"No purpose of government without the enhancement of the people it governs"

The  latest round of UPR Info Pre-sessions was held on 5 -7 October 2016 in Geneva in preparation for the 26th Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group (31 October – 11 November 2016). Almost 50 civil society organisations (CSOs) were represented during the three-day international human rights conference on the following States: Uganda; Togo; Haiti; South Sudan; Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Syria, Moldova, and Timor-Leste. In less than a month, these States, alongside Lithuania and Iceland, will be reviewed at their second-cycle UPR.

This round of Pre-session was of particular importance for Togo and Uganda, as UPR Info has been working at the country level through the Follow-up programme. In the lead up to the Geneva Pre-sessions, UPR Info engaged with civil society partners on UPR training and advocacy strategies. In Uganda, UPR Info has been supporting defenders and activists since March 2015. Inspired by their colleagues in Thailand,  the Venezuelan, the Moldovan and the Ugandan CSOs created advocacy factsheets that were distributed during the Genevpre-sessions 26a Pre-sessions.

On the first day of the Pre-sessions, UPR Info had the pleasure to welcome the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Kate Gilmore, to open the event. She began her address by recalling the important role of the Pre-sessions, how they facilitate the dialogues around the UPR and renew a belief in the international human rights mechanism. She also thanked member States for engaging in the Pre-sessions and for collaborating with CSOs. Further, she stressed the importance of the role of the civil society and CSOs in the UPR process, and encouraged States to continue this collaborative approach: “There is no purpose of government without the enhancement of the people it governs, it is a service, not a control [...] civil society is the purpose, the ability for people to contribute to a community, create safe spaces, jobs, and unity”. Furthermore, she condemned reprisals against CSO actors by States and calls for “zero tolerance” on the matter, highlighting the “shame and disgrace” reprisals bring to the UPR process.

 
During the three days of Pre-sessions, CSOs and National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) from nine States were represented and had the opportunity to share their evaluation of the human rights situation in their country. They offered reports coming directly from the ground. Though topics differed from country to country, numerous issues featured prominently amongst the statements including: women’s rights, LGBTI rights, the rights of the child, the rights of indigenous peoples, the right to food, the right to water, health care, housing, limitations to freedom of expression, assembly and association, independence of the judiciary, and land rights. In addition to raising awareness of the human rights situation in their country and commending some of the progress made since their first cycle reviews, CSOs highlighted issues for which the government has not done enough to ensure effective implementation of accepted recommendations. Moreover, CSOs presented draft recommendations focusing on the issues they raised, in the hope that their concerns would be translated directly into recommendations at the Palais des Nations in November.

Unfortunately, the round of Pre-sessions was also affected by real threats of reprisals against human rights defenders. On the second day, Roland Chauville, Executive Director of UPR Info, opened the session on South Sudan by expressing his regrets that only international NGOs, instead of local voices would be taking the floor. This was due to the serious fear of reprisals, which prevented local defenders from participating at the Pre-sessions. This case is an illustration of the concerns Kate Gilmore raised in her opening statement, but is far from unique to the South Sudanese context. Issues surrounding the safety of speakers from Venezuela also marred the Pre-sessions. Because of the danger defenders face when speaking out about the situation of human rights in their country, the Pre-sessions, and the international community, lose the voices of key civil society actors. UPR Info has noticed this worrying trend develop throughout the last few rounds of Pre-sessions, and seen broadly in international human rights advocacy as a whole. UPR Info, echoes the sentiments of the Deputy High Commissioner, calling for States to promote and protect a safe space for civil society to engage in national and international human rights mechanisms.

This round of Pre-sessions was the last of the second cycle, which will be formally concluded at the UPR in November. Over the last five years, UPR Info has organised Pre-sessions on 149 countries, where 150 different Permanent Missions have come to hear over 700 human rights defenders and national human rights institutions. As the UPR enters its 3rd cycle, UPR Info will continue to improve the Pre-sessions to ensure the dialogue between States and CSOs deepens, for the benefit of the UPR mechanism and to influence positive human rights changes on the ground.