A butterfly effect—steps to improve UPR implementation

A decade ago, the United Nations Human Rights Council (the Council) was established to, in the words of the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, pave the way for an era of human rights implementation. Hopes were high, therefore, when the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) emerged as an answer to the call for a Council that treats all states on an equal footing. This state-to-state, peer review mechanisms is mandated with the task of reviewing every four years the human rights record of all UN Member States, and to make recommendations regarding reform.

However, following two rounds (cycles) of reviews, the demand for implementing those reforms has not been satisfactory addressed. As the third UPR cycle gets underway, states should have no excuse to shy away from implementing UPR recommendations. Based on the expertise accumulated by UPR Info and interviews with UPR stakeholders, we recently published a new report—The Butterfly Effect—Spreading Good Practices of UPR Implementation. It points to the factors and structures which make the implementation of UPR recommendations more likely.

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(Above) The UN's Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room—the meeting place of the UPR.


The UPR has indeed led to concrete human rights improvements. On the basis of UPR recommendations, Brazil passed the Brazilian Civil Rights Framework for the Internet aimed at strengthening the protection of fundamental freedoms in the digital age; Nauru and Seychelles both lifted bans on same-sex activities between consenting adults; Pakistan installed a national human rights institution; marital rape was criminalised in the Republic of Korea; and Namibia began to roll out free primary education, including for children belonging to ethnic minorities. The list goes on and there can be no doubt that the UPR has proven itself as a successful vehicle for advancing the human rights situation on the ground.

A permanent inter-ministerial National Mechanism for Reporting and Follow-up is a pivotal instrument for sustainable implementation of recommendations.

Our study suggests three important structural factors that enable implementation. First, a permanent inter-ministerial National Mechanism for Reporting and Follow-up (NMRF) is a pivotal instrument for sustainable implementation of recommendations. Ideally, it would have its own secretariat and budget and be able to coordinate regularly with the judiciary, the parliament, the national human rights institution, civil society organisations, and United Nations agencies. The mechanism should be equipped with a database of all human rights recommendations received at the international and regional levels.

The Paraguayan System for Monitoring Recommendations, known as SIMORE, is a good example of an NMRF. SIMORE is coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Justice. A network of focal points is composed by more than 50 state officials of all three government branches. The focal points work inter-institutionally in thematic groups and feed follow-up information directly into the SIMORE database. The thematic group responsible for a set of recommendations identifies public policies related to each of the recommendations, indicators to measure implementation and ways to tackle challenges. SIMORE also facilitated the assessment of implementation of recommendations included in the Paraguay’s National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP) adopted in 2012. At present, the third stage of SIMORE aims at providing increased space for CSOs to add their comments to SIMORE. The aspiration is that this will contribute to a dialogue between the government and civil society on human rights implementation.

Second, civil society coalitions that form around the UPR have proved critical to provide first-hand information to the UPR in a systematic manner. The Thai CSOs Coalition for the UPR currently consists of over 100 Thai CSOs working on a wide range of human rights issues. Inclusive of grassroots organisations, the coalition has provided an unparalleled platform for local human rights defenders to share their concerns with the international community. In December 2015, the coalition engaged in national consultations with the government to ensure that local voices could be heard by the government prior to the submission of the Thailand’s second National UPR Report. The government officials participating in the national consultation were positively surprised by the articulate grassroots CSOs and their constructive recommendations. During pre-sessions in Bangkok and Geneva, the coalition briefed states on the human rights situation in Thailand to ensure they made relevant recommendations in the UPR. They also shared UPR Advocacy Factsheets, a practice that emerged in Mongolia and that was subsequently employed by civil society in Thailand, Uganda, Venezuela, Australia, Moldova and Myanmar.

Third, partnership between the Government and CSOs is instrumental for sustainable implementation of UPR recommendations. A good example is the constructive collaboration between national stakeholders in Kenya that lead to the creation of a UPR Implementation Matrix. At a multi-stakeholder meeting in September 2015, Government officials and CSOs drafted a national UPR implementation matrix by using as a blueprint CSO tools developed at a workshop earlier the same year. In the Kenyan UPR implementation matrix, each recommendation is provided with indicators to guide all stakeholders in monitoring implementation rates. Moreover, the timelines for implementation of actions to fulfil each recommendation are aligned with the country’s development programme, adding an extra impetus for implementation.  

The implementation plan also demonstrates the complementarity between concluding observations from UN human rights treaty bodies and UPR recommendations by pairing similar outputs. Kenya’s UPR mid-term stage in 2018 will be a prime opportunity to take stock of implementation of UPR recommendations and will allow for an evaluation of how effective the implementation matrix has been. Looking back, it is evident that the implementation matrix is a result of constructive and transparent multi-stakeholder cooperation involving the government, CSOs, the NHRI and OHCHR. This creates a promising foundation for an effective and inclusive implementation phase.

Our study clearly demonstrates the need to move beyond promises and to learn from human rights advocates active on the local, domestic and international levels. This way, the ‘butterfly effect’ created by the UPR can contribute to improvement of human rights in all corners of the world.