Thank you for joining the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) and the New Tactics online community for an online conversation on Engaging the United Nations Human Rights Council from February 11 to 15.
The Human Rights Council (HRC) is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system made up of 47 States responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe. When utilized strategically, the HRC can be a powerful force for change. There are several different ways that human rights organizations can engage the HRC, including: providing reports for the Universal Periodic Review, sending complaints to the Special Procedures, and raising situations of human rights violations in the plenary sessions of the HRC. The key is to know when to use which approach, and how to maximize your efforts.
This online conversation will be an opportunity to exchange experiences, lessons-learned and ideas among practitioners who have successfully engaged the HRC. The HRC starts its main session on February 25 so this is a great opportunity to reflect on your strategy and tactics for engaging this UN body.
“All victims of human rights abuses should be able to look to the Human Rights Council as a forum and a springboard for action.” - Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, 12 March 2007, Opening of the 4th Human Rights Council Session
Summary of Conversation
Tactic Examples Shared:
- After the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project created awareness events and partnered with Geneva-based representatives and Council diplomats, 44 countries at the UNHRC issued a statement that condemned human rights violations in Eritrea.
- The Women Human Right Defenders (WHRD) International Coalition participates in Special Representative on human rights defenders discussions and organizes side events that promote their organizational goals.
- The CSC joined with UNICEF, Aviva, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights to create and orchestrate the 2011 UNHRC discussion day and resolution promoting the rights of street children’s rights. (more info below)
Why do human rights organizations engage the UNHRC?
Human rights organizations engage and utilize the outputs of the UNHRC to advocate for their campaigns and increase the visibility of vulnerable, underprivileged populations when their own governments have ignored “massive” domestic human rights issues. Due to the UNHRC’s political nature, appealing to and working with the Council helps put international pressures on a government responsible for human rights violations, raises widespread awareness of human rights violations, and involves more allies and supporters from different nations.
One participant asserted that, for countries undergoing political or economic shifts, attention from the UNHRC can help expand the implementation of human rights. Also, due to restrictions and dangers associated with NGO activism work in some countries, confronting human rights violations at an international level may be safer and more effective for organizers. Several participants agreed that “leveraging” publications such as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) or resolutions can serve as justification, advocacy tools, or recommendations for domestic organizing and domestic policy reform.
To be clear, the UNHRC of this conversation refers to the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is a chartered body and international platform of UN member states. Although the UNHR Council shares an acronym with the UN Human Rights Committee, the Committee is a treaty-based group of human rights experts that reviews reports from states that have ratified the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). That being said, it can be useful to engage a treaty-based mechanism in addition to your work with the UNHR Council. One participant shared her campaign’s success by appealing to the Convention Against Torture (CAT), another treaty body, to address gender discrimination in definitions of torture and torture of women in Canada. Participants noted that her engagement with the CAT succeeded partly due to Canada’s openness to change, while organizations that engage the Council usually seek support from other states and the so-called “international community.”
How does an organization know which mechanism to use to engage the UNHRC?
Participants identified the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), Special Procedures, and ECOSOC status as several effective mechanisms for NGOs to engage the UNHRC. Every five years or so, the UPR joins UNHRC member states and approved NGOs to review human rights situations in all UN member states. Country representatives can make recommendations to other states about their human rights records, and such states under review can either reject or accept and implement the suggested changes in human rights treatment. NGOs can participate in the UPR process by submitting information about states and their human rights records for state reports to help pressure countries responsible for human rights abuses. Many organizations conduct collaborative research, issue “shadow reports,” and monitor compliance before and after the UPR to fulfill their roles as civil society “watchdogs.” During Special Procedures, on the other hand, human rights law experts review human rights issues situations from “thematic” or “country-specific” perspectives. Participants shared that organizations get involved with Special Procedures when they want to address such specific themes in human rights abuse or culpable state actors. Finally, NGOs can pursue ECOSOC status to gain official access to the UN and the UNHRC, and to issue Written Interventions and advocacy briefs. Although the process of earning ECOSOC status is lengthy and selective, ECOSOC organizations can authorize other NGOs to attend the UPR, UNHRC, and to work with Special Procedures campaigns or projects.
How have organizations engaged the UNHRC?
Participants representing the Consortium for Street Children (CSC) and the Eritrean organization EHAHRDP have worked with the UNHRC to further their organizations’ goals. The CSC joined with UNICEF, Aviva, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights to create and orchestrate the 2011 UNHRC discussion day and resolution promoting the rights of street children’s rights. CSC advocates planned the day of discussion and resolution formation for nine months; they focused on strengthening partnerships with other organization representatives and Geneva-based volunteers, strategizing long-term solutions and means for assessment, and conducted extensive research on the topic. East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (EHAHRDP) also focused on developing relationships with other NGOs, but employed several additional tactics to reach their goal of raising awareness of the organization and human rights violations resulting from the political climate in Eritrea. The EHAHRDP emphasized the importance of the organizations’ focus on creating side events, independently meeting with UNHRC Diplomats, and promoting press releases and petitions. Finally, one participant shared the value in utilizing the UNHRC’s “special sessions,” as seen in the Council’s attention on Syria.
What challenges and new opportunities exist for organizations working to engage the UNHRC?
Challenges of engagement with the UNHRC include limited access to associated events, the framing of organizational human rights agendas, navigating the predominantly English jargon of the system and UNHRC website, and reprisals resulting from public human rights work.
As the UNHRC is held in Geneva, many organizers are unable to tackle all of the logistics necessary for traveling to Switzerland on top of their already demanding activist work. Before securing such plans, however, NGOs must endure the 2 year-long application process to earn ECOSOC status mandatory for UNHRC attendance. Participants shared mechanisms for overcoming such obstacles such as submitting information to the UPR, meeting with Special Procedures representatives, or establishing partnerships with Geneva-based ECOSOC organizations that share similar agendas. By creating such relationships, organizations with ECOSOC status or those accredited by another ECOSOC organization can advocate for issues on behalf of NGOs barred from the council. Organizers should be conscious of potential discrepancies between partnering organizations and their agendas, however, when deciding to frame their campaigns as “mainstream” or “specific.” Several participants also discussed the opportunity for organizations unable to attend the UNHRC to record video messages expressing their concerns; the UNHRC accepts such messages, displays them at the council, and then addresses the conflict or idea. Although the pre-recorded video messages advocate for underrepresented organizations and can be much more powerful than a written statement, the activists who record them cannot engage in reactionary discussion or further represent themselves.
Finally, as one participant reminded others that engagement with the UNHRC is totally public, many activists and UNHRC participants face threats or abuse for their work at the council. Participants expressed that activists can attempt to overcome such risks by attaching NGO names to accounts of human rights violations to protect informant identities, stop public activities but continue to seek representation from UN state members, or promote increased security.
Considering all of these setbacks, activists may doubt the likelihood of adequate representation, addressing of relevant issues, or any lasting change. Although access to and the effectiveness of the UNHRC may have considerable limitations, it nevertheless provides a platform for human rights organizations to increase the invisibility of human rights atrocities around the world, hold abusers of those violations accountable, and work towards effectual change.
- Defending Human Rights: A Resource Book for Human Rights Defenders (2nd Ed.), published by East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (EHAHRDP) and available in English, French, Arabic, Swahili, Amharic and Somali.
- Document explaining international advocacy opportunities for ECOSOC and non-ECOSOC NGOs at the UNHRC, provided by the organization NGO group for the CRC.
- Special Procedures brochure explaining “Urgent appeals and letters of allegations on human rights violations.”
- Staying Safe: Security Resources for Human Rights Defenders, a New Tactics summary from July 2010
- The Communications page on the UNHRC website, which helps guide organizations in making Special Procedures mandates.
- The Universal Periodic Review and hNGO Written Submission for the Universal Periodic Review, fact sheets published by The NGO Group for the CRC to promote better understanding and utilization of the UPR by advocacy organizations.
- UNHRC webpage for the Universal Periodic Review
- UPR-Info.org, a website that helps activists and organizations learn more about the UPR and how they can use it to their advantage.
- Website for Special Procedures, a committee of human rights experts that review and recommend human rights behaviors. Special Procedures assess human rights situations on a thematic or country-specific basis.
- “Working with the United Nations Human RIghts Programme: A Handbook for Civil Society,” described by the UNHRC website as “a new, user-friendly and authoritative publication on United Nations human rights bodies and mechanism.” The site provides links to handbook chapters in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish + Georgian, Nepali and Persian.