What is the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and why libraries should get involved

There is little doubt about the importance of human rights in the library world. Outside too, few will dismiss them openly, even if their actions speak differently. However, there are concerns about their enforcement – what use are principles if they are not turned into reality?

Many countries have of course integrated many (most) aspects of key international human rights texts into national law. In the case of Europe, there is even an international court which has the power to go against the decisions and policies of independent states.

However, even where human rights feature in national legislation and constitutions, their application is only as strong as the rule of law – and this is highly variable.

Universal Periodic Reviews (UPRs) are a response to concern about the lack of impact of the UN’s human rights work. Launched in March 2006 under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, the process monitors and reviews the human rights situation of all 193 UN Member States. Its goal is to promote improvements and address violations wherever they occur, as well as to share best human rights practices around the globe.

How do UPRs work?

The reviews are ‘state-led’. This means that it is governments (rather than independent experts or the United Nations) which control the process. The reviews are formally conducted by the UPR Working Group (48 Member States) which meets three times a year for two weeks at a time. Each review is facilitated by groups of three States, known as “troikas”, who serve as rapporteurs.

In preparation for the Review, a Member State will provide a ‘national report’ on their own work to fulfil international human rights law. UN Special Rapporteurs (for example on Freedom of Expression or Cultural Rights), Treaty Bodies (such as the Commission the Rights of Persons with Disabilities), other UN entities, other Member States and NGOs can also submit information.

The UPR assesses human rights obligations as set out in: (1) the UN Charter; (2) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; (3) human rights instruments to which the State is party (human rights treaties ratified by the State concerned); (4) voluntary pledges and commitments made by the State (e.g. national human rights policies and/or programmes implemented); and, (5) applicable international humanitarian law.

Each review consists of an interactive discussion between the state under review and the other UN member states, lasting about three and a half hours. In the course of the discussion, states under review can declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfil their human rights obligations.

The review process takes place in cycles. During its first cycle (2008-2011), all UN Member States were reviewed. The second cycle (20012-2016) reviewed 42 states, and the third cycle (2017-2021) is currently reviewing 48 countries.

Why is relevant to libraries?

As highlighted, libraries have a key interest in human rights. Freedom of access to information and freedom of expression are clearly central, but as IFLA’s series of blogs in the run up to the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights set out, other rights are also significant.

Where this is possible, librarians are often active in defending and promoting human rights, and watching out for problems. They can use different opportunities – national or local-level advocacy and lobbying, complaints to national human rights institutions, or other actions – to make progress.

UPRs offer the possibility to add action at the global level. Given that they welcome input from civil society, there is the opportunity for libraries to raise concerns or make recommendations. These feed into a stakeholder report, and can be cited by the UN or other Member States. Where this happens, there is a chance that such recommendations will form part of the published final report.

Libraries can also attend the UPR Working Group sessions and can make oral statements at the regular session of the Human Rights Council when the outcome of the State reviews are considered.

In an ideal situation, a Member State will then face a formal (and public) recommendation to act. Some examples taken from recent reviews are below:

  • Review legislation in order to ensure that all legislation, including any laws regulating the internet access to information, comply with international human rights standards protecting freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.
  • Make amendments to the Protection of State Information Bill with a view to guaranteeing the right to access to information and freedom of expression.
  • Continue efforts to ensure the right to access to information and freedom of expression by adopting regulations that would be in accordance with both the Constitution and international treaties and commitments.
  • Continue providing human rights education, in particular through access to information and promoting existing mechanisms for protection and reparation
  • Strengthen health information services, particularly with regard to sexual and reproductive health, and ensure that they are accessible to young people and persons with disabilities.

Practical issues

Submissions have usually a deadline and they must adhere to a specified format, and should not exceed five pages (or ten pages if submission is by a coalition of stakeholders). They are meant to be public documents and openly accessible and shareable, and ideally will be the result of coordination at the national level.

Deadlines for submissions are relatively early, in order to allow time to prepare reviews. For example, documents for the 34th session (to be held in October-November 2019) need to be sent by 28 March 2019. A full list of sessions, countries under review, and dates is available on the UPR website. More information on submissions are available online through this report.

In person participation at reviews is possible but requires accreditation, but a priori only in an observer status (i.e. it is not possible to speak). Accredited stakeholders can also attend and make oral statements during the regular sessions of the Human Rights Council when the outcomes of the State reviews are considered.

Reflections

UPRs clearly do offer an opportunity to highlight areas where improvements could be made to national human rights practices in order to benefit libraries and their users. In turn, recommendations resulting from UPRs can be a powerful tool in advocacy at the national and local levels.

At the same time, it is important to be realistic about the impact that can be had. The power of recommendations will depend on how likely governments are to listen (variable). Furthermore, some dismiss the process as a whole given the equal status it gives to all countries, regardless of their own human rights record.

Your views on libraries and Universal Periodic Reviews are welcome!

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