On September 15 2015, the world commemorated the International Day of Democracy under the theme ‘Spaces for Civil Society’. According to a statement issued by the United Nations (UN) on the day, the space for civil society activists and organisations is regrettably shrinking or even closing up in many countries with some governments adopting restrictions which hinder the work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
This year’s theme is, therefore, a reminder to governments everywhere in the world that the ‘hallmark of successful and stable democracies is the presence of a strong and freely operating civil society – in which government and civil society work together for common goals for a better future, and at the same time, the civil society helps keep government accountable’. The UN recognize the pivotal role CSOs play in the promotion of democratic governance. And one of its many mechanisms which the UN has put in place and provided space for the participation of the civil society is the universal periodic review (UPR).
UPR is a unique mechanism of the Human Rights Council (HRC) aimed at improving the human rights situation in all of the 193 UN Member States. Under this mechanism, the human rights situation of all UN member States is reviewed every four and half years. The UPR provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions it has taken to improve the human rights situations and fulfil their human rights obligations in their respective countries.
It reminds member States of their responsibility to fully respect, protect and fulfil all human rights and fundamental freedoms and assesses the extent to which states respect their human rights obligations as contained in: The Charter of the UN, The Universal Declarations of Human Rights, human rights instruments to which the State is party (human rights treaties ratified by the State concerned), voluntary pledges and commitments made by the State; and applicable international humanitarian law.
Besides, UPR is aimed at providing technical assistance to states and enhance their capacity to effectively deal with human rights challenges and to share best practices in the field of human rights, among states and other stakeholders.
42 States are reviewed each year during three Working Group Sessions dedicated to 14 States each. The result of each review is reflected in an “outcome report” listing the recommendations the State under review (SuR) will have to implement before the next review. The UPR is a full-circle process comprised of three key stages: Review of the human rights situation of the SuR; Implementation between two reviews (4.5. years) by the SuR and Reporting at the next review on the implementation of those recommendations received and the voluntary pledges made.
Three main documents are used to conduct the review of the State and these include: A National Report of 20 pages prepared by the State concerned on the human rights situation in the country; a compilation of 10 pages prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) containing information from treaty bodies, special procedures and UN agencies such as UNDP and Unicef and a summary of ‘other stakeholders’ information (including information from CSOs), 10 pages prepared by the OHCHR.
Despite being state-driven, the UPR also provides spaces for participation of other stakeholders including the civil society and national human rights institutions. Apart from submitting information which can be added to a 10 paged summary of other stakeholders report prepared by OHCHR, CSOs can attend the UPR WGS and make statements at the regular session of the HRC when the outcome of the State reviews are considered.
The information which CSOs provide can be referred to by any of the states taking part in the interactive review at the working group meeting.