U.S. Civil Society Shapes Focus for Human Rights Review at Universal Periodic Review


Joshua Cooper
Director Four Freedoms Forum
Director Hawaii Institute for Human Rights

A new feature of the UN Human Rights Council is creating a forum to promote and protect fundamental freedoms in every member state in the United Nations. The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is also uniting many segments of society in states under the title of stakeholders.

Civil society is maximizing the UPR mechanism to mobilize citizens to claim their human rights throughout the state reporting system created to increase the credibility of the UN Human Rights Council.

Since the first UPR session in April 2008, over 128 states have been reviewed. At the ninth session, the United States of America will be reviewed on November 5 2010 from 9 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.  There will only be three more sessions of 16 states each in 2011 until the first cycle of the UPR will be complete reviewing the human rights record in all 192 member-states.

Since August 2009, the civil society in the United States of America has organized to educate, examine and engage for the realization of human rights as a domestic principle and a foreign policy priority.

The non-governmental organizations are nurturing a nationwide campaign to coordinate the voice of America citizens to claim the heritage of human rights and offer hope to the peoples movement around the planet.

The United States of America can move toward reclaiming its moral legitimacy with civil society exercising its civil and political rights mobilizing a citizen’s movement to comprehensively review our human rights record.

The UPR is a unique opportunity to remind America of its rhetoric relating to human rights enshrined in our core debates founding our democracy including our Constitution as well as the development through the national challenges voiced by  elected officials such as Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and community leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.,  Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez.

The UPR review regards human rights contained in one of the broadest mandate contexts including human rights and humanitarian law in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN covenants and conventions as well as the country’s voluntary commitments. This is significant for US civil society due to the U.S. horrible record of ratifications relating international human rights laws. Of the potential nine core international human rights instruments, the US has only ratified three – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Convention Against Torture. The UPR allows for all segments of our diverse society to unite in this unprecedented undertaking to strive to realize the dream of our democracy.

erooseveltIt is also a rare opportunity to conduct a genuine conversation between government and its civic groups about economic, social and cultural rights enshrined in the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights created with Eleanor Roosevelt as the chair of the global delegation enshrining fundamental freedoms for everyone.

The potential to change the national discourse to recognize political priorities through a lens of liberty dominates the motivation of the citizen movement.

The UPR campaign is a cycle that can coordinate discussions in democracy from 15 months before the actual review of the state. It also continues five months post state review concluding with a consideration of the report based on questions and recommendations posed by states when civil society stakeholders share a two minute intervention at the conclusion of the five hour process that provides a recipe for states to follow to improve its implementation of human rights.

The five phases of the UPR for civil society is preparation, interaction, adoption, consideration and implementation. The first phase for the US was August 2009 – April 2010. The second phase was April 2010 – November 2010. The third phase is November 5 – 9, 2010. The fourth phase will be November 9 – March 2011 and the final phase being after the UN Human Rights Council in March 2011 until the next appearance of the U.S. as the state under review.

In August, the United States Human Rights Network began a series of informational call-ins for activists, advocates and academics to learn the basics and begin to map out possibilities to allow for maximum participation.

From the initial calls, people shared the knowledge with their communities, colleges and it rippled throughout the country.  The preparation focused on people identifying the issues they wanted to focus on. By November, over two dozen themes had been identified. Various individuals and associations volunteered to research and write civil society stakeholder reports. Individuals and NGOs could write a 5 page paper outlining the most significant human rights issues.  Civil society coming together to address common concerns were allocated 10 pages. The reports indicated a significant pooling of people and resources working together to submit reports to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for the April 19, 2010 deadline. At the UPR, civil society submits its report first unlike the treaty bodies where civil society writes shadow reports to respond to the state report.

Following the submissions to the UN OHCHR, the reports are compiled into a single ten page report that makes one-third of the final report to be considered. The OHCHR also authors a ten page report based on previous recommendations from the human rights treaty body concluding observations as well as reports compiled by special rapporteurs visits to states and UN specialized agencies, programs and funds related to human rights in the state. The third and final document to consider is the 20 page report compiled by the state to be turned in two months prior to the review.  The U.S. submitted its final report on 20 August to the OHCHR.

The United States of America State Department conducted UPR civil society consultations to prepare for submission of the state report. The U.S. exercised an extensive communications process compared to other states. The U.S. did meet with civil society on a listening tour conducting 11 consultations in nine cities. The U.S. did work with host organizations that are leaders in their respected fields of human rights to have a genuine conversation between government and citizens. A significant step was State Department expansion of the US delegation to include the domestic agencies responsible to implement policies so citizen groups could meet face-to-face with the bureaucrats bearing responsibility regarding U.S. policy. It was a significant improvement from previous consultations that never went beyond the Beltway.  It is also a foundation to build even better process for future consultations but also implementation of the recommendations through the UPR.

The US Human Rights Network was also involved serving as a host organization on a majority of the US State Department UPR civil society consultations. The US HRN also coordinated with Four Freedoms Forum and other national NGOs and institutions of higher education various national summits, workshops, trainings and conferences throughout the preparation and interaction phases.

The first was a summit focusing on Democracy, Liberty & Freedom: Inspiring international Law Institutions; Implementing Human Rights at Home at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia to release the 24 cluster reports from civil society. The reports documented the areas of concern regarding economic, social and cultural rights in the U.S. along with a rainbow of rights requiring promotion and protection. The two dozen reports covered from traditional civil rights to treaty ratification as well as corporate accountability.  There were also comprehensive reports addressing from the death penalty to disability rights along with education to environmental justice. The many faces of racism were reviewed along with reproductive rights to round out the comprehensive civil society reports.

The second was a national workshop during the annual Human Rights on the Hill program in Washington DC that allowed a dozen NGOs to meet in person with more connecting across the country for the UPR strategy session through technology. The workshop focused on advocacy efforts with UN member states in Geneva based on their previous involvement in the UPR based on specific human rights themes. The remainder portion after matching issues and states was developing strategic and collaborative outreach to member delegates along with consolidating the ten page reports into concise issues, questions and recommendations in two-page format for states to raise during the UPR state under review of the U.S.

The third was a training of US civil society with other NGO networks from Sweden and Vietnam at the International Training Centre for Human Rights and Peace Education (CIFEDHOP) in Geneva.  The course allowed USHRN members to study the UPR process with on the ground training attending actual UPR sessions of other states. The training also allowed them to use tools such as UPR-INFO website to craft their questions and recommendations based on previous participation by the member states.

The fourth was the fifth annual UN Charter Day Human Rights Conference in San Francisco to commemorate its founding recognizing the historical role of Eleanor Roosevelt and 42 US NGOs representing the future of  ‘we the peoples’ participation in global affairs representing civil society. The conference featured multiple panels of professors, professionals and passionate presenters focusing on the Universal Periodic Review and US record of ratification.  The presentations featured a review of the UPR consultation hosted earlier in the year by the State Department, the implementation of the international bill of rights for women into law in SF and sharing strategies for the UPR session.

Another important initiative is the Testify Project that allows for any American to write a one-page statement about human rights violations but more importantly offer recommendations to transform the reality in the daily living conditions for people in our democracy. Another opportunity for people to voice their political perspectives on human rights in our communities is through a two-minute video.  The winner of the Testify Project receives a ticket to Geneva to speak directly to member states and share their perspectives on human rights.  The video will also be shown at a side event.

The USHRN has sent delegations to meet with member states at the UN in Geneva at the 14th UN Human Rights Council session presenting at a side event introducing the cluster reports and making them available via the USHR website.

At the 15th session in September 2010, the USHRN will host an intensive side event featuring a broad representation of human rights focusing on economic, social and cultural rights from health care to housing. US also will collaborate with Geneva based NGOs to brainstorm and build a coalition for the upcoming review of the U.S.

During the 9th session of the Working Group of the Universal Periodic Review, USHRN will coordinate a creative campaign in the first week of November featuring film festivals, concerts, photo exhibits, press conferences and issue briefings inside the Palais des Nations in Geneva but also in community venues allowing more world citizens to learn about human rights in America.

It is important to stay informed and involved in the UPR process. The adoption of the report on November 9 after the three hour review on November 5 will draw global attention. The UPR must include grassroots civil society voices.  Between the adoption in November and the consideration of the report at the March session of the UN Human Rights Council will require constant civil society pressure for the US to accept all of the recommendations crafted by the citizens channeled through the member states. Then, the real work begin with the implementation phase where the US will incorporate the recommendations into policies and practices to improve the human rights record transforming our priorities to respect fundamental freedoms and realize rights from our communities to the entire country.