The United Nations Human Rights Council has a system of 'Universal Periodic Review' (UPR) which covers all member states of the UN. This means that each state is considered every 4.5 years across all human rights issues, and so clearly includes statelessness, whether or not the state is a party to the Statelessness Conventions or any other human rights treaties. This is a political, and sometimes politicised, process but despite, and even sometimes because of, this it can be a valuable tool in the fight against statelessness.
Although the UPR process sounds complex and technical, in essence it is quite simple.
There are three reports:
- Each state under review (SuR) prepares a national report, prior to which there are meant to be 'broad national consultations' within the country.
- In addition to the national report, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) prepares a compilation of UN information. This includes information from the UN country team (if any), UNHCR, the UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies, and the Special Procedures (Rapporteurs and Working Groups) of the Human Rights Council.
- OHCHR also prepares a 'summary of information from other stakeholders'. This includes information from regional human rights bodies, national human rights institutions (NHRIs) and NGOs.
The SuR appears before a Working Group of the Human Rights Council (a public meeting which is webcast) during which, in addition to its own statement and responses, any member or observer state of the UN can ask questions and make recommendations. These are all included in the report of the Working Group. The SuR has to indicate which of these recommendations it accepts no later than the time at which the Working Group report is adopted by the plenary of the Human Rights Council.
There are, therefore, two opportunities for NGOs to input information:
- by submitting it to OHCHR for the 'Other Stakeholders' report. The website provides precise information on how to do this – deadlines, format, etc – but also makes clear that the Office prefers to receive joint submissions, especially from country or regional NGOs, but that individual submissions and international NGOs are not precluded, and indeed, many do provide information. Deadlines are usually long before the national report is available and well in advance of the consideration at the UN!
- by participating in the 'broad national consultations' for national/local NGOs (assuming that these are held). In any case, the UPR process and deadlines present an opportunity for NGOs and NHRIs to get together (in those countries where this is feasible) to discuss the state of human rights in the country and to consider joint input to the OHCHR. This would also be an opportunity for awareness-raising about statelessness amongst other NGOs, the media, officials and others.
The Geneva Leg
The UPR is unique in my experience as it is a bilateral political process in a multilateral setting. When the SuR comes to Geneva for the UPR Working Group it presents to and receives questions and recommendations from other States, and even when the report is adopted, first by the working group and then by the Human Rights Council itself, the recommendations remain those of the individual State making them. For example, Slovakia recommended to Iceland: “Ratify the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons as well as the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness”, which Iceland accepted.
It is entirely political; no experts are involved at all. At the Working Group level, NGOs and NHRIs may attend and observe but not speak. A small number can make statements after the Working Group report is adopted in the plenary of the Human Rights Council, but that is too late to influence the process.
What this means is that participating at the national level and submitting information to the OHCHR is good, but it is essential to contact states to ask them to make the recommendations you want made. This can be done in country if there is an Embassy there, or via their Mission to the UN in Geneva or in capital. On statelessness specifically, getting States to recommend ratification of the Statelessness Conventions is relatively easy as such recommendations are seen as non-political. Similarly, it is likely that calling for the State to establish a Statelessness Determination Procedure should not be too difficult, though might need some background information for States who know nothing about such Procedures. For more specific recommendations which could be politically sensitive, it is important to consider which States might be willing to make the recommendation but it is also vital to consider whether the SuR is likely to react positively or negatively depending on which State is making the recommendation. If it is a State with whom they are in dispute – about nationality or other issues, they are less likely to accept than if it comes from a 'friendly' State or one they consider as one of their peers, irrespective of whether the wording of the recommendation is exactly the same! On the other hand, states may have bilateral issues that they wish to raise with an SuR and so not be prepared to take up a more general one in that instance.
Brevity and precision are vital: States only have 2 minutes in which to make their recommendations! Officially, they can also ask questions but because of the time limit and the fact that any response to the question would only be after they have made the recommendation, many no longer see any point in spending their time on questions. (There is also the possibility of States submitting written questions in advance but the benefits of doing this are limited). This also means that if the precise wording for the recommendation is important, it is worth trying to provide it in the UN language in which it will be delivered, otherwise the precision may be lost in translation.
The SuR is required to indicate whether or not they accept each recommendation. They can either do this at the time so that the result is reflected in the report of the Working Group or when that report is adopted by the Human Rights Council later. Various forms of wording are used most of which are self-evident, except that 'notes' means that the recommendation is rejected!
Getting the recommendation is, of course, only the first step as the real work is then back in the SuR to ensure that they implement accepted recommendations or change their mind about ones they did not accept. If they did not give an immediate response, there is an opportunity to try to influence the decision whether to accept. It is worth following up with the Embassies of those States who made useful recommendations both to thank them and to ask for their support – advocacy and possibly financial or technical support – in getting implementation.
Rachel Brett is an international human rights lawyer. From 1993-2014 she worked on human rights and refugee issues, including statelessness, at the Quaker Office to the United Nations in Geneva, for whom she is now an adviser. She is also a trustee of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion.