Posted by: Castan Centre | May 17, 2017

Humans and Rights

By Nicola Silbert

Following an intense month at the Human Right Council, life at the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) continues. This post will discuss the Universal Periodic Review and an example of ISHR’s advocacy work for human rights defenders in China.

Universal Periodic Review

The Universal Period Review (UPR) is a review of the human rights situation in all of the UN member States. A review of the human rights records of basically the entire world is not for the faint-hearted, and there is no other universal mechanism of this kind. A State, known as the State under Review (SuR) will cycle through for review every five years. The SuR will present a national report and then other States have the opportunity to make recommendations to improve its human rights situation. It is reminiscent of a TV talent show with 192 judges and significantly more tears.

The UPR culminates in an “outcome report” listing the recommendations the SuR will have to implement before the next review. Think it sounds like a great idea? You are in good company, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon described the UPR as having “great potential to promote and protect human rights in the darkest corners of the world.” ISHR engages with the UPR by submitting briefing papers about the situation of human rights defenders in the SuR; supporting human rights defenders to interact with the UPR; and advocating for the strengthening of the UPR as a mechanism.

Humans and human rights

In the bland light of Room XX where the UPR is held, I struggled to conceptualise the meaning of words behind country reports. I was reminded of the following analogy:

“If someone tries to browbeat a farmer to sell his eggs at a moderate price, the farmer can say “I have the right to keep my eggs if I don’t get a good enough price.” But if a young girl is being forced into a brothel she will not talk about her rights. In such a situation the word would sounds ludicrously inadequate.” Simone Weil, Human Personality (1943)

In her criticism of human rights, Weil argues that the concept of rights is unable to portray the suffering of the girl in the above example. What would she think of the UPR and HRC? For me, the formulaic and disconnected atmosphere means that I struggle to understand the human rights violations which are described in the UPR. Of course, my individual experience of humanity also limits my understanding of how another’s humanity is violated. I can only imagine that the delegations involved in the UPR feel similarly.

Yet Weil was writing before the development of human rights as a legal tool. Human rights is not only a method through which we can express violations of our human dignity, but it is a legal system. As a legal culture, it is natural that the UPR and other human rights mechanisms do not go into issues of justification. In the UPR, the humans behind the human rights seem less important than the effectiveness of the mechanism. Yet implementation of UPR recommendations relies on political will, so perhaps it is important to have some deeper understanding of the humans who hold the rights. The pre-sessions to the UPR provide such a platform.

The pre-party

UPR pre-sessions are organised by the non-governmental organisation UPR Info. The pre-sessions are panels of human rights defenders and national organisations who provide first-hand testimonies and information. The room is filled with reviewing States, who use this information to make recommendations to the SuR. Listening to the lived experiences of human rights violations, State representatives are more likely to fully comprehend the situation in a country. The pre-sessions are clearly powerful, leading to some States preventing panellists from speaking – a human rights defender in Bahrain who was meant to speak on the panel was apprehended on their way to Geneva and another declined to speak for fear of reprisal. Providing a platform for people on the ground to engage with States ensures that the UPR remains effective and relevant to the humans whose rights are being discussed.

Advocacy at work

Another example of ISHR’s nudging the UN to focus mechanisms on defending the rights of people is through advocacy work. In July 2015, more than 300 human rights lawyers and defenders were arrested in China in what is known as the “709 Crackdown.” Two lawyers arrested in these attacks were Li Heping and Xie Yang. Last week, Li Heping was sentenced during a secret trial while Xie Yang’s trial was indefinitely postponed. There are allegations that both have been tortured while in detention. Meanwhile, Li’s wife, Wang Qiaoling was harassed by State security who asked her to come with them for a ‘reunion’ with her husband, a euphemism for what is essentially a house arrest.

What has been the UN response to the 709 Crackdown so far? In February 2016, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement expressing concern over China’s clampdown on lawyers and activists, including Li Heping. A group of twelve States, including Australia, also delivered a joint statement at the Human Rights Council. However, over the past year there has been little response to the ongoing human rights violations and clampdown on civil society.

So, how do international NGOs like ISHR push the UN to hold the Chinese government accountable? I was lucky enough to see the advocates at work. During the HRC in March, I watched civil society organisations strategize and meet with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). This was followed by a flurry of letter writing from ISHR and other organisations. We wrote to the OHCHR; to States who spoke out about China at the HRC; and to those who should have spoken out about China but did not (Australia being in this category). During the week that Li Heping and Xie Yang had (or rather, didn’t have) their trials, I gave my rusty Chinese skills a work-out, contributing to the following article.

The tangible effects of meetings, letters and articles are difficult to quantify. However, on Friday, the OHCHR released this statement on human rights lawyers in China, including Li Heping and Xie Yang. The Chinese government has been sensitive to this kind of international scrutiny in the past, making the statement a small success. ISHR’s pushes might have just tipped the OHCHR into making the statement, demonstrating the effect of their work. This advocacy is yet another example of how ISHR works within the UN systems to advocate for both humans and their rights.


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