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How can the UPR strengthen economic, social and cultural rights?


Is the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) living up to its potential to advance economic, social and cultural rights? This fundamental question is at the heart of research being undertaken by the Center for Economic and Social Rights and the Human Rights Clinic at Sciences Po (Paris Institute of Political Studies). It was also the topic of a side event that the Center co-hosted with Amnesty International in Geneva last month, during the 29th session of the Human Rights Council.

The event aimed to better understand how economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) have been addressed in the UPR, and to help identify opportunities and challenges in using the UPR to tackle inequality and disadvantage around the world. Bringing together national civil society groups, international NGOs, and member states, the event reflected on questions such as: What do we consider to be “good recommendations” on ESCR? What kinds of ESCR issues can be best advanced through the UPR? What measures should be taken at the national level to ensure that UPR recommendations influence how socio-economic policies are developed and implemented?

Allison Corkery from the Center for Economic and Social Rights provided an overview of the research undertaken by the Human Rights Clinic, highlighting a number of preliminary findings. Although they have increased in the second cycle, ESCR-specific recommendations amount to just under one fifth of all recommendations. Further, as shown in the graph below, some ESCR issues receive considerably more attention than others. Additionally, less than 10% recommend action classified as “specific”. By contrast, a third of the recommendations on civil and political rights recommend specific action.

Iain Byrne from Amnesty International discussed how the ESCR-related issues that Amnesty has prioritized in its advocacy before the UPR—including forced evictions, minority rights and reproductive health—had been addressed. He commented that while many of the issues were indeed reflected in the recommendations, they were generally framed in much more general terms. He stressed that, to be effective, ESCR-related recommendations need to be more measurable and capable of being monitored. Pushing for states to justify their reasons for not accepting recommendations, and ensuring better review of implementation at the national level, would also strengthen the impact that ESCR-related recommendations can have.

Nuno Cabral, from the Permanent Mission of Portugal, reflected on some of the challenges facing Council members when crafting UPR recommendations. Likening the process to a ‘friendly match’ in football, he stressed that choice of messages is political and that many states are reluctant to appear to be micromanaging the economic choices of their peers. In addition, members of the Council face a number of practical challenges such as very limited time to speak and convey messages, the amalgamation of recommendations by the troika (a team of three countries' delegates who assist in the review) and, in some cases, a lack of capacity among delegations with regard to ESCR. He suggested that if these were better addressed, the quality of recommendations on ESCR would be enhanced.

Miloon Kothari, President of UPR Info, emphasized that the lack of attention to ESCR in the UPR mirrors the lack of attention to ESCR by the human rights system more broadly. ESCR issues are structural; they hit at economic policies, trade policies, agricultural policies, land, questions of resources etc. So to better address them, it is important to see the UN system as a whole, for example by ensuring that the UPR reinforces work done by treaty bodies, special procedures and other mechanisms. He also called attention to the importance of work done at the national level to translate the recommendations into more specific policy actions and demands, including by engaging national human rights institutions, developing indicators and setting up monitoring tools. 

In the discussion that followed, audience members suggested additional dimensions of the review that would be relevant to the continuing research and shared additional challenges they had faced in advocating for ESCR in the UPR process. The need for more education, awareness raising and capacity building with States’ delegates was a recurrent theme. The insights and lessons shared at the event will inform the research and will be incorporated into a discussion paper on the topic to be circulated late this year.

To learn more about CESR's monitoring work, click here.