5. Access to justice – the Universal Periodic Review
5. Access to justice – the Universal Periodic Review
In this film we’re going to take a look at one way in which civil society can
highlight human rights violations at the global level and work for change – the
Universal Periodic Review or UPR.
The UPR takes place in the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Council
has been set up by the United Nations General Assembly which Assembly elects
47 countries to sit on the Council. The Council meets three times a year in
Geneva, and you can watch the Council’s sessions via the web on UNTV.
The Human Rights Council’s task is to strengthen and promote all human rights
in all countries and to address human rights violations.
The Universal Periodic Review is a good example of this. The UPR reviews the
situation for all human rights in all of the UN’s 193 member states. It’s the only
process in the world where the human rights records of all UN member states are
examined in the same way regardless of whether the countries are powerful or
weak, rich or poor.
The UPR is a system of peer review, where good practices and experiences from
one country can be shared with others. But there’s also an element of “naming
and shaming”. States don’t like having their human rights weaknesses pointed
out publicly by other states so many states do make efforts to improve even if
there are others that don’t.
So how does the UPR work in practice?
42 countries are reviewed every year meaning that each United Nations member
country is reviewed once every four and a half years. You can find a link to the
timetable for UPRs on the website of the Office of the High Commissioner for
Human Rights – it’s a good idea to find out when your country is going to be
There are four stages to the UPR process:
Firstly three reports are prepared and submitted to the Human Rights Council:
one from the government being reviewed, one summarising input from UN
experts and one summarising input from civil society and national human rights
The government report is 20 pages long, so really quite short! In it the
government describes how they see the human rights situation in the country and
what they’ve done to implement the recommendations made by the Human
Rights Council, when it last reviewed the country. The government is meant to
consult with civil society organisations in the country when preparing the report.
The report summarising input from independent UN experts is 10 pages long and
is prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The UN
Special Rapporteur on Freedom of religion or belief is one of the experts whose
input is included.
The Office of the High Commissioner also submits a 10 page report summarising
credible information from National Human Rights Institutions and civil society
organisations regarding the human rights situation in the country.
It should be possible for civil society organisations to feed into all three reports –
by being part of government consultations, by engaging in dialogue with the
special rapporteur, and by feeding into reports from National Human Rights
Institutions and other NGOs, or by preparing their own reports to send to the
Office of the High Commissioner. Any civil society organisation can send in
reports – you don’t need to be UN accredited!
Of course, doing all of that is a lot of work. For most organisations a good place to
start is to send well documented information on violations to National Human
Rights Institutions, national and international NGOs and to the Special
Rapporteur so that your concerns can be included in their reports.
The three reports form the basis for the review and are made public shortly before
it takes place.
The second stage of the UPR process is a three and a half hour review session at
the Human Rights Council in Geneva. During that session any member country of
the Council can comment on the reports and make recommendations as to how
the government can improve the situation. Although they can’t make statements
at the review session UN accredited civil society organisations can observe these
review sessions and often organise seminars and lobby meetings in connection
The third stage of the process is the publication of a report summarising the
review and listing the Council’s recommendations to the government.
The government then makes a written response to these recommendations.
Usually governments pledge to implement some recommendations, give reasons
for delaying work on others, and reject or ‘take note’ of some recommendations.
These written responses are discussed at a regular session of the Human Rights
Council and UN accredited civil society organisations are allowed to make
statements at that session.
The final and most important stage of the process is of course the four and a half
years of implementation that follows the review, during which the government is
supposed to live up to its pledges. Monitoring whether it does and advocating for
implementation are important tasks for civil society.
All of the documents linked to the UPR, including civil society submissions, the
Human Rights Council’s recommendations and the government’s pledges are
published on the Office of the High Commissioner’s website. It’s really useful to
know about the recommendations and pledges as you can refer to them in
advocacy work. National media often pays attention to the country review which
can also create opportunities for you to highlight the issues you’re working on.
Experience has shown that civil society input to and follow up on the UPR is most
effective when it’s done by coalitions rather than lots of separate organisations in
an uncoordinated way. Which NGOs and faith communities could you collaborate
A good place to learn more about the UPR and to link up to other NGOs working
to influence your government is via an NGO called UPR Info, based in Geneva.
UPR info works to raise awareness of the Universal Periodic Review and build the
capacity of civil society and other actors to engage with the UPR.
To sum up:
The UPR reviews the situation for all human rights in all of the United Nations
193 member states. Each country is reviewed once every four and a half years.
There are several stages to the review process:
1. Firstly, three reports are prepared one from the government concerned,
one from UN experts and one from civil society and national human rights
2. The Human Rights Council has a three and a half hour discussion of these
reports. UN accredited civil society organisations can observe these review
sessions and often organise seminars and lobby meetings in connection
3. After the review session a report of the Council’s recommendations is
4. And the government concerned provides a written response by pledging to
act on some recommendations, delay action on others or to just take note
of recommendations without pledging any action.
During the four and a half years that follows, the government should implement
its pledges. Civil society can monitor this and both the council’s
recommendations and the government’s pledges are useful in advocacy work.
On the website you’ll find links to the Human Rights Council’s website as well as
films and other resources to help your organization promote freedom of religion
or belief in your context.
Copyright SMC 2017
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