Good for the goose? Not good for the gander?

By WANJOHI KABUKURU, GENEVA – There was a time when the mention of human rights simply meant a question of ideology and recipe for international confrontation. Many countries viewed the issue of human rights as a sovereign matter and feigned anger whenever the international community raised concerns.

Human rights matters evoked deep sentimental feelings on national sovereignty.  On this issue, the world never agreed. It never agrees.


For years the west – particularly US and Northern Europe – always took the moral high ground on human rights and dictated to the rest of the world their  ‘civilization’.  Africa more than any other continent bore the brunt of such criticism and it never took this matter kindly not because of poor governance structures but because of the double standards employed by the West.

Latin America and Asia have also trudged the same path as Africa. Reason: There were always two sets of human rights. One for the developed world and the other for the struggling developing nations. The United Nations which was expected to arbitrate and act as a barometer of fair play always played the same tune of ‘the Pied Piper of Hammelin’ and sang the song of the mighty within its amorphous UN Security Council (UNSC). The five Permanent members (China, France, Russian Federation, United Kingdom and United States) of the UN Security Council always had their way. One wonders how equal the UN claims to be and yet the major powers who sit in the UN Security Council have the hard to define “Veto powers”. In other words they have corrupted the saying “What is good for the goose is not good for the gander.”

Palais des Nations

Then came President George Bush’s “War on Terror” in retaliation to the September 11, 2001 attacks. The US and her allies in Iraq and Afghanistan exposed their underbellies on matters dealing with human rights. In came water-boarding, disappearances, profiling, secret airlifts and Guantanamo Bay and the very ills that the West accused Africa, Latin America and Asia of, became the bane of the US and her allies. How could the US and her allies condone torture?

The world reacted and overtime the US and her allies found their world ratings on credibility plummeting. The UN found itself fast losing its soul and worst of all it suffered immeasurably in public relations terms as it was viewed as a lap-dog of the US.

Something had to be done to salvage the UN’s moral high ground.

On 15th March 2006, the UN General Assembly created the Human Rights Council (HRC) to “address situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them.” A year later the HRC adopted key elements to guide its work and enable it to fulfill its mandate. Among the elements it adopted was the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism which was going to assess all the 192 UN member states on their human rights records. This was a vintage UN shaking off the ‘lap-dog’ tag.

Yves Lador

Yves Lador, a Swiss human rights lawyer and permanent representative of Earth Justice at the UN reveals:

“It is important to acknowledge that UPR came at a time when the UN was under severe criticism for playing second fiddle to former US President George Bush and his war on terror and the uncouth methods used by US security agencies in revenge for September 11, 2001. At the time, the UN and the US relationship had thawed as President Bush wanted to have his way and not only overlooked the UN but wanted to overrule it on international diplomacy. Actually UPR is the UN fighting back to assert its position and reclaim the credibility it had lost owing to Bush’s interference in global politics.” Lador explains.

In 2008 the UPR became a buzzword when the world began converging at the world’s “most neutral capital” Geneva, Switzerland to be peer reviewed on their respective human rights records three times annually.

During the UPR sessions countries under review engage the world in a moral catharsis at the Palais des Nations on their respective human rights status.

“The UPR is a unique, intensive and deeply engaging human rights participatory process of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) whose objectives are to improve human rights situations on the ground and to use a fair system for all of the 192 UN member states, irrespective of their might.” former Swiss international journalist and now spokesperson of the HRC Claire Kaplun says.

Clare Kaplun and Yves Lador

So far eight sessions of the UPR have been held bringing the states so far reviewed to 127 out of 192 UN member states. During the just concluded 8th UPR Session four African countries (Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry, Lesotho and Kenya) were among the 15 reviewed. The others were Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Kiribati, Laos, Spain, Sweden, Grenada, Turkey, Guyana, Kuwait and Belarus.

This is how the UPR whose objective is to improve the human rights situation in each of the 192 member States works. The UPR session is conducted on the basis of information submitted by the respective governments, civil society and the HRC’s Secretariat. During the interactive UPR dialogue with UN member States, a number of questions are posed to Government’s delegations on the human rights situation in their respective countries. Member States under review formulate and adopt or reject recommendations intended to improve their human rights situation as quickly as possible.

Roland Chauville the President of the Geneva-based NGO UPR-Info.Org whose sole duty is to ‘promote the strengthening of the universal periodic review” echoes Kaplun’s sentiments:

“Under the UPR mechanism, the human rights situation of all UN Member States is reviewed every 4 years which means 48 member States are evaluated each year during the 3 UPR sessions which are dedicated to 16 States each drawn from each continent.” Chauville remarks.

We are a select team of journalists who have been covering the UPR and now we are at the Swiss Press Club firing questions to human rights experts.

Samuel Dansette of the International Human Rights Federation (FIDH) agrees that the developed nations had a different approach to human rights as opposed to developing ones. “Though there are ideological differences and diverse definitions on what constitutes human rights the fact remains that UPR has been a key catalyst to bring countries together to openly discuss these critical issues and morally face up the world as they take up their commitments to  improve their records. UPR is a culmination of what is normally a national process of engagement between all the concerned actors. Geneva just provides a forum to discuss among peers. In other words we are moving to a stage in diplomacy where the human rights tenets will be equal to all.”  Dansette argues.

“You can bet at the UPR the developed nations will take on the developing countries on matters regarding governance, press freedom and torture. On the other hand the developing nations will query how their developed peers are handling immigration, trade, labour and such issues. In a sense ideology issues are still prevalent but the good thing is that UPR is giving a forum for open discussion and multi-sectoral participation.” Dansette adds.

Indeed the UPR has severally come under severe criticism as a “mere talk shop” and “praise singing ceremony”.

But Lador is quick to disagree:

“To begin with the UPR is a consultative national process. Non state actors, UN agencies in the country and the governments all give their side of the stories and then a synthesised report is collated together and issued at the UPR session. There is strong criticism on UPR but you cant compare it with other UN initiated systems like Doha (commerce) and Copenhagen (environment). These two international negotiations systems are not delivering as they are meant to and are not as honest as the UPR.” Lador argues.

Picking from Lador is Florian Irminger who is the Head of the Geneva office of Human Rights Foundation.

“UPR is diplomacy at its best. If you keenly follow up the process you’ll see that its nations talking among themselves. Of course diplomatic language takes a lot of time in the process bu there are concrete recommendations made at the end of the process inspite of the heavy diplomatic language involved.”

Irminger explains: “All countries are going through this process. Despite differences in ideology UPR has managed to significantly bring down the ‘big brother’ aspect. UPR is a process of the states talking about themselves. If you look at the state of human rights today and a few years back you note that there is a whole lot of difference. And here credit must be given to UPR. For instance cases of outright dictatorships are no longer the norm, torture of prisoners is no longer acceptable and it will be interesting to see what the United States will say when their turn comes later this year during the 9th UPR Session.”

Chauville agrees: “The moral aspect of the UPR is actually its strong point. There have been cases where countries rush through human rights legislation just a couple of days to the UPR.A lot of criticism has been leveled against the UPR as legally non-binding. This maybe the case, however lets not forget that UPR stands on a moral pedestal of a word given in public by governments under review.” he reckons with a smile.