NGO Advocacy at the Human Rights Council

When considering participating at the Human Rights Council, NGO should keep the following points in mind. Advocacy, in order to be effective, should be a continued and carefully thought-out process, including the following steps: planning, conducting, follow-up, and monitoring.

In parallel to these steps, advocacy at the international level, and at the Human Rights Council in particular, should not be used as a single tool. Instead, Human Rights Defenders should rely on all mechanisms at their disposal, and coordinate their efforts with regional, national, and local mechanisms in order to achieve their goals.

The key points that should dictate your interaction with other actors are credibility and rapport-building, if you are to truly move forward in your advocacy.

Planning ahead of the Council

NGOs should start by holding local or national consultations before coming to the Council, in order to define achievable objectives, an advocacy strategy, and a timeframe for realisation. You should always follow an integrated approach between the international, regional, national, and local level. Here are some tips to follow to prepare for successful advocacy during international conferences:

Hold national consultations before coming to the HRC in order to:

  • Define achievable objectives: this is a question of credibility and maintaining the State's interest. You can consider splitting a larger objective into multiple smaller objectives, as the steps needed at each session to reach your end goal. Unrealistic objectives run the risk of making you look unprofessional – change does not happen overnight.
  • Design a timeframe for realisation: Consider which objectives should be met during which session – especially if you are advocating on cross-cutting issues such as LGBTI rights which can relate to health, but also women's issues.
  • Develop your strategy: identify whether you should meet with your national delegation, find potential alliances and delegates you want to approach before you get to Geneva! By identifying the actors who have previously shown an interest in your cause, you can optimise your time by meeting them first.
    - Regarding States: for thematic priorities, you can look at Ministry of Foreign Affairs websites, our survey concerning country's priorities, and on the Extranet for past voting records. For country issues, see the Human Rights Watch database of past voting records.
    - Regarding NGOs: find Geneva-based NGOs on the Geneva International website, and ECOSOC-holders on the UN NGO database. The Extranet can also help you find NGO organising side events or making oral statements at the Council.
    - Regarding UN agencies: they are often present at the Council as representatives can be invited to talk at side events by NGO or State delegates. They can help you set your network, improve your visibility and maybe fund your project. You should look for international organisations in Geneva and see which ones are working on your cause.
  • Consider flying to Geneva before the session starts: delegates have more time to meet with civil society outside of the Human Rights Council.

Once you have held these consultations and you have defined your advocacy strategy, you should:

  • Combine your internal work with national advocacy: organise press releases and events to make your NGO known and to make new partners.
  • Meet with embassies in your country: this will serve to build your credibility before you meet with diplomats in Geneva.
  • Publish open letters:
    - They should provide concise and clear information
    - They should state a clear problem and a realistic aim
    - They should be a call for action, not an accusation

Don't forget: to organise a side event, you have to register and request a room (the deadline being approximately a month before the session). Side events can only be organised by or in partnership with NGOs with ECOSOC status.

Resources on preparing for advocacy at the international level

Conducting advocacy at the Human Rights Council

It is during that time that most relevant actors will be available in a single location, all in the same goal to meet people to make their voice heard. How to make sure yours is heard?

Remember that much of what is said and done during the plenary sessions is only a reflection of previous meetings and informal talks, as States often need to seek approval from their capital: meet with them early.

UN etiquette and credibility:

  • Keep in mind that the UN has a separate set of rules: NGOs must respect the security rules in place at all times. Stay in the zones that your badge allows you to enter, and only disseminate your documents in NGO-reserved space.
  • If you are working on a sensitive and/or political topic, remember that some stakeholders will try to cause you problems – so keep your calm at all times or you may be asked to leave the plenary room or the UN
  • Think like a State, Speak like a State, Write like a State (and Dress like a State): Stick to UN terminology, language found in previous resolutions, and diplomatic speech in both oral and written form. This will boost your credibility and entice States to reuse your information directly as it will save them time in this busy period.

Hold meetings and rapport-building with partners:

  • Plan your meetings ahead: keep in mind that delegates and other actors will be very busy, so don't wait until the last minute to ask for a meeting.
  • Save time for everyone: hold cluster meetings with States from the same regional group or interest. Meet with partners directly in the Serpentine Bar to save on travelling distances.
  • Prepare your meetings wisely: provide information in UN-language, preferably by reusing text from previous resolutions. If you are working on a country-specific issue, particularly in relation to minorities, highlight the impact on Human Rights rather than targeting the government.
  • Practice with your colleagues: particularly in regard to pitching your topic.
  • Maintain a link with permanent missions that have been sensitive to your cause in the past, so as to build on your relationship.
  • Spread out: maximise your human resources by keeping only one representative in the plenary room, the others should be active meeting partners and participating in side events.
  • Make the most of Geneva: combine your advocacy at the Human Rights Council with all other relevant Human Rights bodies. Interacting in person with partners will improve your chances of your information being integrated in documents in the future.
    - Special Procedures assistants are available on short notice during HRC sessions to meet with civil society and are located full-time in Geneva, making it easier and more interesting to build a rapport with them than the mandate holders.
    - Approach treaty bodies experts if relevant to your cause and to the timeframe.
    - Consider the timeline for advocacy for the UPR: remember that lobbying should start approximately 3-4 months in advance.
    - If seeking ECOSOC status: turn to the NGO Liaison Office at the Palais des Nations for advice.
    - Don't be afraid to seek out other UN agencies: UNICEF, ILO and WHO are particularly active during the HRC, although others may also be found.

Simple email tips to guarantee you a meeting with partners:

  • Use an official email address of your NGO, or put the name of your NGO in the sender details. This will not only impact your credibility, but also prevent your email from being considered spam.
  • Pay attention to the title of your email: do not use “hello” or “help”, but instead give an indication of the content of your information or request.
  • Write the email in a language understood by the staff: an email in a foreign language will likely be deleted without being opened.
  • Personalise your emails with the name of the person you wish to contact, or at least the name of the State.
  • Provide any information on past contacts with colleagues from the same Ministry (in Geneva, capital, or local embassy), or with EU delegations if writing to an EU Member State.
  • Introduce your NGO briefly: so the reader knows your work and your goals
  • Be polite: don't forget to thank the reader for their time.
  • Be clear and concise: keep it short and to the point, and highlight any important points if you feel it is necessary. This will guide the reader and save them time, ask directly what you expect of them (meeting, funds, etc.)
  • Formulate recommendations in line with your advocacy goal. Make sure they are realistic so the partner knows what you expect of them, so they can immediately determine if they are in a position to help – this will save you both time.
  • Don't send large attachments by email: as to avoid problems opening the file and overloading inboxes, send links to online documents instead.
  • Follow-up with a phone call if you do not receive a reply within a few days.

However important it is, holding meetings in Geneva cannot be your only tool in your advocacy strategy. Your participation to NGO events, press conferences and communication with local partners are also crucial for a comprehensive advocacy strategy.

Make your strategy as comprehensive as possible:

    Share best practices with NGOs
  • Attend the NGO Committee on Human Rights series of side events for “Newcomers at the Human Rights Council”
  • Visit the NGO Welcome Desk – more information will be available for you there.
  • Leverage the media
  • Hold press conferences: get your NGO and your cause known by holding press conferences at the Club Suisse de la Presse, and disseminating the information locally.
  • Use social media: you can keep your followers updated easily, but be careful to use it wisely.
  • Hold an event at Place des Nations: to maximise impact, try to time it for 5pm when most UN staff exit the building. You can also distribute pamphlets.
  • Don't neglect your local partners
  • Provide daily updates to national partners to keep them updated.
  • Make sure they lobby embassies and ministries: change happens at all levels!
  • Disseminate information: people need to be informed for new laws and rights to be enforced.
  • Translate in the local language any outcomes in which your NGO played a role, to reach as many people as possible. Remember there is no copyright on UN documents. This is especially useful when working on minority-related issues.
  • Formal participation
  • Prefer joint events and joint statements as it adds credibility to your cause, especially if you are a lesser-known NGO. This is also true for UPR submissions and communications to Special Procedures.
  • Practice reading your oral statements: save 20 seconds from the allowed time, so as not to lose your audience. This is especially important if the language you will speak in is not your mother tongue.

Don't forget: written statements need to be prepared in advance (deadline one week before the session), and you have to register for oral statements. You also need to confirm your side event 48 hours before it takes place and send a list of participants to the Secretariat.

Resources for NGO advocacy during the Human Rights Council


NGOs should keep in mind that improving the human rights situation on the ground is an ongoing process. It is therefore particularly important to interact with all relevant actors all year long, and not only during the Human Rights Council sessions. NGO should particularly interact with special procedures on a regular basis and to give due consideration to following-up on all contacts, actions and communications.

General follow-up

The primary reason for following up is to maintain the link with all the actors who helped you achieve your goals. This will help you in any future endeavours and is therefore crucial to your advocacy.

Follow-up will also help create a link between a resolution, or a recommendation, and its implementation. An international resolution is a starting point, but it is a State’s responsibility to apply it. NGO have a crucial role in monitoring implementation and informing relevant institutions in case of violations. This is particularly necessary in the case of Human Rights Council resolutions and UPR recommendations, which are not binding, although it should also not be neglected for Treaty Bodies recommendations.

  • General follow-up after an international conference: NGOs should inform the public of new resolutions and recommendations, as well as new special procedures mandates and other news. They should also summarise side events that are linked to their cause. In general, NGOs should work on maintaining the network they have created during the sessions through lasting contact.
  • Specific follow-up with institutional actors: if a State has presented a strong interest in your cause, either by making a statement or supporting a resolution, it is important to thank them and keep them informed of the evolution, be it positive or negative.
  • Long-term follow-up on implementation: NGOs should communicate with experts and special rapporteurs to keep them informed of a State’s compliance to a resolution or recommendation. Informing delegates and the media can also put pressure on governments to respect decisions.

Following-up on UPR recommendations

Although it is the State’s duty to implement recommendations made during the UPR sessions, NGOs and civil society in general have an important role to play in monitoring the implementation of new laws or mechanisms, and to report to relevant parties any change, good or bad.

NGOs should particularly encourage the Recommending States to follow-up on recommendations that were accepted, through the bilateral desk officer in the local embassies and at the capital.

Following-up on Special Procedures

A third of the communications received by the special procedures come from civil society organisations. It shows that NGO and other non-state actors have a central role to play in informing mandate holders.

  • Following letters of allegation and urgent appeals: you may for instance push for a response to be given by your government, either directly by approaching the government, parliamentarians, the National Human Rights Institution or other national actors, or at the international level, for instance through UN agencies or the Human Rights Council. National and international media as well as potential donor states and agencies may also be a good channel to increase pressure on the government to provide an answer to the allegations made by the special procedures mandate holder. Once an answer has been given, you also need to act on content of the response, in particular by checking the facts and informing the mandate holder on their accuracy.
  • Follow-up concerning to inform the mandate holder of the Special Procedure: once you have sent a communication, you should keep the mandate-holder informed of any change: if there is any new information or, if a communication to a State has been made, to inform the mandate-holder of the State’s application (or not) of the decision.
  • Follow-up on country visits: this could include the dissemination of observations and recommendations made by the mandate holder at the national level in order to create public pressure for change. As for the follow-up on letters of allegation, you may push your government to act upon the recommendations received, through institutions at the national and international level and through the media.
  • When a mandate holder delivers an annual report: you may wish to take this opportunity to disseminate information on its content at the national level and to attract the attention at the international level to issues by participating in the relevant Human Rights Council session (submit a written statement, assist to the presentation of the report and make an oral statement and/or organise a side event).
Resources for NGO follow-up

Monitoring and Evaluation

Monitoring and evaluation is a crucial phase in an NGO’s advocacy since it will give you an overview of your results. This is necessary not only for your donors who will require feedback, but also for the NGO to evolve according to the result.

Why monitor your advocacy?

  • Answering to donors and supporters: During the planning and during the accomplishment of your NGO’s project, other actors have given time, knowledge and funds. In return, they can ask for a report or a presentation to see what you have accomplished. You should be in a position to answer budgetary questions as well as questions on the impact of the project. The more you are able to deliver reliable and precise information, the more trustworthy your NGO will become.
  • Enhancing your communication: as mentioned, you must communicate and follow-up on projects for your advocacy strategy. Your monitoring is a key communicational tool to maintain your partners’ attention: it will show them not only your NGO’s efficiency, but also transparency and professionalism.
  • Improving your strategy: monitoring and evaluation is the most efficient and structured method to find the strength and weaknesses of your strategy. Having a realistic vision of the outcome of your advocacy is necessary to make future actions even more productive.
  • Reinforcing internal cohesion: evaluating strengths and weaknesses is also essential for the staff’s cohesion. Evaluate the management and team structure, and assess. If your project suffered from internal issues, solving them will on the top of your list for future projects.
  • Building a stable base for future actions and funds: supporters and donators will be particularly responsive to your past projects. Showing positive outcomes will comfort them and facilitate your fundraising activities.

Questions to ask yourself when creating your M&E report

  • Why are you monitoring and evaluating? We have given you good reasons above, but you should ask yourself if this step is a compulsory one for donors or a voluntary step. If it is compulsory, you probably have specific steps to follow and data to collect. In this case, it is important that you refer to the grant conditions. If it is a voluntary evaluation, ask yourself what you want to find out: are you looking for an evaluation of your NGO or the advocacy strategy in itself?
  • Who is your main audience? If you are creating a report for donors, you will have to do a balance sheet of the inputs and outputs of the project. Although donors will of course be interested in the human impact of your action, they will also focus on checking for the good use of their money. If your audience is going to be your NGO in itself, include management issues. You can also include feedback from your staff directly. If your monitoring is aimed towards communication for your NGO, focus mainly on the human impact: show how you made lives better. Include testimony and pictures as much as you can, but don’t forget to highlight your NGO’s transparency regarding funds.
  • What tools do you have to gather data? Having reliable information is extremely important. Check your sources before using any information. Think about both quantitative and qualitative data: numbers are important but cannot take into account the entire outcome of your project. For quantitative data, identify methods for collecting them, such as statistics taken on the field or changes identifiable through measurable data. For quantitative, tools can go from testimony from staff or people concerned by your advocacy project. You can use open-ended questions surveys or informal interviews.
  • How will you analyse your data? Once you have collected your data, thorough analysis will provide you with the best overview possible of your project. Think about who will be in charge of creating the report: if it is someone who participated directly in the project, he/she will have a good sense of priorities and should know which part of the report is most important. However, they will be less objective than someone from outside.
  • How will your report be distributed? If you are planning on sending it to your supporters or using it on your website, create a simplified and dynamic report. Select the most relevant information according to each delivery media. Your report should be adapted to your audience: create several different ones according to the use you will make of them.

What your report should include

  • Activities: in this part you should dress an overview of the missions and steps in your advocacy strategy. Explain the main parts such as the implementation of the project (the construction of the advocacy strategy, the first days of your project etc…) and central events and turning points. The idea is for the reader to have a global understanding of the functioning of your advocacy.
  • Goals: review what your objectives were, and see if you have reached them. In either case, explain the main causes for successful or incomplete accomplishment. Look back at your advocacy strategy plan and analyse each step.
  • Impact: This is for the qualitative part of the report. Did your goals actually help your cause? How did you make a change? Show the major evolutions on the subject that you can take credit for (new resolutions, recommendations from countries, etc…)
  • Recommendations: how can you improve your advocacy? Which technique was particularly efficient? What were your main limits and how can you solve them?

Remember: advocacy is an ongoing project that will take time and resources to be effective. It is much harder to evaluate its efficiency since quantitative data is much harder to find.

Steps to a successful advocacy for NGOs

  • Prepare your strategy: address root causes in a clear a simple way, to keep your interlocutor interested. It is important for your cause not to be based against anyone, but rather for something: this is especially true for country-oriented issues, do not make it seem like you are fighting against a government, but rather for a specific human right. Recommendations and solutions should be visible from the start to show the credibility of your cause.
  • Communicate and create a network: do not rely only on your work, find other NGO you can work with and create an alliance. Delegates will take you more seriously and your declaration time will be longer. Always communicate: keep national followers and other institutions updated. Conferences are only one part of your advocacy field.
  • Make your NGO known: plan events and attend other NGO and permanent missions’ side events to plead your cause. Organise press releases and informal meetings to stand out. Be proactive.
  • Follow-up: do not let your work during the conferences go to waste. Keep in touch with permanent missions and NGO representatives that have helped you during the session. Inform your national and regional institutions of all the decisions and advancements made. Keep international institutions and States informed of the implementations of decisions, or of new issues arising.
  • Monitor and evaluate: see what is working and what is not, to optimize your advocacy strategy. Collect information and analyse it, offer recommendations. Make your strategy evolve alongside your NGO.

Examples of concrete items to evaluate

  • Were the grants and the general financial support received from institutional or non-institutional actors used efficiently? Did donor requirements limit the use of these funds? Was there any additional funds not anticipated? (Extension of grant, individual donation…)
  • Did particular actors provide you with other financial assistance? (ex: Permanent Missions for side-events, other NGOs for publicity…)
  • Were the costs in line with budget? If not, how can this be prevented in the future?
  • Have there been any unforeseen costs that have influenced the project? Could these have been avoided?

  • Communication techniques
  • Which interactions were most productive? In-person interactions, use of e-mail, mailing, phone calls?
  • Was social media useful during this project? Did you use them for the creation of events, networking, etc?
  • Have you submitted oral or written statements made during international conferences? Has your formal participation at the Human Rights Council or other conferences provided results?

  • Impact
  • Were you successful in getting your cause mentioned in a declaration or a resolution? Has there been any other significant progress?
  • What was the overall reaction to your advocacy project? Was there any strong reaction in favour or against which influenced your project?
  • How has this project influenced lives on the ground?

  • Network creation
  • How have your past contacts helped you during this project? Were you able to use them to develop your cause/project?
  • Have you made new contacts during this project that could help you in the future? These can be at the UN, in NGOs, State delegates, journalists or any relevant actors.

  • Regional specificities
  • During your advocacy, were you able to identify diverging trends between actors (State delegates, NGO delegates, International organization staff) or countries/regions? Were you able to successfully address these differences and overcome related difficulties?