In many regions around the world, civic space is under threat. By restricting the ability of individuals to gather and engage with leaders in a transparent and communicative atmosphere, authoritarian governments can violate human rights without being held accountable for their actions.
To combat this injustice, implementing accountability mechanisms at the national and international levels is crucial. Luckily, one such mechanism has been in the works for over a decade to track the human rights record of every United Nations member state, and ensure they are keeping their nation’s civic space open.
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a process that relies on the unique structure of the UN to conduct a thorough and actionable review of the human rights situation in each country. Through months of preparation, communication between member states and civil society organizations (CSOs), and follow-up steps to improve situations in-country, the UPR holds nations accountable for their actions on the world stage.
What Is the Universal Periodic Review (UPR)?
In 2006, the UN General Assembly established the Human Rights Council (HRC) and along with it, the UPR. The process was implemented to review the human rights records of all 193 UN member states based on objective and reliable information provided in three main reports: the national report, drafted by the countries themselves, a report compiled with insight from human rights experts and groups, and a report drafted by additional stakeholders that include civil society organizations (CSOs) and national human rights institutions (NHRI).
By design, the UPR is a cooperative and peer-reviewed mechanism. A group of 47 UN member states elected to the HRC every three years form the UPR Working Group to conduct reviews. While any UN member state can participate in another country’s review to ask questions, make comments, or present evidence, only three countries from the HRC serve as the main rapporteurs.
While the peer-reviewed structure ensures the process is fair, the involvement of civic society — through CSOs, human rights defenders, and other stakeholders — ensures the UPR is an honest reflection of a nation’s human rights record.
There are many NGOs that are instrumental to the UPR process because of their global advocacy for and reporting on human rights. For example, the organization UPR Info builds the capacity of civic society throughout the UPR process. By hosting a series of pre-sessions in advance of every UN member state’s review, UPR Info ensures that the process results in accurate recommendations that address urgent human rights concerns.
The 5 Phases of the UPR Process
Currently, there are 14 UN member states that undergo the review process each session, with a total of 42 countries reviewed every year. Following the review, a country may accept or note recommendations from the UPR Working Group and has four and a half years to implement them before they are reviewed again.
A full UPR cycle is made up of five phases that ensure accountability is fully embedded into the process:
1. The country under review and other stakeholders prepare documentation of the country’s human rights record.
The first phase of the UPR takes place before the official review process. The country under review, UN agencies, NHRIs, CSOs and grassroots organizations, and other stakeholders submit three individual reports on the human rights situation in the country. These reports inform the main review process by shedding light on developments, improvements, and setbacks that have taken place since the country was last reviewed.
2. The country under review and the UPR Working Group engage in an interactive dialogue.
During a three-and-a-half-hour session, the country under review summarizes its human rights record for the UPR Working Group. After, the three main rapporteurs for the review — known as the troika — share questions or comments from other UN member states. The troika is also in charge of compiling recommendations made by the rest of the UPR Working Group, which form the core of the outcome report.
At this time, UN member states may also request an update on whether a nation has fulfilled, or is maintaining progress toward, the recommendations it accepted during its last review. The goal of this is to make sure countries are committing to the promises it makes every UPR cycle to promote human rights.
While CSOs and human rights activists can work with recommending states ahead of the review to inform, prepare questions, or propose recommendations that should be made during the interactive dialogue, they are unable to take the floor during the actual review session.
3. The troika drafts an initial outcome document.
After the interactive dialogue portion of the UPR, the troika drafts an initial outcome report for the country under review. Once this draft is finished, the country has four to six months to respond to this draft. The country may accept or note recommendations made in this document, but it is unable to refuse recommendations.
4. The HRC officially adopts the outcome document.
After the country under review has shared its position, the HRC will officially adopt the outcome document.
These recommendations are not legally binding, but the peer-reviewed nature of how they were created can be highly influential. UN member states want to make sure they are working with those who uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which informs the UN’s work.
5. The HRC and other relevant parties track how the country under review implements recommendations.
As a cyclical process, the last phase of the UPR directly informs the start of the next review. During a country’s next UPR, it must share what steps it has taken to implement recommendations since it was last reviewed.
During this implementation phase, the country under review is held accountable not just by the UPR process itself, but by other actors. A nation’s parliament, judicial branch, and constituents can ensure the country improves its human rights record, while non-governmental organization (NGOs) and human rights groups track what steps world leaders take to implement recommendations.
How Does the UPR Improve Human Rights Globally?
The reason civil society involvement is essential throughout the UPR is because of the need to hold countries accountable to other actors or national entities. When government bodies like parliament or the judicial branch are part of implementing recommendations, world leaders cannot ignore their obligations. When citizens have access to the documents that outline their governments’ priorities, they can hold leaders accountable, too.
After the UPR, a nation’s outcome document can be found on the website of the OHCHR, as well as through sites like UPR Info. In fact, the NGO makes an effort to publish all resulting reports and documents from the UPR that inform the final recommendations.
Human rights defenders are routinely silenced through arrest, reprisal, and death, making the case that efforts to hold world leaders accountable may not result in the change we want to see. But despite these attacks and attempts to silence activists, the UPR mechanism has led to change because of the specificity of recommendations and involvement of many stakeholders in the process.
Earlier this year, the death penalty was abolished in Sierra Leone, in part because of the painstaking advocacy efforts from NGOs and their participation in the UPR. In 2021, Mongolia became the first country in Asia that legally protects human rights defenders, opening civic space and ensuring a safe environment for promoting human rights.
The organizations that work on improving human rights use the UPR to hold nations accountable day after day. Human Rights Watch, an NGO that tracks human rights violations globally, routinely publishes updates on nations' progress to fulfilling pledges they make at the UPR.
With these reports available for the public to view, the potential for change grows.
Take Action to Hold World Leaders Accountable
Ensuring every country’s UPR documents are free and accessible will make it easier for countries to work together, and make sure human rights violations are called out globally. Still, because some countries have closed or restricted civic space, and world leaders continue to delay their human rights obligations, the UPR cannot be the only way we uphold human rights.
You, too, can be part of the change that arises from accountability mechanisms. In addition to keeping up with the documents that result from the UPR every cycle and being aware of how your own government has committed to improving human rights, you can raise your voice with Global Citizen to promote human rights globally.
Take our quiz to learn more about what open civic space means for you in your country. If you’re able to engage in open civic space, reach out to your elected representatives to let them know you value your right to free speech and protest. Then, sign our petition calling on them to publicly affirm their support for human rights defenders around the world who need shelter or protection.
This article is part of a series connected to defending advocacy and civic space, made possible thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation.