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Using Peer Pressure to Expose a Nation’s Human Rights Record


The United Nations Human Rights Council session in March 2015. MARC FERRE
A session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, based in Geneva. MARC FERRE

BIRMINGHAM, England — During its Universal Period Review session recently at the Human Rights Council, Austria’s delegation commended Conchita Wurst for promoting antidiscrimination and raising awareness of LGBTI issues. Wurst famously represented Austria in the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest, winning the competition that year and with it engaging a wide range of European audiences on issues of gender and sexuality.

Wurst, an Austrian recording artist and drag queen, is famous for her beard. Her selection for the Eurovision contest led to protests and petitions in Russia calling for her performance to be edited from TV broadcasts of the show. The homophobia and transphobia surrounding her performance led to great debates and discussions about LGBTI issues, resulting in almost all Western European mainstream media supporting Wurst and condemning the discriminatory remarks across Eastern European press.

Paradoxically, this is the first time that a Eurovision pop star has been discussed in a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) session, and it brought many smiles from observers inside and outside of Room XX of the Palais de Nations, the United Nations base in Geneva.

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The UPR is entering its third cycle, having been created as an innovative mechanism by the Human Rights Council in 2007 and having started its first cycle in 2008. The mechanism has seen many changes throughout that time, but at its core it is a peer-review mechanism by which every country in the UN membership has its domestic human-rights record scrutinized in public and by other countries during each 4½-year cycle.

The review has become one of the most important tools for the universal promotion of human rights, with sessions conducted in a transparent and balanced manner and in such a way that no country can avoid attention or lurk in the shadows.

States take their review sessions seriously, with most sending high-level government representatives as part of the delegation. Countries, of course, do not like to be criticized, let alone by their peers. Thus the stark home truths laid bare during the reviews provide strong diplomatic and political impetus for encouraging states to review and amend their domestic human-rights practices and policies.

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All states may ask questions and make recommendations of the country being reviewed. The recommendations themselves are influenced by the content of the country’s national report, information submitted by civil society and reports of the UN human-rights bodies, of which the latter two are compiled by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. While recommendations are not binding, they cannot be rejected per se.

Instead, actions are either “accepted” or, in the case of those that do not carry the political support of the country being reviewed, can be considered “noted.” In fact, in a study carried out by the organization UPR Info in 2014, of the recommendations considered “noted” in the first cycle for 165 countries, one in five had triggered action by the halfway point, or midterm.

Meanwhile, approximately three in five accepted recommendations had been either fully or partly implemented by midterm, underscoring the tangible results triggered by the UPRs.

Regardless of whether the recommendation is accepted or noted, it shines a spotlight on the human-rights violations within a country. And make no mistake about it — every single country across all regions has human-rights violations to some extent. The United States currently tops the ranks for the most recommendations received in the first and second cycles combined (623 in total), while Cuba and Iran take second and third places (534 and 511 recommendations, respectively).

As to what issues are most frequently brought up, the ratification of international treaties, women’s rights and rights of the child as well as justice and torture form the most prominent of the human-rights concerns raised.

Of course, given that these are intergovernmental processes, UPR sessions are open to politicization and are often used for political purposes. Many state delegations cram into the room when the US, Iran, Israel or Russia are being reviewed; far fewer show up for reviews of, say, Tuvalu or Iceland. And the more politically charged a review session it is, the more that allied states will seek to shield the state concerned and the more that nonallies will seek to use the session to score political points.

But that does not undermine the utility of this crucial human-rights mechanism. Rather, it is why the mechanism is not binding or quasi-judicial — it was considered preferable to have peer-led and peer-run reviews that are constructive and cooperative than to have expert-led reviews within binding or semibinding powers.

The proof has been in the pudding: no country has failed to show up to its review — despite Israel postponing its second-cycle review session during its boycott of the Human Rights Council. All countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, and all types of governments, from strict autocracies to established democracies, show up to the room even when they know that serious criticism will be heading their way.

The sessions are not just useful for shining the spotlight onto abuses and violations. Civil society and grass-roots activists in countries can use the recommendations from sessions to advance human rights within a country. The UN and other international human-rights mechanisms can use those recommendations to follow up and measure a state’s advances (or retreats) from human-rights compliance and implementation.

To bastardize international law expert Louis Henkin’s famous quote — most countries obey most international human-rights law most of the time — most states generally strive to uphold their human-rights obligations most of the time; but all of them can use some assistance on how to better uphold and carry out their obligations. UPR sessions do exactly that.


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Dr. Rosa Freedman is a senior lecturer at Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham, England. Her research focuses on the United Nations and human rights; she has published extensively on the UN Human Rights Council and is working on a British Academy-funded project on UN special procedures. In addition, she has published two books, “Failing to Protect: The UN and the Politicization of Human Rights” and “The United Nations Human Rights Council: A Critique and Early Assessment.” She holds a master of laws degree from University College London and a Ph.D. from Queen Mary University of London.

Aoife Hegarty is a program manager for the Geneva-based UPR Info, a nongovernmental organization devoted to strengthening the Universal Periodic Review, a human-rights tool of the UN Human Rights Council. She holds a master of laws degree from the University of Copenhagen, with a specialization in human-rights and humanitarian law. All views expressed are her own.

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