-the individuals or bureau within the country's foreign affairs ministry that is responsible for overseeing relations with the UN
-officials of the embassies within the country to be reviewed
As many NGOs make written submissions and these submissions are condensed in a single report by the UN High Commssioner on Human Rights, it is highly recommended that representatives directly appeal to member states to ensure their concerns are heard. Furthermore, as only member states can bring recommendations to the floor and have them included in the outcome document, it is crucial that organisations lobby member states to voice specific recommendations.
Advocacy and Campaigning
The UPR process offers many campaigning and advocacy opportunities for organisations. Before the review, NGOs can use public awareness-raising and media campaigns to generate interest in the UPR and highlight the issues and concerns they wants the review process to address.
During the review, human rights organisations may engage in the following activities:
-attend the three-day UPR interactive dialogue (as silent observers)
-speak at the plenary session in which the outcome document is adopted
-organise 'parallel events' at the Geneva Office of the UN while the review is in session
-invite civil society members, the media, and government representatives to watch the review via live webcast.
Organisations can advocate locally, nationally or internationally to pressure states to fulfil the commitments they make in the review process. Organisations may wish to work individually or in a coalition to monitor the government's implementation of the review.
NGOs are granted consultative status through the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), however attaining this status can be a long, difficult process. Fortunately, an organisation does not need to have consultative status to submit a report, lobby member states or campaign around the UPR. However, if a group wishes to attend the official review session, it will have to be accredited. Organisations with consultative status inform the UN which of their members will be attending a session, and these members are then accredited to attend that session. IFEX organisations that have the official status, such as ARTICLE 19, Reporters Sans Frontières, International Publisher's Association, International PEN, may agree to accredit representatives of other organisations under their umbrella if such representatives can make a strong contribution to a particular session.
It is important to note, however, that the most effective strategies for raising free expression issues at the UPR (lobbying, campaigning and submitting reports) do not require an organisation to be accredited. NGOs are very limited in their roles at the actual UPR sessions. Only member states are permitted to ask questions or make recommendations in the initial three-hour interactive dialogue. Accredited NGO representatives are invited to speak prior to the adoption of the outcome document in a plenary council at the Human Rights Council, however each accredited organisation is only allowed to speak for a maximum of two minutes.
Organisations can apply for consultative status through the following official website:
For a backgrounder document on the process involved in attaining status and useful application tips, visit:
NGOs must submit reports approximately six to eight months before the review session. Late submissions will not be considered.
As member states tend to take several months to formulate the statements they make in the official review session, lobbying must occur long before the date of review. Representatives must contact member state delegates at embassies at least three to four months before the date of review (in order for the information to be sent to the member state's capital and then to the delegation in Geneva). Alternatively or in addition, representatives should contact member state delegations in Geneva at least one month before the date of review.
UPR-Info provides a timeline for NGO activities in the UPR process here: http://www.upr-info.org/IMG/pdf/Timeline_NGOs_participation.pdf
A schedule of countries coming up for review is available here:
The official UPR website:
UPR-Info is a non-profit organisation that raises awareness and provides capacity-building tools to various actors in the UPR process, including NGOs:
The entire legal framework for the UPR is available by clicking “HRC resolution 5:1” under “Human Rights Council” in the left-hand side of this webpage:
Reviewed by: Sara Wyatt, International PEN