The UPR Examination of the UK – 4 May 2017
May 5, 2017
On Thursday 4 May the UK had to defend its human rights record before other Member States of the UN. The UK was grilled on a diverse range of issues including plans to replace the Human Rights Act 1998, racism and hate crimes, corporal punishment and violence against women and girls.
What is the UPR?
The Universal Periodic Review is a mechanism of the Human Rights Council at the UN and runs in 4-5 year cycles and aims to examine each Member State’s compliance with human rights and humanitarian obligations, including all of the treaties, conventions and declarations a State has signed up to.
It involves reports from civil society and National Human Rights Institutions (like the NIHRC) being drafted and sent and the State consulting with civil society in order to draft and submit its own report, although this is done in a rather cursory manner in the case of the UK. The State is then examined on its human rights record in front of the Human Rights Council at the UN in Geneva through a 3-hour question and answer session and then a report is adopted and the State must ensure it works to meet the recommendations it accepts within the final report. It’s a cyclical process during which the State should be constantly working to improve its human rights record and to consult with civil society organisations.
The Human Rights Consortium gets involved in the cycle in a number of ways. As well as participating in consultation with the Executive Office in Northern Ireland and the UK Ministry of Justice, including by sending commentary to the UK Government on its mid-term report and the State report. We also write our own NGO report (see here) which we send to the UN and then we spend a few months talking to other States and briefing them on our report.
In addition to doing our own advocacy we also work to get our members and other organisations involved in the UPR and to publicise its existence. Last year we had a specific training and information event on the UPR for our members to coincide with the live stream of the review of the Republic of Ireland. We also provide ongoing support and advice for members getting involved in the process. During this review we partnered with our colleagues at the Equality Coalition and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to host a very popular ‘tweet up’ breakfast event where we live streamed the examination. Attendees came from within our own membership, but also a number of statutory bodies, giving us a chance to discuss human rights issues outside our own sector.
This was the third examination of the UK and it was the best yet in terms of clarity and depth of questions. Unlike with other UN human rights examinations, it’s not a committee of human rights experts asking questions, but rather diplomatic representatives of various States. This means sometimes recommendations can be frustrated by diplomatic relationships or simply because the diplomats asking the questions don’t understand the complex human rights issues. Despite the flaws of the process the UK had tough questions to answer.
The main issue raised was the UK’s proposal to replace the Human Rights Act 1998 with a British Bill of Rights. A host of States made it clear that any replacement legislation should in no way undermine how rights are enjoyed, this was something the Consortium (see here at page 15) and other NGOs had worked to see included, so it was a great relief to see so many States share our concerns. In their response to these questions it was surreal to watch the UK describe the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010 (the latter does not apply to Northern Ireland) as the basis of our domestic rights protections, while at the same time continuing to insist that they would change the human rights landscape after Brexit. The irony of this was not lost on people at our UPR breakfast event.
In what was a first for the UPR examination process of the UK, the Republic of Ireland also made some recommendations to the UK, in the past two examinations Ireland has maintained a silence while the UK is under examination. Ireland’s first recommendation was one shared by many countries the prohibition of corporal punishment.
Then Ireland took the interesting step of emphasising its role, “as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent Agreements,” in recommending that the UK, “should provide reassurance that any proposed domestic British Bill of Rights would complement rather than replace the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into Northern Ireland law,” and that, “a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland should be pursued to provide continuity, clarity and consensus on the legal framework for human rights there.” The Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, which was provided for in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was to be implemented in Westminster legislation (see here at page 12) and is a subject in the paused negotiations aimed at re-establishing devolved government in Northern Ireland. This month marks 19 years since the people of Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Agreement in a referendum so it is an exceedingly fitting time for Ireland, as a co-guarantor to take to the public stage of the UPR to call upon the UK to honour its commitment. While the UK responded that it would be willing to move forward given consensus of the Northern Ireland parties, it must be borne in mind that the Agreement laid the responsibility for legislating with the UK Government at Westminster and so the idea of consensus seems little more than a convenient stalling tactic.
Additionally, Ireland raised legacy issues, stating that it, “welcomes the UK Government’s commitment to establish the comprehensive institutional framework provided for under the 2014 Stormont House Agreement to deal with the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in a manner fully consistent with international human rights obligations and standards.” Ireland was not alone in highlighting the Stormont House Agreement and legacy issues, the United States and Australia also raised this point, and Switzerland in particular recommended that resources for the Coroners Service were increased to carry out legacy inquests.
Nor were these the only issues that applied directly to Northern Ireland. The issue of access to termination of pregnancy was raised repeatedly throughout the session. This was unsurprising given that the issue was a strong focus during Ireland’s examination under the UPR mechanism last year and the attention it received in the report submitted by groups such as Amnesty UK to the UPR. Countries raising the issue included Slovenia, Iceland, Myanmar, Canada and Sweden. States made various recommendations, generally calling for decriminalisation to bring law in Northern Ireland in line with recommendations from the UN Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (see paragraph 51 here). However, the UK responded that this was an issue for the Northern Ireland Assembly and so progress on the issue will not be seen until the devolved government in Northern Ireland returns. It isn’t quite as simple as this though, as the Northern Ireland Act makes it clear (in Sch 2) that international obligations, such as abiding by international treaties, including CEDAW is an excepted matter and so remains the responsibility of the UK Government at Westminster to ensure that law in Northern Ireland is in compliance with its international human rights standards. This principle was recently confirmed by the Supreme Court in the Miller case.
Other issues which featured prominently in the examination included the issue of racism and hate crime across the UK, with Botswana recommending in particular action on racial equality and integration in education in Northern Ireland. Violence against women and girls was raised repeatedly and particular attention was given to recommending the UK ratify the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.
It’s clear from the breadth and depth of recommendations that the UK has a lot of work to do over the next 4-5 years before its next examination under the Universal Periodic Review. While no sanctions are imposed on the UK for failing to meet these recommendations, the UK still takes its international reputation as a defender of human rights seriously, and this makes the UPR an important process to engage in for NGOs.
A Working Group for this examination will now draw together all of these recommendations into a single report which it will adopt on 9 May 2017, then in a few months this report will be adopted by the Human Rights Council at the UN. Between this time and the next examination NGOs, such as the Consortium, National Human Rights Institutions and others will continue putting pressure on the UK to ensure it lives up to the recommendations made, including through the mid-term reporting process.
 Including Germany, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Mexico, Namibia, Portugal, Serbia, Switzerland, Thailand, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Ecuador and Estonia
 Including Liechtenstein, Mongolia and Estonia.
 States which raised this included Guatemala, Sierra Leone, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand, Tunisia, USA, Angola, Argentina, Lebanon, Bahrain, Botswana and Egypt.
 States making this recommendation included Italy, Spain, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Finland.