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Notes on the Universal Periodic Review Mechanism
Volume 21 Number 4
Friday, 15 January 2010 10:31
by Carlo V. Cleofe

The human rights community and civil society groups in the Philippines have a long history of engaging the United Nations (UN) system and developing international advocacy work in order to highlight cases of human rights violations in the country.

During the Marcos regime, human rights groups, particularly the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP) was instrumental in gathering the support of the international community in the struggle against the dictatorship. TFDP, on several occasions, presented evidences at the UN to get the Philippines into the 1503 procedure and testimonies at the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal in Antwerp, Belgium in 1980. TFDP also made links and then had cooperative efforts with Amnesty International (AI) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
The downfall of the Marcos dictatorship due to a victorious people power revolution in February 1986 ushered the return of democratic rule under the government of Corazon Aquino. However the promises of the Aquino government to promote and protect human rights proved short lived. Under Aquino, cases of warrantless arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and internal displacement of communities became widespread due to her government’s “total war” policy against the communist insurgency.

But, in spite of the human rights violations committed by the Aquino government, the international community had the impression that she was instrumental in restoring democracy and that the democratization process in the Philippines after dictatorial rule was doing well especially in the field of human rights.

As a response to this situation, the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) was born. PAHRA as an organization led the campaign to expose the human rights violations of the Aquino government, and educated the people on how to defend their human rights.

Internationally, at least three streams of action were explored by PAHRA during the Aquino administration in conjunction with solidarity groups. These were: advocacy campaigns at the international policy level, increasing UN and bilateral pressures on the Philippine government to act on specific human rights cases, and prosecution of offenders of human rights during the Marcos dictatorship.

Traditionally, local human rights groups limited their engagement to the UN through intervention at the UN Commission on Human Rights (which has now been replaced by the Human Rights Council) by issuing statements and lobbying with international non-government organizations. But under the Aquino government, human rights organizations began establishing direct linkages with foreign governments and their embassies in the Philippines to influence their participation in the UN and other international bodies. By this time, PAHRA also submitted annual alternative reports and sent delegations to the UNCHR’s yearly sessions.

UN advocacy work during the Aquino administration also saw among local human rights groups a growing awareness of the different UN mechanisms and the development of a more systematic approach to lobbying within the UN system. With such a long history of engaging the UN, it is but natural for local human rights groups to utilize the newly created Universal Periodic Review mechanism to further the cause of human rights in the country.

General Assembly Resolution 60/251, the Human Rights Council and the Universal Periodic Review

In March 15, 2006, the Council was formally created with the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) of Resolution 60/251. This resolution outlined the principles guiding the Council, its composition, its duties and responsibilities, and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism.

The adoption of Resolution 60/251 was the outcome of the UN reforms initiated by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and which was stated in his report “In Larger Freedom”. In this report Kofi Annan stressed that “human rights form the third of the three pillars, with economic and social development and peace and security, on which all the work of the UN must be based”. He also argued that the three pillars are interlinked and mutually reinforcing, and that they are the pre-requisites for the collective well being of all peoples.

This call for reforms was adopted by world leaders at a Summit held in September 2005. The Summit resolved to integrate the promotion and protection of human rights into national policies, to support the further mainstreaming of human rights throughout the UN system, and to strengthen the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights.

The world leaders who attended this summit also accepted Kofi Annan’s suggestion to create the Human Rights Council in order to establish human rights at its proper level within the UN system. This Council assumes the former role and responsibilities of the Commission on Human Rights, and like the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council is a subsidiary organ of the UNGA.

The 47 members of the Council is directly elected by the UN General Assembly from among the member states and shall be based on equitable geographical distribution. Seats shall be distributed as follows among regional groups: Group of African States, thirteen; Group of Asian States, thirteen; Group of Eastern European States, six; Group of Latin American and Caribbean States, eight; and Group of Western European and other States, seven; the members of the Council shall serve for a period of three years and shall not be eligible for immediate re-election after two consecutive terms.

When electing members of the Council, Member States shall take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto.

Members elected to the Council are expected to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights, shall fully cooperate with the Council and be reviewed under the universal periodic review mechanism during their term of membership. A State that continues to commit gross and systematic violations of human rights and have failed to fulfill its voluntary pledges and commitments may have its rights of membership suspended by a two-thirds majority vote of the members of the General Assembly.

The Universal Periodic Review and Possible Civil Society Engagement

Unlike the former UN Commission on Human Rights, which has been criticized for its selectivity and double standards in responding to the situation of human rights within countries, the Council has put in place a UPR mechanism which seeks to review all the member states of the UN based on the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity, constructive international dialogue and cooperation, with a view to enhancing the promotion and protection of all human rights”.

The objectives of the review are: (a) The improvement of the human rights situation on the ground; (b) The fulfillment of the State's human rights obligations and commitments and assessment of positive developments and challenges faced by the State; (c) The enhancement of the State's capacity and of technical assistance, in consultation with, and with the consent of, the State concerned; (d) The sharing of best practice among States and other stakeholders; (e) Support for cooperation in the promotion and protection of human rights; (f) The encouragement of full cooperation and engagement with the Council, other human rights bodies and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

In accordance with resolution 5/1, the documents on which the review would be based are:

• Information prepared by the State concerned, which can take the form of a national report, and any other information considered relevant by the State concerned, which could be presented either orally or in writing. The written presentation summarizing the information shall not exceed 20 pages, and should be submitted six weeks prior to the session of the Working Group at which the specific review will take place. States are encouraged to prepare the information through a broad consultation process at the national level with all relevant stakeholders.

• Additionally a compilation prepared by the OHCHR of the information contained in the reports of treaty bodies, special procedures, including observations and comments by the State concerned, and other relevant official UN documents, which shall not exceed 10 pages;

• Additional, credible and reliable information provided by other relevant stakeholders to the universal periodic review which should also be taken into consideration by the Council in the review, which will be summarized by the OHCHR in a document that shall not exceed 10 pages. Stakeholders include, inter alia, NGOs, National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), Human rights defenders, Academic institutions and Research institutes, Regional organizations, as well as civil society representatives.

The three reports in which the UPR will be based give an opportunity for NGOs and civil society groups to engage the whole UPR process not only by directly submitting their own report as relevant stakeholders, but also indirectly either by participating in the broad consultation process at the national level (if there is one), or by the possible inclusion of the alternative reports submitted to the various UN bodies in the summarized report of the OHCHR.

However such possibilities, clearly relies on the political dynamics between the government and civil society, the dynamics among different civil society groups, and the dynamics between the NHRI and civil society. Another aspect that must be pointed out in relation to the concept of an impartial UPR is the reality of the political dimension in the relation between States. Since the UPR in essence is a review among peers the question that arises is how willing are member states to ask questions and clarify issues regarding the practices of human rights of a particular State under review especially if there are diplomatic considerations that will in all probability come into play?

The UPR review process is also much broader in the sense that it will review not only the States compliance to human rights treaties but also on international humanitarian law, and on its voluntary pledges and commitments that it has made during its candidacy to the Council.

The reports from relevant stakeholders and different UN bodies will be summarized by the OHCHR. All the three reports will be reviewed by a working group, chaired by the President of the Council and composed of the 47 member States of the Council. Each member State will decide on the composition of its delegation. Observer States may also participate in the review including in the interactive dialogue. NGOs and civil society groups however can attend the review but it is not clear if they can participate in the interactive dialogue.

To facilitate the review and also prepare the report, a group of three rapporteurs (troika) will be selected by drawing lots from among the members of the Council and from the different Regional Groups.

There are a number of possible entry points in the UPR for NGOs and civil society groups. According to a primer prepared by Amnesty International UK, some of these possibilities are stipulated in the rules governing the UPR; others are advocacy opportunities for NGOs. But in the final analysis the success of any NGO and civil society intervention in the process would rely on their capability to provide credible and relevant information, the creativity of their advocacy work, and the conscious effort to initiate actions that are not tied to the formal processes of the UPR and goes beyond it. The general view is that since this is the first UPR review it will generate media and public interest that NGOs and civil society groups must used to pursue their advocacy work.

The UPR process in the Philippines

The engagement of Philippine civil society in the UPR process is based on the understanding that the UPR is a mechanism that can be used by civil society to further its advocacy work both at the local and international level. Another factor that led Philippine civil society to actively participate in the UPR process is the fact that in spite of being elected twice to the Council, the Philippine government has failed to honor its voluntary pledges and commitments, and has been ineffective in dealing with the rampant human rights violations in the country.

Since the NHRI in the Philippines did not initiate a consultative process on the UPR, civil society groups under the initiative of PAHRA conducted its own national consultative workshop on the UPR. The workshop was participated in by 25 national NGOs and civil society groups.

The workshop’s objectives were to inform participants regarding the UPR process, to determine the issues and content of the civil society UPR submission, and to form a drafting committee that will put together the information and data that was included in the final UPR report.

The PAHRA submission to the UPR focused on the human rights issues at the ground, and the Philippine government’s voluntary pledges and commitments. The PAHRA submission also made specific recommendations on the issues that were raised in the report.

On the part of the Philippine government, the preparation for the UPR report was facilitated by the Presidential Human Rights Committee (PHRC). The process that the Philippine government undertook was to prepare for treaty based reports which would then be summarized by the PHRC into a national report for the UPR.

Different offices of government were assigned as lead agencies that will make the different thematic / treaty based reports based on their specific government functions and area of concern. The government also invited some NGO representatives to a workshop held last November 26, 2007. The workshop was a presentation of the UPR process conducted by the Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs and a workshop where the NGOs were assigned to a specific technical working group headed by a specific lead agency and that will work on a thematic report.

But far from being a broad consultative process as encouraged by the Council resolution 5/1, the government sponsored workshop did not invite NGOs and civil society groups who are relevant to the whole UPR process, particularly those whose members are the ones who have fallen victims to human rights violations, and who are deemed critical of government. There was also no dialogue that took place particularly on issues pertaining to extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances. Government representatives either downplayed the issues raised by the NGOs present or evaded the issue by appealing to calls of unity and maintaining the “non-political” nature of the consultation process.

Conclusions

The UPR mechanism like other human rights mechanisms in the UN system can offer possibilities in relation to human rights advocacy work. Specifically the UPR process can be a way for civil society to hold States accountable for its human rights practices, and to push for concrete reforms and changes at the grassroots level.

Being a process, engaging the UPR does not start nor end with the submission of a report. NGOs and civil society groups should be just as active in knowing the UPR outcome, the recommendations that would be made, and their implementation. In the end, the UPR and the other UN human rights mechanisms can be important as a complimentary aspect of the advocacy work of civil society, but it can not implement genuine social and political change. Real reform can only be the product of the peoples' struggle from below.


References:

1. Task Force Detainees of the Philippines: A Pioneer in Human Rights -
25 Years of Struggle for People’s Dignity 1974-1999, TFDP Publication
2. Pumipiglas Torment and Struggle Under Marcos, TFDP Publication
3. Speech of UN General Secretary Kofi Annan delivered to the UNHRC June 19, 2006
4. Various documents prepared by the OHCHR regarding the UPR
5. Amnesty International, Questions and Answers to the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council

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Last Updated on Friday, 15 January 2010 11:33
 

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