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Statement by ambassador Carsten Staur at the opening of a Seminar on “Sharing national experiences of the UPR”, organized by Canada, Denmark, Universal Rights Group and the Danish Institute for Human Rights

“Sharing national experiences of the UPR”, Informal Seminar, 8 May 2015, Organized by the Permanent Missions of Canada and Denmark, Universal Rights Group and the Danish Institute for Human Rights

Introduction by the Permanent Representative of Denmark to the UN in Geneva, Ambassador Carsten Staur

Diplomatic missions in Geneva often talk about the polarization of the Human Rights Council; and about how the UN member states in the Council often disagree on the interpretation of human rights and the role of the Council.

However, on one particular question, our views tend to come together: We all seem to agree that the Universal Periodic Review – the mechanism which was created as part of the framework for the Council, when it was established in 2006 – is a uniquely valuable addition to the human rights pillar of the UN.

There is no clearer indication of this shared value assessment than the fact that all UN members states – without exception – have chosen to fully embrace the mechanism which is now in its 2nd cycle of state reviews.

What is it about the UPR that takes our normal human rights conflicts and disputes out of the equation and fundamentally changes the dialogue? For me it boils down to three important features:

1) This first feature is the universality of the UPR. The systematic review of each of the 193 UN member states, one after the other over a little more than 4 years, addresses two very different types of dissatisfaction with the previous system.

On the one hand, some would claim that both the old Human Rights Commission (before 2005) – and the current Council (after 2006) – was and is politically biased in their choice of countries to put up for scrutiny during its sessions. I personally don’t see the bias as the selection is tied to well documented human rights issues in the selected countries – but I do agree that the selectivity of the Council arguably raises a number of questions that are impossible to answer, not least in respect of an ‘objective’ threshold of human rights abuses in a country that make it merit attention under item 4 of the Council? It’s difficult to put into a spreadsheet.  

On the other hand, we have the large number of state parties to the core human rights treaties who face regular and detailed scrutiny in the treaty body committees. All very well, we say to each other, but what about the countries who have chosen not to become a state party? Who are holding these countries accountable to the promises we made to each other when we adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Vienna Declaration?

While there still remain states who would perhaps prefer that the Council during sessions should not address country cases at all – and while state parties will obviously still seek universal ratifications of UN conventions – the UPR does work as a partial release for both frustrations: In the UPR we are all equal. No country is exposed more than its neighbour, and we are all held accountable to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Vienna Declaration – regardless of which core human rights conventions we have ratified. 

2) The second important feature of the UPR is its peer-to-peer character. When we receive recommendations on how to improve human rights protection from treaty bodies and special procedures, these recommendations come from experts. The recommendations are all highly valuable and represent the considered advice from excellent professionals who know their specific field of human rights inside out, who can compare countries with each other, and who give advice based on what worked in other countries.

But when we as governments give advice to other governments in the UPR, we bring something else to the table, which is important as well, in another way. In my view, we add a dose of humbleness and political realism to the human rights equation. As governments we are acutely aware that all governments constantly deal with conflicting political and popular demands on budgets, on lines to take and decisions to make, and on ‘political space’ in general. When we consider recommendations to fellow states, we inevitably need to pose ourselves the question: How is my country actually performing in this particular field? Do we live up to the recommendations we give to others?

Inevitably such questions instil a healthy degree of realism in our recommendations to each other, which seem to make UPR a more palatable mechanism to many states. This, by the way, also means – and this is a positive side-effect of the UPR which is often overlooked – that the UPR spurs a constant, inherent self-scrutiny by participating states. Giving recommendations to others somehow requires you to have your own house in order!

3) The third important unique feature of the UPR is of course its cooperative nature. Governments sovereignly decide which recommendations to agree to and act upon. This is in many ways the silver bullet of the UPR. It makes the UPR a non-threatening space to all governments. But at the same time, it puts the individual government where it’s supposed to be: in the driving seat of its own human rights trajectory, and demonstrably accountable to the international community but not least to its own civil society and its own people.

In sum, the UPR offers a human rights mechanism to governments which is equal for all, where introspection is the point of departure for recommendations to others and which is non-imposing in nature, while underscoring the ultimate accountability of governments to the human rights of their own people.

It was – we have to admit – quite well crafted by our colleagues of late who roamed the corridors of the Palais des Nations a decade or so ago searching for a proper framework for whatever kind of new mechanism to replace the Human Rights Commission. Next year, when the Council can celebrate its tenth anniversary, we will need to find a proper way to thank them.

The UPR cannot stand alone, of course. It’s one human rights instrument among many. Special procedures, treaty body mechanisms, Human Rights Council, OHCHR and not least the many NGO’s and civil society organizations in the field alongside various campaigns and issue driven initiatives – all of these actors constitute the international human rights framework. But the UPR process had added new perspectives to the discussion, which we highly appreciate.