Futures thinking encourages us to identify small ‘signals of change’ which might help to identify and influence the futures that come to pass. At ISHR we’ve identified and, together with advocates and activists from around the world, helped contribute to a number of small but significant signals of positive human rights change in recent weeks.
By Ignacio Saiz, Executive Director, Center for Economic and Social Rights
One of the aims of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), as articulated in its founding resolution, is to promote the universality, interdependence, indivisibility and interrelatedness of all human rights. However, the experience of many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who have engaged extensively with the UPR has raised concerns that economic, social and cultural rights (ESC rights) have been comparatively neglected in the UPR process in its first two cycles.
In order to assess this perception more systematically, the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) and the Sciences Po Law School Clinic undertook a quantitative trends analysis of the recommendations in the UPR Info Database. This analysis found serious and consistent shortcomings in both the quantity and quality of recommendations on ESC rights.
Too few ESC rights focused recommendations made or accepted by too few States
Alarmingly, fewer than one in five UPR recommendations focused specifically on ESC rights – half the number of those on civil and political rights. Further, a select range of ESC rights issues – namely education, labour and health – have been the predominant focus, while many other critical ESC rights, such as the rights to food and water, or rights in relation to land and the environment, have received scant attention in both cycles.
Our analysis also uncovered stark regional variations in the number of ESC rights recommendations that States have made and accepted via the UPR. Less than ten percent of the recommendations made by States in the Western Europe and Others grouping focused on ESC rights, compared to 29 per cent from Asia and 23 per cent from Africa. The lack of attention to these rights by Western European countries has an outsized impact, given that this region accounts for over a third of all recommendations made in the UPR. Regional differences also emerged regarding the percentage of recommendations accepted. While most regions accepted around 80 percent or more of the recommendations focused on ESC rights, Western Europe and Others accepted only 53 percent of these.
In addition to being far fewer, UPR recommendations focused on ESC rights are often vague and ill-defined. Two thirds of a sample reviewed in more depth only called for general action, limiting their utility in guiding policy making at the national level, as well as making it hard to track whether or not they had been successfully implemented. Less than five percent of those reviewed addressed the question of resources, despite this being central to the progressive realisation of ESC rights. By contrast, two thirds of the recommendations focused on civil and political rights suggested specific actions, such as acceding to treaties, enacting laws, policies or programs, or ensuring the enforcement and implementation of existing laws and policies. More precise, policy oriented recommendations are crucial in order to meaningfully guide and assess the conduct of States in meeting their human rights obligations, particularly in the economic and social sphere.
These findings, echoed in the recent report to the Human Rights Council by the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, underscore the need to build the awareness and capacity of States and civil society organisations engaging in the UPR to craft more specific recommendations for how to operationalise their economic and social rights obligations. The provisions for shadow reporting, follow up and technical assistance under the UPR, as well as the periodic evaluations after each cycle, all provide significant opportunities for improvements to be made in this regard.
As a unique and universal process with a significant degree of legitimacy and engagement on the part of States and civil society, advocating for the effective fulfilment of ESC rights through the UPR is an important means for redressing the comparative lack of attention that these rights still receive on the international human rights agenda.
The potential of the UPR to promote and monitor progress against the Sustainable Development Goals
Addressing these gaps will also be crucial if the UPR is to serve as an effective accountability mechanism for the newly-adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs represent a globally endorsed, comprehensively framed and universally applicable agenda for sustainable development. They reinforce many existing commitments on economic and social rights, such as the rights to water and sanitation, housing and health, as well as including civil and political freedoms without which true social and economic development is impossible. They are also ground-breaking in their commitment to reduce inequality within and between countries and to ‘leave no one behind’.
The UPR has a potentially crucial role to play in influencing national efforts to implement the SDGs and the human rights commitments underpinning them. As member States themselves have recognised, international human rights review mechanisms such as the UPR are a vitally important part of the web of accountability required to achieve the SDGs. Peer review mechanisms which allow for civil society participation are particularly well-placed to foster mutual accountability between States for their respective responsibilities in meeting their global commitments, as well as their accountability to the people. It is for this reason that the UPR has been a key point of reference in the debates around a global review mechanism for the SDGs. However, without systematic efforts to address the UPR’s blindspots and shortcomings with regard to ESC rights, its potential as an SDG accountability mechanism, and its legitimacy as a human rights watchdog, will continue to be seriously undermined.
Ignacio Saiz is Executive Director of the Center for Economic and Social Rights. Follow him on Twitter at @ignacioCESR. The author acknowledges the contributions of Allison Corkery, Holly Stubbs and Lena Kahler to this piece. See CESR and Sciences Po, ‘The UPR: A Skewed Agenda?’, available at www.cesr.org.
 A/HRC/RES/5/1 available at http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/alldocs.aspx?doc_id=13360
 UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Who Will Be Accountable? Human Rights and the Post-2015 Development Agenda, available at http://cesr.org/downloads/who_will_be_accountable.pdf.
The 8th meeting of the Business Network on Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders brought together civil society, private sector and experts to discuss how companies can use their leverage for a positive change in the civic space
On 7 September 2021, the International Service for Human Rights facilitated a multi-stakeholder dialogue with United Nations experts, the International Chamber of Commerce and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights to discuss about Business, Human Rights and Human Rights Defenders.
The Human Rights Council should not only respond to diverse States and civil society’s calls for the creation of a Special Rapporteur on human right and climate change and to recognise the right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, but also recognise the fundamental role of environmental human rights defenders in addressing climate change and safeguarding biodiversity. ISHR also called on the Council to respond to grave human rights violations in Afghanistan, China, and Nicaragua.
This week in an online event, 10 candidate States publicly spoke to an audience of around 200 people on their pledges as incoming Human Rights Council members for 2022 – 2024. They also faced questions on pressing human rights issues from both States and civil society organisations.
To date, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ (the African Commission) recommendations to the Kenyan Government on reparations for the eviction of Endorois indigenous people from their ancestral lands in the 1970s remain largely unimplemented. On 13 April 2021, the NGO Forum met to discuss the status of the implementation of the African Commission’s 2010 decision 276/2003 on the rights of the Endorois people.
It's difficult to encapsulate such a complex year in a word, but "interconnected" is one that comes to mind when reflecting on 2020. We are proud to have remained deeply interconnected with defenders and to have supported, protected and amplified their work at the national, regional and international levels. With them, the "essential workers" of our times, we strive for a 2021 full of freedom, equality, dignity and justice.
Building back better requires new sustainable production systems. However, energy transition should not be encouraged at the expense of human rights or harm to local communities. The transition towards renewable energy sources has become a threat to human rights, with increasing attacks to human rights defenders.
16 organisations* share reflections on the key outcomes of the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council, as well as the missed opportunities to address key issues and situations including pushbacks and other human rights violations faced by migrants and refugees, and the human rights situations in Algeria, Cameroon, China, India, Kashmir and the Philippines. A shortened version was delivered at the Council. Full written version below.
Cooperation to enhance development or eradicate poverty is not and cannot be a substitute for scrutiny of human rights, or conducted in the absence of accountability
The 'Mayan Train', a touristic train cutting across numerous areas of rich environmental and cultural diversity in Eastern Mexico, may sound like a fancy development project. But what the shiny brochure doesn't display are the terrible consequences for the indigenous communities who call this area home, and for the environment. Six UN experts have addressed those in a letter to the Government, raising expectations of a meaningful commitment by Mexico, as a re-elected member of the Human Rights Council, to address human rights concerns and protect defenders.
We are excited to share the launch of two new briefings that provide guidance for institutional investors and companies on how to respect the rights of human rights defenders.