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Council holds high-level panel on human rights mainstreaming with a focus on the Universal Periodic Review mechanism

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26 February 2018

AFTERNOON

GENEVA (26 February 2018) - The Human Rights Council held its annual high-level panel discussion on mainstreaming human rights this afternoon with a focus on the promotion and protection of human rights in light of the Universal Periodic Review mechanism: challenges and opportunities.

Vojislav Šuc, President of the Human Rights Council, opening the panel, said the Council had decided to hold an annual discussion to interact with heads of governing bodies and secretariats of United Nations agencies and funds with the objective of promoting the mainstreaming of human rights throughout the United Nations system. 

Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, said in a video message that the Universal Periodic Review was essential in helping translate the Universal Declaration on Human Rights into action.  The Universal Periodic Review presented a platform of engagement and for accountability.  The mechanism should actively contribute to the global prevention agenda and moving on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that 10 years ago, when the first Universal Periodic Review had begun with a review of Bahrain, a new era had started in which a global institution publicly assessed the human rights record of every State.  The fundamental importance of human rights mainstreaming was emphasized as crucial to upholding peace and development, seeing how the three pillars, human rights, sustainable development, and peace built on each other.

Kate Gilmore, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, acting as panel moderator, said the impact of the Universal Periodic Review process was without precedent.  Every member of the United Nations had been subjected to its scrutiny and the impact of those efforts were being felt in all corners of the world. 

The panellists were Achim Steiner, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme; Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, Chair of the Development Assistance Committee, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development; María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility of Ecuador; and, Mary Robinson, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Achim Steiner, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, said all Member States had committed to the Universal Periodic Review and Sustainable Development Goals to work towards the full realization of human rights.  The review process and its recommendations created political space for constructive discussion.  These factors prompted cooperation with all relevant stakeholders. 

Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, Chair of the Development Assistance Committee, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, said the committee had extended $ 145 billion in official development assistance in 2016.  Turning to how these resources supported human rights, she stated that the committee funded activities with the specific aim to enhance human rights.  It was obvious that development cooperation and many of these projects were directly linked to the implementation of the Universal Periodic Review recommendations. 

María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility of Ecuador, underlined the importance of standards, institutions and mechanisms in strengthening respect for human rights.  States had to commit to fulfilling recommendations made by treaty bodies, and processes of monitoring had to be brought down to citizens, indigenous peoples and people of African descent, women, youth, and civil society. 

Mary Robinson, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its related instruments were not an experiment but a roadmap for a brighter future.  A more comprehensive engagement was needed between the Universal Periodic Review and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Miroslav Lajčák, President of the seventy-second session of the General Assembly, stated that the Universal Periodic Review was a critical tool in the work of the Human Rights Council and in ensuring that people’s rights were protected.  The recommendations of the Universal Periodic Review had to be implemented on the ground and follow-up had to be ensured at the national and international level. 

During the discussion, speakers stressed the relevance of the Universal Periodic Review remaining a universal, independent and impartial mechanism.  The Universal Periodic Review was seen as a key tool of the Human Rights Council.  States noted the mechanism’s contributions to the promotion and protection of human rights.  Some States lauded the fact that every United Nations Member State had been observed under the Universal Periodic Review mechanism at least twice.  Meanwhile, others urged the Universal Periodic Review to assess the human rights situations of individual countries on an equal footing, noting concern over the politicization of the mechanism.  Follow-up activities to the Universal Periodic Review would advance the implementation of recommendations and promote the work of other human rights bodies.

Speaking were Brazil, on behalf of the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries; Angola; South Africa; Lesotho; Estonia, on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic Group; European Union; Indonesia, on behalf of a group of countries; Togo, on behalf of the African Group; Portugal, on behalf of a group of countries; Venezuela, on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, Israel, United Kingdom; China; Iraq; Sierra Leone; Tunisia; United States; Greece; France; Nepal; Botswana; Morocco; and Honduras.

Global Alliance of Human Rights Institutions and Commission nationale des droit de l’homme de Mauritanie took the floor, as did the following non-governmental organizations: Centre Catholique International de Genève; International Lesbian and Gay Association; Verein Sudwind Entwicklungspolitik; and Friends World Committee for Consultation.

The Council will resume its work at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, 27 February, when it will continue its high-level segment. 

Opening Statements

VOJISLAV ŠUC, President of the Human Rights Council, reminded that in its resolution 60/251, the General Assembly had mandated the Human Rights Council to promote the effective coordination and the mainstreaming of human rights within the United Nations system.  In the outcome of the review of its work and functioning, contained in Council resolution 16/21, the Council had decided to hold an annual discussion to interact with heads of governing bodies and secretariats of United Nations agencies and funds with the objective of promoting the mainstreaming of human rights throughout the United Nations system.  This year’s high-level panel discussion would focus on the promotion and protection of human rights in the light of the Universal Periodic Review mechanism: challenges and opportunities.

AMINA MOHAMMED, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, in a video message, noted that the constant challenge was to translate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into action.  The Universal Periodic Review was essential in helping the international community to do that; it was a unique platform of engagement and one of the most important accountability mechanisms of the United Nations and it applied to all States equally.  The measure of accountability was national, even though States functioned in a multilateral world.  The question was how to apply the existing accountability mechanisms for human rights to current cross-border and global obligations.  In that sense, Ms. Mohammed stressed the importance of proximity and empowerment of people.  It was important to ponder on how to make the most of those tools for national and sub-national planning.  The private sector and businesses had a direct impact on the socio-economic fabric and environment, and it was important to apply the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights globally, regionally and nationally.  The prevention agenda of the Secretary-General of the United Nations recognized the importance of sustainable and resilient pathways.  An agenda that promised to leave no one behind obliged all States to guarantee fundamental freedoms to everyone.  Prevention should be an axis of the United Nations system’ analysis and strategy.  The Universal Periodic Review should actively contribute to the global prevention agenda and moving on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  

ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that 10 years ago, when the first Universal Periodic Review had begun with a review of Bahrain, a new era had started in which a global institutional process had publicly assessed the human rights record of every State, identifying shortfalls and proposing remedial actions.  The Universal Periodic Review embodied the world’s recognition that human rights were not just a domestic issue but also a matter for international concern. 
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had devised a clustered database of recommendations by the human rights instruments for use by all national authorities and United Nations teams.  Resident Coordinators and United Nations Country Teams were encouraged to ensure that these clustered recommendations were integrated in the United Nations Development Assistance Frameworks and programme documents at the country level, as well as to assist States to achieve progress in relation to human rights and the Sustainable Development Goals.  Donors and the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development were urged to support the implementation of human rights recommendations and States were encouraged to reach out to the United Nations system through Resident Coordinators.  In closing, the fundamental importance of human rights mainstreaming was emphasized as crucial to the future and upholding peace and development, seeing how the three pillars, human rights, sustainable development and peace had built on each other.

Statements by the Moderator and Panellists

KATE GILMORE, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the impact of the Universal Periodic Review process was without precedent.  Every member of the United Nations had been subjected to its scrutiny and the impact of those efforts were being felt in all corners of the world. 

ACHIM STEINER, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, in a video message, said all Member States had committed to the Universal Periodic Review and Sustainable Development Goals to work towards the full realization of human rights.  The United Nations Development Programme was working with States and United Nations bodies to encourage the mainstreaming of human rights by focusing on principles of non-discrimination, participation, and accountability.  Partnerships with human rights officers around the world contributed to the Universal Periodic Review process and the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.  The review process and its recommendations created political space for constructive discussion.  These factors prompted cooperation with all relevant stakeholders.  A human-rights-based approach was needed to achieve the goals set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

CHARLOTTE PETRI GORNITZKA, Chair of the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in an audio message, said she represented 30 members of the OECD Development Assistance Committee, a resourceful community that extended $ 145 billion in official development assistance in 2016.  Turning to how this resource supported human rights, she stated that it funded activities with the specific aim to enhance human rights in other countries.  There were now approximately 2,300 active projects across the world with human rights as the primary focus.  The total spending in bilateral projects labelled as human rights projects was estimated at $ 700 million in 2016.  These projects aimed to empower groups to exercise their rights, including indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, specific ethnic groups and social segments.  Projects also focused on building the capacity of the institutions to uphold human rights.  Many projects also supported civil society organizations, both for educating people about their human rights, and equipping groups with the tools to advocate for human rights and for being the much needed watchdogs in society.  It was obvious that development cooperation and many of these projects were directly linked to the implementation of the Universal Periodic Review recommendations. 

MARIA FERNANDA ESPINOSA GARCÉS, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility of Ecuador, underlined the importance of standards, institutions and mechanisms in strengthening respect for human rights.  Ecuador had taken part in various cycles of the Universal Periodic Review and had the same attitude as when it made recommendations to other countries.  It had tried to design and develop effective mechanisms for inter-institutional coordination in the compilation, processing and submitting of reports to United Nations human rights bodies.  Its data platform on the recommendations of United Nations treaty bodies had helped it assess the level of implementation of each recommendation and right, and to enhance accountability.  Ecuador’s experience was a source of inspiration for other regional countries.  One of the measures to consider was the incorporation of a gender perspective in the mechanism, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals.  International cooperation was necessary to support the strengthening of national human rights systems, including financing and transfer of technologies to developing countries.  States had to make commitments to fulfilling recommendations made by treaty bodies, and processes of monitoring had to be brought down to citizens, indigenous peoples and people of African descent, women, youth and civil society. 

MARY ROBINSON, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was turning 70 at a very difficult time for human rights and human rights defenders.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its related instruments were not an experiment but a roadmap for a brighter future.  New challenges would be faced through the Agenda 2030, the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sendai Framework.  By the end of the year, hopefully two Global Compacts on refugees and migrants would be agreed, each including human rights as overarching principles.  In her recent work on climate justice and while working with groups such as the Geneva Pledge countries to increase the links between climate policy makers and human rights experts, Ms. Robinson said she saw the capacity of the Universal Periodic Review to create conversations between stakeholders.  A more comprehensive engagement was needed between the Universal Periodic Review and the Sustainable Development Goals.  The Secretary General’s focus on the importance of national mechanisms for reporting and follow up was welcomed.  Appropriate integration of the 2030 Agenda and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change could better inform all parties of the rights impacts on international policy making.  Moreover, the Universal Periodic Review highlighted areas in which north-south and south-south cooperation could be intensified for the common good.

MIROSLAV LAJČÀK, President of the General Assembly, stated that the Universal Periodic Review was a critical tool in the work of the Human Rights Council and in ensuring that people’s rights were protected.  However, to ensure that the Universal Periodic Review remained relevant, reflection on its challenges and opportunities was essential.  The Universal Periodic Review was a unique dialogue and space where Member States, the United Nations system and other stakeholders had the opportunity to listen to one another.  Difficult topics ranging from the death penalty, rights of indigenous people, criminal justice to reproductive rights, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex issues were discussed.  The recommendations of the Universal Periodic Review had to be implemented on the ground and follow-up had to be ensured at the national and international level.  Member States had been encouraged to contribute to the Voluntary Fund for Financial and Technical Assistance.  The Universal Periodic Review had now entered its third cycle, making the human rights architecture better, strengthening institutions, laws and policies at home, and making the multilateral system stronger.  People’s voices were heard in the Universal Periodic Review through national reports, information complied by the United Nations and other stakeholders.

Discussion

Brazil, speaking on behalf of the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries, said that by assisting States, the Universal Periodic Review was making a useful contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights in a non-selective, objective fashion.  It was important to focus the work of the Council on the implementation of recommendations on the national level, as well as the important role that technical assistance could play in this regard.  Angola said the Universal Periodic Review allowed a transparent assessment of the human rights situation of all States, in accordance with General Assembly resolutions on this matter.  This mechanism, however currently faced challenges, in particular with regard to the growing number of recommendations.  South Africa said the Universal Periodic Review mechanism was a critical tool for the promotion and protection of human rights and should not be tempered with – as any such attempt would dilute its efforts.  It had to be led in an objective, transparent and non-confrontational manner, taking into account national realities and circumstances.  Lesotho said that while Lesotho respected those who made recommendations, it also noted that such recommendations reflected continuing differences of policies not differences about what rules of international human rights required.  Estonia, speaking on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic Group, agreed that the Universal Periodic Review had provided States with an enormous opportunity.  The most important challenge now was to turn this into action.  European Union said that it was a remarkable achievement that all Member States of the United Nations had been observed under the mechanisms of the Universal Periodic Review at least twice.   Over the last Universal Periodic Reviews, more than 57,000 recommendations, with an average acceptance rate of 70 per cent, had been noted and this was a remarkable achievement.

Indonesia, speaking on behalf of a group of countries, noted that the Universal Periodic Review should remain universal, independent and impartial, whereas its recommendations should be constructive, forward-looking and implementable, and should take into account national capacities.  Togo, speaking on behalf of the African Group, supported the idea developed by the panellists to unlock the potential available in the United Nations system and the international community, particularly through south-south and north-south cooperation.  Portugal, speaking on behalf of a group of countries, highlighted the role of national mechanisms for implementation, reporting and follow-up in coordinating domestic implementation, tracking and measuring progress, reporting, identifying gaps and needs, and mobilizing support.  Venezuela, speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, reiterated the need to preserve the Universal Periodic Review as the only mechanism to examine human rights situations in countries on an equal footing and without distinction.  It should aim to strengthen the capacity of Member States to fulfil their human rights obligations, rather than be used as a political tool of coercion.  Israel stressed that the Universal Periodic Review alone could not replace a robust national commitment to pursue human rights objectives in a continuous manner.  A State should do much more than just check the box every four to five years.  United Kingdom underlined the need to translate commitments into meaningful actions; the words of States should not live and die in the Council chamber, stifled within an isolated Geneva bubble.  How could Universal Periodic Review be systematically used by the full range of United Nations agencies when developing country specific plans?

Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions noted that one of the main challenges of the Universal Periodic Review was the implementation and follow-up phase.  States now had the opportunity to overcome this and several national human rights institutions were already working on methodologies matching the recommendations of the Universal Period Review and the Sustainable Development Goals.  Centre catholique international de Genève (CCIG), in a joint statement with severals NGOs1, stressed the need for a more systematic evaluation of the implementation status of recommendations.  The establishment of national mechanisms for reporting and follow up would greatly advance the implementation of recommendations but also the work of other human rights bodies such as the Special Procedures and treaty bodies.   International Lesbian and Gay Association, welcomed the fact that throughout the 29 Universal Periodic Review working group sessions, 1,475 recommendations had addressed sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics in 158 countries.  Moreover, 100 countries had accepted recommendations on these issues, showing that the human rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities were truly a global concern.

China noted that the Universal Periodic Review was fully in favour of the promotion and protection of human rights in countries.  However, it regretted the increasing trend towards politicization, which undermined the legitimacy of the Human Rights Council.  Iraq emphasized peace and security upon which the human rights system in the United Nations was based.  The Universal Periodic Review was a mechanism to complement, rather than replicate the treaty bodies.  Sierra Leone stated that as States worked towards a more progressive realization of their accepted recommendations, there should be a close link between the mechanisms of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Universal Periodic Review implementation at national, sub-regional, regional and international levels.  Tunisia stressed the importance of the Universal Periodic Review in institutional structures in the global human rights architecture.  How could countries guarantee the effectiveness and durability of Universal Periodic Review recommendations?  United States reminded that the participation of civil society within the Universal Periodic Review remained essential to the implementation of recommendations.  It could share its expertise, provide guidance and become a key implementing partner.  Greece stated that the Universal Periodic Review motivated States to establish an open channel of communication with civil society, allowing for better synergies and leading to mutually beneficial exchanges between the actors involved. 

France said 10 years after the creation of the Universal Periodic Review, this mechanism had proven to be a success.  The follow-up and implementation of recommendations could be strengthened, and in this spirit, France encouraged the generalisation of mid-term reports.  Nepal said the Universal Periodic Review had evolved to become a hallmark of the international protection of human rights.  In order to improve the mechanism, Nepal recommended ensuring objectivity, non-selectivity and transparency in dealing with issues, as well as promoting universality, interdependence and the mutually reinforcing nature of all human rights.  Botswana said the role of the Universal Periodic Review mechanism in mainstreaming human rights at the national level was well appreciated, as demonstrated by the willingness of all United Nations Member States to fully participate in the review process.  Morocco said the success of the Universal Periodic Review was not only due to the participation of all States in the first and second rounds, but due to the quality of achievements of States in implementing the recommendations to promote human rights.  Honduras said the Universal Periodic Review was an inclusive and constructive domestic tool.  Technical assistance played a critical role in that sense.  It was also crucial to ensure that no one was left behind, as conflict was triggered by inequality. 

Commission nationale des droit de l’homme de Mauritanie stressed that its approach in improving the protection of human rights relied on the involvement of civil society organizations and local communities, but also through working jointly with Parliament in the adoption of important laws.  Verein Sudwind Entwicklungspolitik stated that full coordination of executive, judiciary and legislative entities along with international cooperation and assistance were necessary for the successful implementation of recommendations.  Only around 20 per cent of the United Nation countries had already established programmes of action for the implementation of the recommendations.  Friends World Committee for Consultation said that mainstreaming human rights was integral to better coordination between the three pillars of the United Nations – peace and security, human rights and development.  The Universal Periodic Review was a particularly useful vehicle to explore for such linkages because it was a nationally owned, inclusive and universal mechanism.

Concluding Remarks

ROBERT PIPER, Special Adviser on United Nations Reforms at the United Nations Development Programme, said there was a long list of examples where the Universal Periodic Review recommendations had made their way into national programming.  There would be more and more of such examples with the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.  He reminded that at the Economic and Social Council in New York, a raft of reforms about strengthening the United Nations development system could be heard, especially at the field level.  Expectations should be mirrored in New York to implement recommendations at the country level.  There should be less fragmented funding from donors to ensure that priorities were financed properly, and that there was much stronger accountability for Member States.  In order to have a more effective country team response, it was necessary to ensure that the Secretary-General’s ambitions were backed by political support and resources.  There were tremendous resources at the regional level that could make country efforts more effective, particularly in strengthening the utility of the Universal Periodic Review at the national level and in terms of the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

MARIA FERNANDA ESPINOSA GARCÉS, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility of Ecuador, stressed the importance of the quality and relevance of recommendations stemming from the Universal Periodic Review.  Parliaments needed to play a crucial role in setting standards.  Ms. Espinosa Garcés also stressed the role of national human rights institutions, and the interconnection between treaty bodies, Special Procedures and the Universal Periodic Review within the framework of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  Cooperation and financing were needed to support States in the implementation of Universal Periodic Review recommendations.

MARY ROBINSON, Former High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that she had felt a certain degree of comfort by Member States during the discussion today, and this worried her a little.  Dialogue about human rights had to be tough.  Human rights were key issues, and discussions about them had to involve civil society and address real issues – not politicization.  She was glad to hear that there were national mechanisms for follow-up and encouraged voluntary mid-term reports.  She believed that there should even be peer pressure on this issue.  She had also noted with satisfaction the linking of human rights to the Sustainable Development Agenda, and proposed to also link the Paris Climate Agenda.  Regarding south-south cooperation, she noted that there had been calls for regional issues and in that respect, she was of the opinion that the regional dimension warranted more discussion.  Finally, Ms. Robinson had also noted the number of countries asking for technical support, and deemed it very important to address these requests. 

VOJISLAV ŠUC, President of the Human Rights Council, thanked all the participants for their valuable inputs.  He said the Human Rights Council would reconvene on Tuesday, 27 February at 9 a.m. to continue its high-level segment.

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1. Joint statement: Centre catholique international de Genève (CCIG), Associazione Comunita Papa Giovanni XXIII, Caritas Internationalis (International Confederation of Catholic Charities), Catholic International Education Office, Company of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, Edmund Rice International Limited, Fondazione Marista per la Solidarietà Internazionale, International Volunteerism Organization for Women, Education and Development (VIDES), Istituto Internazionale Maria Ausiliatrice delle Salesiane di Don Bosco, International Federation of ACAT (Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture), Mouvement International d'Apostolate des Milieux Sociaux Independants, VIVAT International, World Evangelical Alliance.

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