By: Dr. Renato G. Mabunga

(Note:  This article was first published in HUMAN RIGHTS FORUM, Volume 5, Number 1issue.  Updated and modified to incorporate latest developments and preparation on the Philippine 2nd Cycle Universal Periodic Review slated on the 13th HRC/UPR Working Group session in May to June 2012.)


“Every day we are reminded of the need for a strengthened United Nations, as we face a growing array of new challenges, including humanitarian crises, human rights violations, armed conflicts and important health and environmental concerns. Seldom has the United Nations been called upon to do so much for so many. I am determined to breathe new life and inject renewed confidence in a strengthened United Nations firmly anchored in the twenty-first century, and which is effective, efficient, coherent and accountable.”

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

IN 1997, and again in 2002, reforms in the United Nations gained ground in Geneva and New York, respectively. These reforms came in the heels of then-Secretary General Kofi Annan’s challenge to the UN’s “continued significance” in the face of 21st century realities. He called for improvements in how the UN conducts its work, implements its mandate and manages the funds entrusted to it by its Member States in order to bring human rights to all peoples of the world.

These reforms took a significant turn during the General Assembly’s 60th session. The world’s leaders adopted UNGA Resolution 60/251 on the 15th of March 2006, which created the Human Rights Council (HRC). The HR Council is now a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly, taking over the role of the Commission on Human Rights, which was created under article 68 of the UN Charter on Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The HRC was mandated to conduct a Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a mechanism to evaluate each member state’s human rights commitments. The said review shall be a cooperative mechanism, based on an interactive dialog, with the full involvement of the country concerned and with consideration given to its capacity-building needs. The UPR is intended to complement and not duplicate the work of treaty bodies.

At its fifth session on June 18, 2007, the Council responded to this request and adopted, through resolution 5/1, detailed modalities regarding the UPR. Threshed out in particular were the basis of the review, principles and objectives to be followed, the periodicity and order of review of countries, process and modalities, as well as the outcome and the follow-up to the review. The HRC also decided that the review would be conducted in a working group composed of the 47 member States of the Council.

At its sixth session on September 21, 2007, the HRC adopted a calendar in relation to the consideration of 192 Member States of the United Nations for the first four-year cycle of the UPR mechanism. The Philippines was selected among the 16 countries to be reviewed in the 1st UPR session on April 7–18, 2008.

The 1st cycle of the UPR process ended last October 2011 at the 12th session of the Human Rights Council.  The whole process was considered a “historic review of the human rights situation of the 192 United Nations member States”.  Immediately thereafter, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released an updated “Universal Periodic Review: information and guidelines for relevant stakeholders’ written submissions” for the 2nd Cycle’s submission of report and onwards.  It underscores two main changes on the technical guidelines:

  1. The scope of submission to the 2nd cycle must include information on the follow-up and developments to the recommendations for the State-under-review (SUR).
  2. The length of submission is fixed not to extend 2815 words for individual submissions and 5630 words for joint submissions.

As preparation for review, HRC required the concerned governments and other stakeholders to submit human rights reports, which should follow the following guidelines:

  1. Description of the methodology and the broad consultation process followed for the preparation of information;
  2. Developments since the previous review in background of the State under review and framework, particularly normative and institutional framework, for the promotion and protection of human rights: Constitution, legislation, policy measures, national jurisprudence, human rights infrastructure including national human rights institutions and scope of international obligations.
  3. Promotion and protection of human rights on the ground: implementation of international human rights obligations identified in the “basis of review”, national legislation and voluntary commitments, national human rights institutions’ activities, public awareness of human rights, cooperation with human rights mechanisms;
  4. Presentation by the State concerned of the follow-up to the previous review;
  5. Achievements, best practices, challenges and constraints; in relation to the implementation of accepted recommendations and the development of human rights situations in the State;
  6. Key national priorities, initiatives and commitments that the State intends to undertake to overcome challenges and constraints and improve human rights situations on the ground;
  7. Expectations in terms of capacity-building and requests, if any, for technical assistance;

(Philippine 1st Cycle UPR Side event at Palais des Nations)

Following these guidelines, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), issued information relevant to NGO engagement. In urging NGO engagement, the OHCHR emphasized that the UPR should be seen as a process, composed of several steps in accordance to the HRC Resolution 5/1 of June 18, 2007:

  1. States are encouraged to prepare the information they submit “through a broad consultation process at the national level with all relevant stakeholders,” which include NGOs;
  2. Other relevant stakeholders, including NGOs, may submit additional information with not more than 2815 word document for individual submissions and not more than 5630 word document for joint submissions. Input received from stakeholders will be summarized by the OHCHR (the summary shall not exceed 10 pages);
  3. Other relevant stakeholders, including NGOs, may attend the review in the working group;
  4. Before the adoption of the outcome by the plenary of the Council, the State concerned should be given the opportunity to reply to questions or issues raised.  Other relevant stakeholders will have the opportunity to make general comments before the adoption of the outcome by the plenary;
  5. The UPR outcome should be implemented primarily by the State concerned and, as appropriate, by other relevant stakeholders, including NGOs.

In October 2007, the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) called for a training-workshop on the UPR process, to enable Philippine Human Rights NGOs to engage the Philippine State in the UPR and to formulate a specific program for NGO engagement. Specifically, the workshop aims were:

  1. A firm understanding of the UN reform developments in the UN human rights system and how these developments are relevant to national HR work;
  2. Determine why (or why not) participating human rights NGOs should (not) engage in the UNHRC– UPR on the Philippines, and to determine the extent of engagement;
  3. Identify the main issues that will be engaged in by the participating Philippine NGOs;
  4. Decide the main forms of NGO engagement in the UPR, identify targets and allies;
  5. Decide on a specific timeline and organization of work for the next two months; and
  6. Reflect on the role of Philippine NGO engagement in the UPR within a broader international advocacy strategy.

Thirty Philippine civil society organizations took part in the training-workshop and decided to engage the Philippine government in the UN-UPR process.  They identified key human rights issues and concerns on the ground, the Philippine government’s voluntary pledges and commitments made during its candidacy to the HRC, the existing mechanisms (both local and international) that protect and promote human rights, and the gaps in the promotion and protection of human rights vis-à-vis these mechanisms.  Committees were constituted for the gathering of data, drafting, validation and submission of the NGO report.

On November 20, 2007, the “Joint Submission by NGOs with Consultative Status and Endorsed by 29 Civil Society Organizations (JSNGO)” was received by the OHCHR. This was the official title of the NGO submission initiated by PAHRA, which was quoted 11 times in the OHCHR collation of reports. The JSNGO report was only one of the 31 civil society submissions to the UPR, including that of the Commission on Human Rights-Philippines (CHRP).

For the 2nd Cycle of the UPR process, PAHRA again took the initiative to facilitate gathering of relevant civil society organizations in a series of workshop-consultation starting June of 2010.

  1. FIDH Civil Society Consultation on the Philippine Government’s Compliance on the CESCR, UPR and CAT Recommendations, June 17, 2010, in Quezon City;
  2. NGO National Consultation on the UPR, March 26, 2011 in San Mateo, Rizal;
  3. Universal Periodic Review 2nd Cycle Writeshop, September 12, 2011in Quezon City;
  4. Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHRP) and Civil Society Consultation-Workshop on the UPR, November 8, 2011 in Quezon City

On November 28, 2011, in time for the submission deadline PAHRA submitted to the OHCHR a report entitled “Joint Civil Society Report for the 2nd Cycle Universal Periodic Review”.  Sixty-three (63) CSOs collaborated to finalize the 2nd cycle report.

UPR lobby work

In 2008, upon the official acknowledgement of the JSNGO report by the OHCHR, the secretariat for the UPR process, PAHRA through its International Affairs Committee embarked on both local campaign and international lobby. Information dissemination and discussion of the report with various stakeholders, including the media, highlighted the local initiatives. The international lobby included appointments with individual heads of various permanent missions in Geneva, meetings with the different UN Special Procedures in relation to their mandates, and establishing links with international NGOs and exploring possible areas of cooperation and complementation of work. A Philippine Lobby team was composed to form the PAHRA delegation to Geneva.

The team met and discussed issues with various Permanent Missions and representatives of the offices of Special Procedures. While representatives of the Special procedures welcomed the team in their offices, meetings with country-diplomats/permanent missions were conducted during session breaks. Though meetings were informal, the discussions raised serious issues and concerns. The lobby succeeded in getting the commitments to bring to the session questions and recommendations regarding human rights in the Philippines.

Countries like France, Canada, India, Mexico, Slovenia, Ghana, Thailand, Japan, Guatemala, Republic of Korea, Switzerland, UK, USA, Australia, Malaysia and the offices of the special rapporteurs on Torture, Human Rights Defenders, Terrorism, Internally Displaced Persons, Violence against Women, Enforced Disappearance and OHCHR were among the groups the team was able to meet.

Out of the 18 Country Missions the team reached, 17 missions spoke during the interactive dialogue. 16 Missions carried the team’s questions and recommendations while only Thailand praised the Philippine Government.  Malaysia declined to intervene, as it was a troika member for the Philippine review.

On April 10, 2008, the Philippine lobby team together with other international NGOs and various government missions were invited to a luncheon with the Philippine government panel hosted by then Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, head of the panel. At the gathering, CSO representatives met with the government panel, during which the lobby team pointed out the gaps in the government report and gave recommendations for the government to consider.  Issues like extrajudicial execution, torture, and housing and policies such as EO 197, Mining Act, and human rights protection and promotion, were raised.  Recommendations like issuance of standing invitation to all special procedures, accession to OPCAT and CED, reporting to the treaty bodies and meaningful involvement of CSOs in government human rights processes were forwarded.

For the 2nd UPR cycle, CSOs are still to discuss, plan and strategize an upcoming lobby effort to communicate its report and recommendations.

Side events

Aside from meeting various delegations in Geneva, the team managed to present the JSNGO report to various international audiences, including Filipino communities in Switzerland.

On March 19, 2008, the first civil society UPR side event on the Philippines was organized by Diakonie/Action Network Human Rights, Amnesty International and the World Council of Churches. Missions from Canada, Switzerland and Slovenia, together with the OHCHR-Asia Pacific Unit and INGOs, attended the event.

On April 11, 2008, hours before the Philippine review, the Philippine Civil Society was able to share its experiences on the preparation of the UPR process in the Philippines. This was jointly sponsored by the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), Forum Asia, Human Rights Watch, OMCT and PAHRA at the Palais des Nations. It was attended by Permanent Missions, the OHCHR, various International Non-Government Organizations and representatives from the Philippine Commission on Human Rights.  It presented the gaps and challenges that need immediate attention by all stakeholders in the Philippines, particularly the state, as identified by the 31 separate submissions of civil society organizations.

Had it not been for the vigorous NGO lobby for civil society participation in the UPR process, the side events would not have pushed through. There was reluctance on the part of the OHCHR Civil Society Unit that time to allow country-specific forums without the concerned government’s endorsement, due to pressure from some HRC members. In particular, some leaders from Arab and African nations were not open to NGO participation. They viewed NGO forums as venues for criticism and attacks against governments.  As an attempt to block civil society voices, they drafted and circulated a non-paper modalities of the UPR which would have limited – if not closed off – NGO engagement within the UPR process.

It is also important to note that while many NGOs pushed for the side events as improvements in a still-developing process, some International NGOs based in Geneva were willing to accede to government restrictions. It was their view that NGOs should not push the issue of the side event as it might result in a backlash to the overall NGO engagement in the whole UPR process. The OHCHR’s granting of the side events proved them wrong.

The UPR Process of the Human Rights Council, though still evolving in terms of procedures and modalities, presents a venue for civil society organizations to engage governments on the real condition of human rights on the ground. It is with no illusion though that the process has a ready-made provision for CSO engagement. The process is a continuing challenge to assert CSO participation. As a process, it gives other governments a chance to look into the actual human rights situation within a country through the reports of civil society organizations. The nature of engagement the CSOs bring into the process will determine the relevance of the process to the people and communities they serve.

It must never be forgotten that the UPR Process is a national process. As long as national CSOs remain grounded and continually engage their governments on the concrete human rights condition, the UPR as a whole will serve as window of opportunity for the continuing promotion and protection of human rights on the ground.

UPR is a also a state process. Thus, when engaging in the UPR, NGOs should entertain no illusions that the process is primarily for civil society. But as long as avenues for engagement are presented, civil society must not default from its duty to rise above pre-conceived ideas of “government propping up government.”