Towards a UPR which is accessible, strong, effective and protective


As the UPR reaches the end of its second cycle, ISHR has developed a strategy detailing measures that would enhance the UPR’s ability to fulfil its potential and achieve a greater vision for the process during its third cycle. Ben Leather and Tess McEvoy provide a snapshot of that strategy, which will be launched later this year.

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By Ben Leather, Advocacy and Communications Manager, and Tess McEvoy, Programme Coordinator and Legal Counsel, at the International Service for Human Rights

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) has emerged as one of the key rallying points for civil society engagement within the UN human rights system. Many civil society organisations and coalitions have used it to gain the recommendations needed to back their national level advocacy, with some taking advantage of its peer-to-peer nature to ensure buy-in and follow-up from recommending States.

However, a lack of follow-up mechanisms, procedural weaknesses and patchy implementation have exacerbated fears that the mechanism risks degenerating into a purely ‘ritualistic’ review. Obstacles to safe and effective participation by human rights defenders (defenders) mean the process is not reaching its full potential.

There are several changes which could be applied to the UPR to ensure that its outputs have a more positive impact on the behaviour of State and non-State actors, including by strengthening civil society’s role at all stages in the process.

Ensuring an institutionalised reprisals mechanism

The Secretary General’s annual report on reprisals shows an increase in intimidation and attacks against human rights defenders in association with their engagement with the UPR. As well as constituting a violation of international human rights law, reprisals – if not tackled – will deter other defenders from interacting with the UPR and prevent civil society from following up on recommendations, thus hindering implementation.

Human Rights Council resolution 24/24,[1]existing legal research[2] and a recent cross-regional joint statement[3] by 65 States have made it clear that the president and bureau of the Human Rights Council have a moral and legal duty to tackle reprisals. This duty needs to be better operationalised and discharged. In the framework of the UPR, the Council president, bureau and secretariat should amongst other things:

  1. Elaborate a comprehensive policy to prevent, investigate, remedy and promote accountability for cases of intimidation or reprisal, establishing accessible secure channels for making allegations;
  2. Take proactive steps to investigate and follow up on allegations, adopting the precautionary principle;
  3. In consultation with alleged victims, seek protection, non-recurrence and remediation guarantees from the State concerned; and
  4. Include alleged cases of intimidation and reprisals in the report of the UPR Working Group, together with the concerned State’s response. Cases should also be discussed at the adoption of the report.

States, meanwhile, as well as preventing and ensuring accountability for reprisals, ought to make recommendations on the issue through the UPR and during Item 5 and 6 debates within the Council.

Ensuring civil society space at the Working Group stage of the UPR

The UPR is a peer review mechanism – in this respect the main aim of civil society at the Working Group stage is to attain useful recommendations from recommending States. At the same time, the UPR should be a ‘cooperative mechanism based on interactive dialogue’ (GA 60/251)[4] and should ‘ensure the participation of all relevant stakeholders, including NGOs’ (HRC 5/1).[5] Regrettably, however, civil society actors do not have a formal, recognised role to play at the UPR Working Group stage.

Introducing civil society space at the Working Group stage, by way of ten, two-minute long interventions, would strengthen the UPR and its impact on the ground in the following ways:

  1. Reaffirm the central role of civil society in the UPR process and harness the energies of civil society actors who travel to Geneva for the Working Group;
  2. Increase the quality and utility of State recommendations and responses, due to an awareness that civil society are bearing witness to the process;
  3. Ensure an up-to-date picture of the human rights situation in a given State; and
  4. Increase civil society buy-in to the process and its outcomes, which is essential for national level follow-up.

NGO interventions could also be recorded in the Working Group report, in the form of comments rather than recommendations.

Ensuring greater follow-up to, and implementation of, recommendations

Implementation of UPR recommendations remains varied. Nonetheless, the following concrete steps could be taken to guarantee formal follow-up and monitoring of State compliance between cycles, thus enhancing the probability of effective implementation:

a)     The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) should publish, two months prior to Working Group sessions, an evaluation of UPR recommendation implementation since the previous cycle, in order to inform recommending States. Civil society and other UN mechanisms must be properly consulted in the development of this report; and

b)     The OHCHR should ensure that, in the Working Group report, greater emphasis is placed upon those recommendations that have been reiterated since the first cycle.

Increasing the standard of UPR proceedings

Feedback from a range of local civil society organisations suggest that the following initiatives would enhance the UPR’s process and, consequently, its impact:

  1. The programme of work of Council sessions should be rearranged to ensure that item 6 falls at the end of the agenda.[6] This would assist to ensure that debates on UPR Working Group reports occur after resolutions are mostly agreed upon. It is anticipated that this will increase the number, quality and candour of interventions by States;
  2. States should use the Council’s item 6 debate to both update the Council on implementation of recommendations previously received, and seek information regarding implementation by States to which they have made recommendations previously on priority issues;
  3. States should focus their attention on the quality of recommendations, not the quantity, in line with a statement made by 47 NGOs at the Human Rights Council’s 28th session;[7] and
  4. Guidelines should request States to respond to recommendations at least two weeks before the beginning of the Council session at which their Working Group report will be adopted. This would make it easier for NGOs and States to prepare their responses to the Working Group report, including through statements.

By ensuring an institutionalised reprisals mechanism, an increase in civil society space at the Working Group stage, greater follow-up to, and implementation of, recommendations, and through the fine tuning of UPR processes, the UPR will be able to better fulfil its intended vision in the third cycle and beyond.


[2] ‘Submission made on behalf of the International Service for Human Rights to the United Nations Human Rights Council on its obligations to protect from reprisals individuals who cooperate with the council and its subsidiary mechanisms,’ October 2014, available at

[3] Joint statement to the Human Rights Council on preventing reprisals, available at

[5] Institution-building of the United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution 5/1, 18 June 2006, available at

[6] Human Rights Council agenda item 6: Universal Periodic Review.

[7] Joint NGO statement at the Human Rights Council’s 28th session, item 6 – general debate, 20 March 2015, available at