NGOs can participate in a number of ways in the Human Rights Council. Participating means that they can physically assist to sessions of the Council and its related mechanisms, make written and oral statements or organise events at the margins of sessions. Yet participating does not include a right to vote. This right is reserved to States, and it is therefore important for NGOs to find other ways to make sure that their cause is reflected in this intergovernmental process. There are indeed a number of formal as well as informal ways of engaging with the Human Rights Council in a view to influence its work. While the formal ways, such as reading out an oral declaration, may be much more known, it is crucial to give due consideration to the more informal ways of working with the Council.
Formal participation of NGOs in the Human Rights Council is based on the Economic and Social Council’s (ECOSOC) resolution 1996/31 of 25 July 1996, which establishes the possibility for NGOs to obtain consultative status with ECOSOC. In principle, only NGOs in ECOSOC consultative status can assist to sessions of the Human Rights Council. Exceptions to this rule exist, namely for participation in the Social Forum, the Forum on Minority Issues and the Expert Mechanism on Indigenous Peoples (see below). In addition to holding ECOSOC consultative status, NGOs will have to request accreditation for each of their representatives inorder to assist to any meeting of the Council or its mechanisms.
Before a plenary session of the Council, NGOs in consultative status with ECOSOC can submit a written statement. This statement will become an official UN document and will be published on the website of the Council. The deadline for submission is two weeks before the beginning of the session. Submissions must use the official form. Written statements can also be submitted jointly by several NGOs. At least one of them needs to hold ECOSOC consultative status, but there is no need for the others to do so as well. Written statements can be made under any of the ten agenda items and should respect UN terminology. This means that you should use official names of countries and avoid using depreciatory expressions such as "regime" instead of "government".
For detailed explanations on how to hand in a written statement, see our FAQ section.
NGOs can also make oral statements during the session. These will not become an official UN document but are posted on the Extranet (user name "hrc extranet" and password "1session") once delivered.
First of all, you need to pick an item on the agenda of the Council where the content of your statement fits. Second, you also have to take into account that there are different formats of debates. In an interactive dialogue, your statement has to focus on the report under consideration and possibly make comments or ask questions in this regard. The General debate and the panel discussions are more open formats. A statement on torture in country X may for example fit under the following segments: a) interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Torture, b) general debate under item 3, c) general debate under item 4, d) general debate under item 9, etc. Depending on the scope of your declaration, other options may be available to you. If you are unsure as to which segment(s) would best fit your declaration, you may consult the list of speakers desk or contact the Civil Society Section. Much the same as for written statements, make sure you use UN terminology, such as official designations of States, and avoid using depreciative expressions such as “regime”.
In cases where NGOs do not give enough regard to chosing the appropriate item and format of debate, or use terminology that is not accepted within the UN, they are sometimes interrupted by a point of order. States can indeed ask the chair to interrupt a speaker if in their view, the speaker does not respect due procedure. In practice, this can most often be avoided by carefully drafting your statement: When speaking in an interactive dialogue, you should insert clear references to the report under consideration, and when speaking under a thematic item (such as item 3), you should refer to concrete violations by a particular State expressely as examples of a point you are making with regard to the topic under discussion.
The online list of speakers opens for all segments except the UPR (see below) at 2pm on Friday preceeding the beginning of the session and remains open until shortly before the discussion takes place. It may though happen that certain items are filled earlier due to high demand. Inscription should therefore be done as early as possible and through this form. When filling out the form you will be asked to choose the exact segment of deliberations, meaning one of the ten agenda items and one of the three formats of debates. You will be asked to select several options and to indicate priorities. To secure your time slot, it may be important to indicate several options.
Depending on whether you speak during a General debate, an interactive dialogue or a panel discussion, speaking time arrangements vary. Usually, NGOs will have 3 minutes for a statement in a general debate and 2 minutes in an interactive dialogue. It can tough happen that the time available for a statement has to be shortened if the Council is running behind schedule. Similarly, your timeslot may be scheduled later or earlier depending on how quickly the debate is advancing. It is thus very important that you stay informed and that you make sure you are in the room when your statement is up. The list of speakers desk can give you all necessary information in this regard. Last minute updates are also available through Twitter and the SMS alert (sign-up on the Extranet, with user name "hrc extranet" and password "1session"). Once you are up for speaking, you may take a seat at one of the two NGO speakers seats in room XX and deliver your statement as soon as the Chair gives you the floor. Make sure you stick within your time limit and do not read too quickly, to avoid interpreters getting lost!
For detailed explanations on how to make an oral statement, see our FAQ section.
Side events (also called "informal meetings" or "parallel events") are smaller events organised in the margins of a session. This can be a plenary session or a meeting of a subsidiary body of the Council. Side events are informal in nature: they do not have strict agenda items and do not require speakers to sign up beforehand. Usually, they comprise presentations from some panelists followed by a discussion with participants from the floor. Side events allow you to discuss a given topic in more detail than this would be possible during a plenary session. You may also be able to organise an event on topics that do not figure on the agenda of the Council.
Side events can be organised by NGOs as well as States or intergovernmental organisation. They can also be organised jointly by several of these entities. Side events organised during UPR working group sessions are called "information meetings", yet they are essentially the same and you need to follow the same modalities and procedures as if you were organising an event during a plenary session. If you wish to organise a side event, you will have to request a room online. The deadline is usually two weeks before the beginning of a session. Requests received later than this date are accommodated subject to availability of rooms. Demand is usually very high. You will receive a confirmation of your room booking by Email, yet this confirmation is only sent out after the deadline for room requests has passed.
For detailed explanations on how book a room for a side event, see our FAQ section.
The UPR is essentially an intervogernmental process where States examine States. Yet there is also scope for NGOs to provide inputs and to monitor implementation of the outcome. Once again, NGOs may participate in the process in formal as well as informal ways. For the latter, the advice outlined above also applies.
Below we have compiled an overview on the different possibilities for NGOs to engage with the process at each stage of a given UPR cycle:
BEFORE the exam in the UPR Working Group
Start planning one year ahead of the review!
|DURING the session of the UPR Working Group||
|BETWEEN the Working Group and the plenary session of the Human Rights Council||
|DURING the plenary session of the Human Rights Council||
The UPR should be seen as an ongoing process where the Geneva stages (the Working Group and the adoption of its outcome in the plenary) are only the tip of the iceberg: The bulk of the work has to be done at the national level, where in the end changes have to be implemented. The UPR is obviously not an end in itself, but should be used within the overall advocacy work of an NGO. It is worth strengthening that potential synergies between work in the UPR and other human rights mechanisms (such as treaty bodies or regional human rights mechanisms) could still be better exploited. Engaging with the UPR may contribute to the overall work of your NGO by strenghtening your advocacy efforts - some NGOs even see the UPR as a possibility for enforcing their claims - and by providing you with a great opportunity for making contacts and extending your network.
When working with Special Procedures, NGOs should think of this work as an interaction with a mandate as a whole, much rather than an interaction with a single mandate holder. Special procedures mandate holders work in fact part-time and are often not based in Geneva. For this reason, they are assisted by special procedures assistants who work at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and who follow closely all the work related to any given mandate. NGOs can for instance request meetings with special procedures assistants or provide them with information on their work by Email.
More specifically, NGOs can engage with special procedures along the following axes:
Mandates only provide feedback on your submission if follow-up action is required. To check whether the mandate holder has taken action following your communication, you can check the Communications Report of Special Procedures. This report is accessible either by mandate (as an addendum to the annual report, or for some mandates, through the webpage of the mandate), or as a compilation of all mandates published on the website of the Human Rights Council (select "Sessions" in the upper left corner, select the relevant session - approximately 3 to 4 months after you submitted the communication - then click on "List of Reports" for the session, and finally open the document "Communications Report of Special Procedures"). In this Communications Report you will find a list of Letters of Allegations and Urgent Appeals by topic sent by Special Procedures to States, the full-text of these letters (document symbol in the left hand column) as well as information on whether the government of the State concerned has replied, and if so, what its answer was (for the latter, see the right-hand column "reply" and click on the document symbol. If there is no symbol, the government has not replied).
When a special procedures mandate holder has requested to visit your country, there is a role for your NGO to play in pushing your government to accept a visit. You may also wish to consider advocating for your government to issue a standing invitation to allow all special procedures to visit your country at any time.
Before and during a visit, you should provide information on human rights in your country to the mandate holder. You may also wish to meet the mandate holder during his/her visit or organize a series of meetings for him/her. As a matter of fact, the mandate holder has an official programme of visits to follow which has been agreed upon with the government, yet the mandate holder can also hold additional meetings. For such meetings, mandate holders can protect their contacts and not inform the government of whom they have met.
A country visit is also an excellent opportunity to increase awareness of the existence of the mandate and of the rights they monitor and protect.
Mandate holders apply several criteria when they decide which countries they are going to visit: They namely take into account the urgency of a situation and the extent to which human rights violations occur. The credibility of the information received and how well it can be used also play an important role. Finally, mandate holders also need to maintain a certain geographical balance in their programme of visits and take into account regional developments.
When engaging with special procedures, 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 special procedures on a regular basis and to give due consideration to following-up on all contacts, actions and communications.
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 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 on country visits 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. In any case, you should keep the special procedures mandate informed of subsequent developments, be they for the good or for the bad.
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).
Special procedures mandates welcome information by NGOs on the development of international human rights law. When engaging in standard setting processes, they often hold consultations with NGOs, issue calls for submissions or hold meetings with NGOs.
Some NGOs also decide to work on the functioning of the special procedures system as a whole. This would in particular be an option for NGOs with a permanent representative in Geneva.
NGOs that have interacted with special procedures have sadly sometimes become the subject of reprisals. Unfortunately there is no magic recipe on how to avoid this happening, and situations differ from country to country. As a local or national NGO, you usually know best yourself what risks you can take, and where you should rather stand back.
To seek protection at the international level if you are faced with reprisals, you may contact the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders at defenders (AT) ohchr.org. At the regional level, there are also mechanisms to protect human rights defenders. At the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, you may contact the Office of the Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders. The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights has a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders. The European Union has issued Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders, for cases outside the EU. The work of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also puts emphasis on human rights work undertaken by NGOs. Finally, the NGO International Service for Human Rights works on human rights defenders and may also be able to give you advice and assistance. Check also their section on protection mechanisms.
Incidents of reprisals against individuals or NGOs that have cooperated with special procedures are collected by the UN in the Secretary General’s Report on cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights or “Reprisals Report” which is published on an annual basis. If you wish to report an incident, you may send inputs into this report to reprisals (AT) ohchr.org. When doing so, you should respect the following conditions:
Last but not least, inform as many other NGOs, journalists and people as you can – the more your work, your situation and yourself are known, the better you might be protected against reprisals.
To learn more about the functioning of Special Procedures, please refer to Functioning of the HR Council. Comprehensive coverage of the system of special procedures is given by our collection of publications. Also see our FAQ section.