What is the Universal Periodic Review?

By | September 15, 2019

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a relatively new UN human rights mechanism. In its ten-year tenure it has provided a forum for nations to review each other’s human rights records, with input from civil society.  It differs from other committees in the UN human rights system. Rather than relying on outside experts to critique government’s performance, the UPR brings to bear a sort of peer pressure on governments. It encourages them to work harder to protect human rights, offers best practices, and exposes shortcomings.

For contested social issues, including abortion and issues pertaining to sexuality, the UPR’s impact has been mixed.  Because the country reviews are done by other countries, the UPR offers a constantly-evolving picture of the human rights priorities of the global community.  It offers insights as to which issues framed as human rights enjoy universal or near-universal acceptance, and which are more niche concerns.  The UPR both enables and forces a degree of frankness in the global human rights discourse: countries under review must answer recommendations from their peer countries “on the record.”

Therefore, the UPR is what UN member States make of it. It is a universal discussion of human rights in which every country has a say and where observers can make note of shifting trends in the discourse.  Where other human rights mechanisms, such as treaty monitoring bodies, can sound like echo chambers for one side of a debate, the UPR by its nature exposes the lack of consensus that persists despite decades of debate.  

Recommendations made in the UPR are being credited with causing real changes on the ground, particularly in advancing the “sexual rights” agenda in some countries.  This paper explores how the UPR is being used to promote universally agreed rights on one hand, and distort human rights and promote divisive issues on the other. It concludes with observations about what pro-life and pro-family countries and organizations can do to make better use of the mechanism.