It is common for refugee diaspora communities to encounter human rights issues when fleeing their countries of origin, however, it is often difficult for these communities and individuals to bring attention to those human rights issues once they have settled in a new country. The following guide has been produced to assist refugee communities and organisations with UN human rights procedures when flagging potential human rights issues.The four primary ways refugee diaspora communities can engage with Human Rights Council mechanisms are through:
- General sessions of the Human Rights Council
- The Universal Periodic Review
- Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups, and
- The OHCHR Complaint Mechanism.
The complete guide has been compiled for the Refugee Council of Australia by Sarah Edwards, ANU College of Law International Law Clinical Program.
General sessions of the Human Rights Council
NGOs are able to engage in the general sessions of the Human Rights Council in a variety of ways, provided they have the appropriate accreditation. The general sessions are held three times each year. These sessions allow Human Rights Council member states to receive reports and discuss human rights issues. Members of refugee diaspora communities may only engage with the general sessions as a representative of an NGO with ECOSOC consultative status and accreditation to participate. To participate in a specific session, a letter of request must be sent by the NGO to the Human Rights Secretariat prior to the session.
Refugee communities and organisations are able to make written submissions and oral statements during general sessions through accredited NGOs. By attending general sessions, there is also an opportunity for participants to request an appointment with representatives of states. Through these meetings it is possible to persuade a state to make a statement or a recommendation during the general sessions. As states have a greater capacity to participate, their political influence will likely exceed that of an NGO. State support may serve to bring greater attention to the issue an organisation wishes to raise.
The Universal Periodic Review
Roughly every four years each member state of the UN undergoes a human rights review. This review is known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Civil society may participate in these reviews by submitting reports and by holding governments accountable during the interim periods. It is a good idea for NGOs to form coalitions when engaging with the UPR. A coalition of NGOs adds credibility and consistency to any recommendations they wish to make. When engaging with other states during interactive dialogues, it is also important that recommendations are well drafted. Recommendations should be specific and practical with regard to the target state’s local and national situation.
A proposed recommendation is more likely to be adopted where it is already supported by another UN mechanism. Reports may also be submitted to UPR Investigators and to human rights bodies and mechanisms in their own right. However, reports and submissions tend to be more influential when backed by an NGO. The UPR reports cannot conclude without consulting NGOs. This provides an opportunity for NGOs to ensure all relevant government departments are engaged in the reporting process. Civil society can also directly participate in the stakeholder summary during the construction of the UPR Report.
During the interactive dialogues of a general session, states will make recommendations to the country under review. These recommendations will be based on the information provided by the Working Group. Only states may make recommendations at this stage. There is no guarantee the country under review will adopt the recommendations, yet failing to adopt a recommendation requires the state to publicly explain their decision. This serves to bring added media and diplomatic attention to the issue. Where the state under review is not Australia, an Australian NGO can lobby the Australian government to put forth their recommendation.
Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups
A Special Rapporteur is an individual working on behalf of various organisations, who has specific obligations to investigate and recommend solutions to a specific human rights problem. Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups (known as ‘special mandate holders’) can bring attention to a pressing issue during an interim period of the UPR for your country. Any special mandate holder will receive submissions (where the submission requirements are met) regarding a violation of human rights that is specific to the holder’s specific mandate. A submission may be made by an individual or an NGO. However, an NGO submission may add more credibility to the claims. The mandate holder will then enter into communication with the relevant government. The outcome of this communication will also be presented at the next general session.
OHCHR Complaint Mechanism
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights allows for submissions of formal complaints against a state which has failed to meet its human rights obligations. The OHCHR endeavors that complaints which are found to be admissible will be investigated within twenty-four months of the first complaint. The OHCHR will not investigate an issue that is already being dealt with by a mandate holder or a treaty body. For this reason it is recommended to utilise the alternate methods to bring attention to your issue.
Useful links and information for Human Rights Council
International Service for Human Rights (ISHR): UN Human Rights Council Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR): Human Rights by Country
OHCHR: Universal Periodic Review OHCHR: United Nations Human Rights Council: A Practical Guide for NGO participants