, Asia

The Universal Periodic Review and economic, social and cultural rights: A skewed agenda?

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) has given significantly less attention to economic, social and cultural rights than to civil and political rights. Addressing this imbalance is essential if the Human Rights Council is to fulfil its mandate to promote the indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights, as well as to play a meaningful role in monitoring implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, writes Ignacio Saiz.

Lire cet article en français ici

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,[1] 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.[2] 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,[3] 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.[4] 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.

[4] 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.

Related articles

Director's update: Hopeful signals of human rights change

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.

HRC48: HRC must respond urgently to environmental crisis and key country situations of concern

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.

Elections | Human Rights Council Pledging Event 2021

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.

NGO Forum | Implementation of the African Commission’s decision on the rights of the Endorois indigenous people of Kenya

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.

Annual Report | Supporting humanity's essential workers

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.

HRC46 | Civil society presents key takeaways from Human Rights Council

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.

Mexico | Genuine commitment urgently needed to protect environmental and human rights defenders

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.

Stay in the loop!

Would you like to be informed of future events, news, updates on our work, invitations and appeals? Please enter your email address below!