Universal Periodic Review: The Human Rights Check-Up

By Joshua Cooper, Hawaii Legislative Coordinator, Amnesty International USA

The United States underwent its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) one week after the recent election.

For two years, civil society organizations across the country drafted stakeholder submissions, met with UN Missions in Geneva and New York to share specific recommendations, and hosted side events in New York, Washington, D.C. and Geneva (virtually) to provide vital voices from directly impacted people to diplomats.

For most hard-core human rights activists — even from Amnesty International — the UPR is not widely known. However, every country around the world participates regularly in the three+ hour review and it’s an important opportunity to organize around for what we hold dear as civil society.

The UPR process began in 2008, as a way for United Nations member states to hold each other accountable in their commitments to protecting, respecting and fulfilling human rights in their respective countries. It is a human rights “checkup” on how healthy the country currently is. The benefit of regularly reviewing each country (in rotating 5-year cycles) is that it allows all involved to document human rights progress or abuses and to meet with stakeholders, civil society and government officials. The UPR “human rights checkup” makes sure that we consider a country’s human rights record at least twice a decade. Even when life gets too busy, we have a mechanism through which we can advocate for human rights, and remember our true intentions, as outlined in our national charters, declarations and constitutions, as well as international conventions. The UPR allows for all to have a voice about our vitals regarding our vision to advance human rights in the country.

Domestically, the UPR is also a preventative measure for candid conversation between all segments of civil society and government to all know essential data regarding the human rights situation in the country. Globally, through the UPR cycle, one can see significant improvements from this international intervention. We hear from U.S. allies about the recommendations they have taken to realize human rights. These critical discussions twice a decade in the “human rights check-up” should result in some positive changes in the national body politic. We must show gradual improvement every UPR cycle in core constitutional rights and at least a couple major gains by our government to realize human rights for all.

What is exciting about this UPR of the U.S., even now, is you can be involved and make an impact. The official adoption of the UPR report with 347 recommendations will take place at the upcoming UN Human Rights Council session in February-March 2021. Each Amnesty International USA member can review the recommendations and share with their Amnesty chapters, city council members, congressional delegations and country government departments — from the U.S. State Department to the Department of Justice- about what matters most to us. We can demand that specific recommendations are acted upon.

Beginning on Martin Luther King Jr. Day (January 18, 2021), we are organizing a social media campaign with the hashtag: #AcceptMyRecommendation, where we are sharing the recommendations issued in November that should be accepted and acted upon immediately. The new administration has a bit over a month after the inauguration before appearing in Geneva. The Biden administration can send a high-level delegation illustrating its commitment to human rights, and even bring a handful of executive orders with specific legislation scheduled in the U.S. Congress docket.

The third UPR of the USA covered women’s reproductive rights, housing as a human right, transgender rights, seasonal workers rights, voting rights, healthcare as a human right, ending gun violence, systemic racism, the death penalty, police brutality, Indigenous peoples’ rights and the climate emergency. Many recommendations covered the U.S.’s horrible record of failing to ratify human rights treaties — three out of nine — including the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). In fact, 35 states recommended the U.S. ratify CEDAW, and it’s an embarrassment that the U.S. is the only country in the world not to recognize children’s rights. Equally high numbers of member nations recommended the U.S. end the death penalty and ratify the second optional protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The United States’ recently created Commission on Unalienable Rights didn’t receive much applause from across the world, as it undermines universal standards set up by Eleanor Roosevelt and others, when she chaired the UN Commission on Human Rights with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, seven states recommended the U.S. create a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) to address concerns regarding the status of human rights in the U.S. We need a U.S. Human Rights Commission to review all of the recommendations from every UN special rapporteur visit, UN human rights treaty body review, and the UPR. We need a national human rights mechanism that partners with cities across the country to advance human rights and implement these vital recommendations at the local, state and federal level to improve the daily conditions of our lives with a human rights-based approach. A central and uniform national system to track and oversee human rights progress is long overdue. Without an accredited NHRI, we won’t be able to measure improvements and the impact of our national human rights movement to realize rights for all.

The UPR is a regular global meeting everyone should be aware of so that we can all consider how to hold our government accountable and how to be more “human rights healthy.” Through the UPR, we can examine together some practical steps and best practices that could be implemented to bring us closer to our goals for the common good. Too often we are measuring other standards of success- financial or material success-usually GDP. We must create a means to measure human rights success. There is no excuse for a country not to improve with every UPR cycle: there is ample time for transformative action even if one begins implementation of recommendations only from the mid-term review until the actual UPR. It is simply a matter of will. Will the U.S. commit to recognizing human rights abuses being committed within its borders? Will local, state and federal governments take meaningful actions to address these abuses and our country’s human rights commitments to the global community? We must take advantage of critical mechanisms like the UPR to ensure that they do.

Please be informed and be involved at the upcoming adoption of the UPR in 2021 with us at Amnesty International USA.