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The UPR: What it is, and how civil society can use it - and make it stronger

The Universal Periodic Review truly is universal. It puts each UN member state’s human rights record under the microscope every five years. It is comprehensive in scope and participation, but requires the active engagement of civil society to make the most of the process and translate its outcomes into action on the ground. Find out more about what it is and how you can use it to bolster your free expression advocacy.

This is part of a series of IFEX explainers aimed at strengthening the ability of civil society to engage in global spaces for free expression advocacy. To visit the hub page and see the whole set, click here.

Head of the Philippines' delegation speaks with a man prior to the start of universal periodic review of the Philippines by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on May 8, 2017
Head of the Philippines' delegation speaks with a man prior to the start of universal periodic review of the Philippines by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on May 8, 2017

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Every five years, each of the 197 United Nations member states has to go through the very same process: a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of their human rights record. The UPR was established by the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) in 2006, when the Council itself was created.

These reviews are carried out by the UPR Working Group, which consists of the 47 members of the HRC. However, any UN member state can contribute to the dialogue during the review (more on this below). The reviews examine 40-42 states over the course of three sessions every year. Since they were launched in 2008, this “cycle” has been completed twice for each country; States are now undergoing a third cycle of the review process.

The UPR allows - and relies upon, actually - a broad range of input from states, UN agencies, NGOs and National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs).

Each five-year cycle has three stages, and during each of them, contributions from all of these groups are encouraged:

Stage 1: Preparation for the review
Stage 2: Review and adoption
Stage 3: Implementation of the recommendations


This IFEX explainer looks at all three stages, and describes how civil society can play an important role in each.

Advance warning - this is a bit longer than our usual explainer! The UPR process is extensive. But we encourage you to read on, and to engage with this process. At the end of the day, the objective of the UPR is to improve the human rights situation on the ground - and past experiences show that the involvement of civil society is absolutely crucial to make this happen.


Stage 1: Preparation for the review

You can and should engage with the UPR throughout and between the review cycle, whether formally or informally. If you think of this engagement as a conversation, follow-up advocacy helps you move from simply the act of speaking, to making sure you were heard and understood, and - ultimately - seeing that your words had the desired impact.

But the year leading up to a country's review is when most of the legwork producing reports that the review will be based on is conducted.

Three official reports are produced, and civil society can contribute to all of them.

1. The National Report
2. Compilation of UN information
3. Summary of Stakeholders Information


These reports are then collected and made public on the OHCHR's website. Here's how civil society can contribute to each.

1. How to contribute to the National Report

The National Report is submitted by the State under Review (SuR, for short) and should capture the state of human rights in the country since its last review. Member states are strongly encouraged to compile these reports in consultation with civil society.

To do this, a State might host broad-based national consultations with concerned stakeholders; UN HRC resolution 5/1 suggests this as a best practice. However, in reality such consultations don't always occur.

NGOs can strengthen the consultation process and influence the National Report in a number of ways:

• Encourage the government to hold consultations in a timely manner and to invite a broad range of relevant stakeholders.
• Raise awareness about the process as widely as possibly, especially with stakeholders and often-discriminated groups such as women and LGBTQI people. This will help ensure a more accurate and complete reporting picture and alert more NGOs to the upcoming UPR.
• Meet with national human rights institutions (NHRIs), which often have a direct link to key government officials.
• Participate in the consultations, and provide feedback on the draft report, if it is made available by the government.

2. How to contribute to the Compilation of UN Information

This is done by engaging with and contributing to reports, statements, and other information provided by UN agencies, such as the Special Procedures, OHCHR country offices, and Treaty Bodies in between reviews.

For example, if you contribute to an HRC report or submit an allegation letter to the UN special procedures, this information could later be considered for the UPR report, as relevant information is collected from these bodies. Vice versa, the UPR can be used to follow up on the treaty body's concluding observations or recommendations from the past.

Check out our other explainers for information on how to contribute via the Special Procedures and the Treaty Bodies, as well as UN monitoring tools specifically dealing with the safety of journalists and impunity, such as UNESCO's biennial report.

3. How to contribute to the Summary of Stakeholder Information

The summary of stakeholder information report is developed with submissions from civil society, NHRIs and other stakeholders. It does not include State or UN submissions.

Civil society submissions can be made individually, or jointly, as part of an NGO coalition. They can focus on one internationally recognized right (such as the right to freedom of expression and information) or take a cross-thematic approach, looking at a range of rights and how well these are being respected by the SuR.

For OHCHR's style-guide and a list of best practices for this report, visit this link.

IFEX has compiled some best practices that we think will help ensure that the information and recommendations in your submission are brought forward by the Working Group:

Tips for Drafting an Effective UPR Submission

Make the connection to previous UPR recommendations. Refer to helpful markers like the cycle and the recommending state for each particular recommendation so that it is easier to map out where progress has been achieved and where it is lacking. The OHCHR has created a helpful tool to track recommendations and organize them into a matrix that can be submitted with your report.
Base your evidence on first-hand information as much as possible; save media reports and other supporting documentation for endnotes or the annex.
Make your recommendations SMART! That is – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound.
Ensure you include an Executive Summary that characterizes the main findings of your report in a few clear sentences. This is where the OHCHR will look when compiling its summary.


Stage 2: The Review and Adoption

The review itself proceeds in two phases. The first is a dialogue: the SuR gives an oral presentation of its national report, and the Working Group can respond by raising questions and providing recommendations based on the information received in the preparatory reports, including – hopefully – yours!

But simply writing a good submission may not be enough to ensure your views are mentioned during the review. The UPR is peer-reviewed by UN member states, so it's inherently political. Our second set of suggestions focusses more on how to lobby key States effectively and do other advocacy work based on your submission, ahead of the Review.

Tips for Advocacy Using Your Submission in advance of the Review

Meet with embassy officials in the country where you are based to brief them on the situation and your recommendations. Meetings can be organized individually or as part of an in-country pre-session bringing together multiple stakeholders.
Travel to Geneva to meet with representatives of UN member states. You can arrange your own meetings or take advantage of UPR Info's pre-session advocacy, which provides a designated time and space for NGOs, NHRIs and Permanent Missions to discuss the human rights situation in the SuR. Contact information for all Geneva missions can be found here.
Coordinate with other participating NGOs on opportunities to reinforce messaging on key issues. Consider collaborating on a UPR factsheet summarizing the collective issues and recommendations.
• No matter whether you are advocating at home or in Geneva, individually or as part of a coalition, it is important to create an advocacy brief summarizing your submission, which will be easier and more accessible for recommending states to digest.
Plan ahead! Don’t leave this advocacy too late, as it takes time for foreign embassies to relay information to their capitals and receive corresponding directives.
• If travelling to Geneva to conduct advocacy before a review, try to avoid visiting during the Human Rights Council regular sessions, which are very busy times for the permanent missions in Geneva. This will help you obtain more meetings and give you more of their time and attention to discuss your submission.
• If possible, try to illustrate the human impact of the issues that you are highlighting. One way to do this is to include the voice(s) of individuals who can speak personally to how they have been affected by rights violations in their country.
• Before you travel to Geneva, it's also a good idea to do your homework. Identify which missions are more likely to be supportive of your positions by researching which states have put forward similar UPR recommendations in the past. Researching thematic priorities of foreign ministries is another good way to make this determination.

Civil society groups are not able to give a statement during the review, but those with ECOSOC accreditation can still attend. And anyone can follow along via UN webcast, and help raise awareness about what's taking place in various ways, including:

• Publicising the session over social media
• Holding viewing parties or press briefings

The second phase of the review, the adoption session, occurs about four to six months after the dialogue, during the next regular session of the HRC. At this time, the SuR must either note or accept all recommendations presented to them via the Draft Report of the Working Group, if they have not already done so. While acceptance of a recommendation indicates a strong commitment, 'noted' recommendations are passive acknowledgements. These can still be referred to when trying to encourage government action on those issues, as the state will be expected to report on noted recommendations as well.

Prior to the adoption session, civil society can work to influence the outcome of the review. You can:

• Lobby key government ministers and other officials of the SuR to accept your recommendations, including at the Foreign Ministry and relevant parliamentary committees
• Work with the in-country embassies of states that put your recommendations forward to help put additional pressure on your government through encouraging bilateral meetings
• Work with media and other civil society stakeholders to raise awareness about the recommendations, for example through press releases and published advocacy statements targeted at key decision-makers
• Begin to craft your own implementation plan, describing how you will monitor progress and work with key stakeholders to ensure recommendations are acted on. Such a plan should outline specific recommendations, ministerial/departmental responsibility, and indicators of success. Refer to the Report of the Working Group for the full list of recommendations received by the SuR.

During the HRC session where adoption occurs, ECOSOC-accredited NGOs can:

• Attend and give oral statements commenting on the outcome of the review, highlighting important issues that are not addressed by the Working Group or SuR.


Stage 3: Implementation of Recommendations

This is about converting government commitments into action, and is where civil society's role really comes into play. Unlike other review mechanisms such as the UN treaty bodies, the outcomes of the UPR are non-binding. This makes it even more important that civil society continue to monitor and report on this process in between reviews. If you have not already created an implementation plan, now''s the time to do it. This will make it much easier to track the progress towards meeting these commitments. Recommendations noted and accepted by the SuR can be found in the 'Addendum' to the Report of the Working Group.

One way to do this is to submit a mid-term report to shadow the government's report, or offer to work with the government to submit a joint government-NGO report. While mid-term reporting was established as a milestone and best practice by the HRC in 2011, the process remains entirely voluntary. Civil society can play an important role in encouraging States to cooperate, and in publicising the report's findings. More info can be found here. But that's not all you can do. Other ideas follow below.

Tips for Monitoring Implementation of UPR Recommendations

Raise awareness of the commitments made by the state by translating and disseminating them among the public, media, parliamentarians, embassies, civil society, NHRIs and UN agencies.
Collaborate with relevant actors (such as those listed above) to determine the best role for each, identifying synergies and opportunities for reinforcement and support.
Hold regular stakeholder meetings to check in on progress and determine next steps
Produce progress reports using the indicators from your implementation plan. One creative way of tracking progress is using a "traffic light" system to note what recommendations have been met, are in progress, or have not started at all.
• For ECOSOC-accredited NGOs, use the HRC regular sessions to comment on implementation through oral or written statements under item 6, which is designated for general debates pertaining to the UPR.
Use other human rights mechanisms to highlight progress on UPR recommendations in other human rights mechanisms, such as in allegation letters to the Special Procedures, treaty body submissions, and relevant mechanisms of regional organisations. Doing so can provide a useful framework for these mechanisms to evaluate human rights considerations within their own mandates and reinforce your implementation efforts by creating additional pressure from other international actors. This will also inform the compilation of UN information when the cycle starts anew next time.


More Resources and Information

Universal Periodic Review by OHCHR
Technical Guideline for Stakeholder Submissions for the 3rd cycle (2017) by OHCHR
The Civil Society Compendium: A Comprehensive Guide for Civil Society Organizations Participating in the UPR (2017) by UPR Info
Using the Universal Periodic Review for Human Rights Online (2016) by Global Partners Digital and the Association for Progressive Communications
A practical Guide for Civil Society: UPR by OHCHR
Civil Society Follow up Kit (2015) by UPR Info
UPR mid-term reporting: Optimizing Sustainable Implementation (2018) by UPR Info

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