How does an organization know which mechanism to use to engage the UNHRC?

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How does an organization know which mechanism to use to engage the UNHRC?

To help start the conversation and keep the focus of this discussion thread, please consider and respond to the following questions:

  • What mechanisms are available to organizations to engage the UNHRC?
  • Share scenarios of how an organization would engage the UNHRC:
    • if the organization focused on a specific theme
    • if the organization focused on a specific country or region
  • Are you an organization considering whether or not to engage the UNHRC? Tell us your situation and we will try to offer you some advice.

Share your experiences, thoughts, ideas and questions by adding a comment below or replying to existing comments!

For help on how to participate in this conversation, please check out these online instructions.

How do NGOs use the UPR and the special procedures?

In the first discussion thread, Paola mentioned two ways that NGOs could engage/approach the UNHRC:

It is also important to remember that engaging at the HRC also means engaging with its mechanisms, namely the Universal Periodic Review, where states human rights records are reviewed, and the special procedures of the HRC, which are mandates decided by the Council on certain thematics and/or issues. These mechanisms allow for human rights defenders to directly submit the information they have to international institutions, thus making sure that violations don't go unnoticed and that the international community is aware of ongoing violations and taking action, be it during reviews or under mandates.

As someone who does not have experience working with the UNHRC, how do NGOs work within these two mechanisms: the Universal Periodic Review and the special procedures? Where can someone go to learn the steps needed for these processes?


Kristin Antin - New Tactics Online Community Builder

I would say that to choose

I would say that to choose between the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and the Special Procedures, an NGO needs to assess what kind of information it has (thematic information on several countries, thematic information on one particular country, country information on several topics), when it can share this information (eg. by when will your research be ready?), what kind of outcome it wants and what kind/amount of work it is ready to dedicate to the mechanisms.

Here are the main differences between the two mechanisms to help NGOs decide where to put their resources (both can be targeted, of course!):

Special Procedures are independent human rights experts mandated by the UNHRC to report and advise on human rights from a thematic (36 of them) or a country-specific (12 of them) perspective. These include for example, a Special Rapporteur (SR) on adequate housing, a SR on  freedom of opinion and expression or a SR on Sudan. Special Procedures can be useful to NGOs that work on a topic or on a country that is covered by one of the SPs. In such cases, NGOs are welcome to share their information with the Special Rapporteurs, meet with them if they come to visit their countries, provide them inputs for their reports and alert them to individual cases of rights violations through "urgent appeals" or "letters of allegations". Special Procedures can highlight human rights concerns falling in their mandates before the UNHRC (and sometimes the UNGA) through their reports, they can issue press statements, make recommendations and play a mediating role with States.

The UPR is a review mechanism assessing the general human rights situation of every UN Members State every 4,5 years. The review is made by other UN Member States, no independent expert in involved. During the UPR, a number of recommendations (often over 100) are made by States. At the end of it, the State under review can accept or simply note (i.e. reject) the recommendations. When it accepts a recommendation, it commits to implement it in the next 4,5 years.

The UPR follows a traditional review process: 1) NGOs should be able to input into the State's national report, 2) NGOs are allowed to submit written information on the State that will be reviewed (called the "State under Review"). If NGOs want to engage in steps 1 or 2, they need to follow the UPR timetable that is decided before the start of the next cycle (see the timetable for 2012-2016). But it is clear that NGOs have most impact if they engage in active advocacy to get States to make the NGOs' recommendations during the review.

The NGO Group for the CRC has produced fact sheets for child rights NGOs interested in engaging in the UPR explaining the mechanism, and how to prepare a good written submission. A third one on NGO advocacy will be released before the end of March 2013. There is also an NGO based in Geneva that works exclusively on the UPR and can provide assistance to NGOs called

Sorry for the long post, but I thought I should clarify how each of those mechanisms work first!

Best, Anita

NGO Group for the Convention on the Rights of the Child

Other ways for NGOs to engage the UNHRC?

These are fantastic resources, Anita! Thanks. And thank you for explaining the UPR and Special Procedures mechanisms.

Are there other ways that NGOs can engage the UNHRC outside of the UPR and Special Procedures? (a question for everyone)


Kristin Antin - New Tactics Online Community Builder

How NGOs use UPR

Hello everyone

The way NGOs can use UPR is  first of all to come together  and share data on given issues.For instance  NGOs working on Economic Social and Cultural Rights isues , those engaged on children issues  etc come together and share  information on the situation on rights .This ensures that the information collected is up to date, the data is then compiled into a report  and  the participating organizations endorse that the  report is the true reflection.

Then the NGOs can come together and develop a shadow report  or alternative report based on the research done ) to what the government has developed and this is one way of  monitoring  compliance in terms of access to rights  for citizens  .


Thank you


Leonida Odongo

Thanks Anita for your comment

Thanks Anita for your comment, it is indeed very informative for NGOs to get familiar with the mechanisms. I will share the experience of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies engaging with these mechanisms to illustrate your points. 

1) For the UPR, CIHRS has worked extensively with partners to support them in preparing and submitting submissions to the OHCHR according to the timetable you shared. The UPR preparations can be a great way for NGOs to build partnerships and increase their network at a national level as organisations can get together to bring their own research to create the UPR submission. Because the UPR is a comprehensive overwiew of the human rights situation and record of one country, it constitutes a unique opportunity for CSOs to work with one another, even though they might not work on the same thematic. At the international level, the Cairo Institute has been involved in pre-UPR sessions consultations organised by UPR-Info which are consultations organised two months before each states' review. These consultations are a great way of sharing information on the HR situation of a country and of making recommendations to States to push them to make them in turn to the State being reviewed. It is important to underline that NGOs do not speak during the Working Group session but are allocated a speaking slot during the adoption of the UPR reports during HRC sessions, so the best way to get recommendations across is to lobby states prior to the review to make them , which is what CIHRS has been consistently doing in Geneva.

2) While engaging with the UPR is a process that can be planned in advance by NGOs according to the timetable, engaging with the special procedures of the HRC can happen on a more ad hoc basis. For example, cases of torture of Human Rights Defenders, or cases of arbitrary detention or violations of freedom of expression or assembly require immediate urgent action. This is when an NGO can decide to engage with the special procedures by drafting a submission to the relevant mandate and sending it to them. When drafting a submission, it is important to have an expected outcome: what is it that you would like to see come out of the submission? Is it to shed light on an issue and to encourage the mandate to act as a mediator with the State concerned? Are you writing to encourage the Special Rapporteur to request a visit to the country to assess the situation? Would you like to see a press release coming from the Special Rapporteurs? Always try and incorporate the outcome desired in your submission. In terms of how to draft it, you can go on to the webpage of each mandates or you can visit this page that will guide you through the process and indicate what are the key elements the mandates need. 

The Special Rapporteurs report  to the Human Rights Council according to the terms of the resolution that instated them. 

3) To engage in the Human Rights Council sessions themselves, NGOs with an ECOSOC status can submit Written Interventions and present oral interventions during sessions and organise side events on country and /or thematic issues. NGOs should go over the calendar of thematic resolutions available here and go over the HRC session programme of work to identify opportunities for advocacy. Once this overview process is done, NGOs can build on their advocacy strategy with a clear objective in mind. Going over voting record of previous resolutions on the issue also helps greatly in identifying which countries to lobby, as does knowing who are the members of the council. Producing advocacy briefs, research papers etc... are key documents that NGOs can share while Lobbying with states in advance. Most advocacy efforts should happen prior to the session and to the voting of the resolutions to maximise impact. NGOs who do not have ECOSOC status can send representatives nonetheless that can be accredited by a partner NGO who has it. 

Sorry for the long post, hope this helps

What is ECOSOC status and how does an NGO get it?

Thanks, Anita and Paola for these great explanations of the different ways to engage the UNHRC!

Throughout this conversation, I keep reading comments with the acronym ECOSOC - can you explain what that is and how NGOs get that status? Is it difficult? Is this status required for NGOs to engage the UNHRC?


Kristin Antin - New Tactics Online Community Builder

ECOSOC status helps but is not obligatory

That's a very good question Kristin! Simply put, the ECOSOC status gives NGOs official access to the UNHRC. This means that ECOSOC status NGOs can engage in all the activities open to civil society actors and especially, the written statements and oral interventions mentioned by Paola and get a UN badge that will allow them to physically access the UN.

The process to get the ECOSOC status is a lengthy (minimum 2 years - but this has become the exception/maximum...well there is no maximum as applications can be deferred almost indefinitely...) and political one (a Committee made of States, the "Committee on NGOs", decides whether the status should be given to NGOs or not).

My NGO was lucky to obtain it in 2 years (we also undertook some serious informal lobbying of States members of the Committee on NGOs) but it is true that they may be more enclined to accept child rights NGOs than NGOs labelled "human rights", especially if they focus on some 'hot' topics, like LGBTI issues, or particular States. 

That said, there are a number of opportunities that non-ECOSOC NGOs can seize in relation to the UNHRC. For example, they can engage in the Universal Periodic Review by submitting written information on the human rights situation of one particular State and they can liaise with Special Procedures and meet them during their country visits.

Non-ECOSOC NGOs can also engage in all the activities open to ECOSOC NGOs if they get accredited by an ECOSOC NGO and/or get the support of an ECOSOC NGO. If they get accredited, they can physically attend the UNHRC. If their sponsoring ECOSOC NGO allows it, they can also deliver an oral statement, produce a written submission or organise a side event under the name of the ECOSOC NGO.

This is of course not an official way of doing things but it is quite common in Geneva, hence the importance of linking up with Geneva-based NGOs! (check this thread where a discussion on collaboration and partnership has started)


Although this is a side track

Although this is a side track, here also this: ISHR is following the NGO Committee sessionsi in NY closely, and supports NGOs in trying to get their Status. See for instance this story or get in touch with our colleagues in the NY office

Do NGOs need to exhaust nat'l mechanisms before going to UNHRC?

In another discussion thread, Leonida makes an interesting point, that:

When local  structures especially the legislations  and the jucidiary fail to address a given human rights issue such that all local avenues have been explored and the issue has not been satisfactorily addressed  then the UNHRC can be  engaged.

I know that this is true for many UN mechanisms - that the national-level mechanisms must fail before you engage UN mechanisms...but is this true for the UNHRC? Must an NGO show that they have taken certain national-level steps to rectify the situation before engaging the UNHRC? Or does this UN body not have those requirements?

If the UNHRC does have requirements for NGOs to exhaust the national-level mechanisms - can you tell us what those requirements are, exactly?

Thank you!

Kristin Antin - New Tactics Online Community Builder

Exhaustion of all local level mechanisms

Dear Kantin

In my view no government would like to be taken to the  UNHRC because of a rights gap among its citizens and will many a times  try to look good especially to  international bodies.To share on an issue of the  identify of  children born to Nubian parents in Kenya ,  the Nubians  were originally from Sudan ,  have stayed in Kenya for many years , but  have challenges in access to identity cards.When one is to access an ID card in many cases one has to have supportive documents in form of IDs of parents  to confim  one is Kenyan, this becomes problematic for Nubian children  who in many instances the parents  do not have IDs, the UNCRC recognizes the right to  nationality and this is also enshrined in the Constitution and the African Charter on Rights and Welfare of the Child.

That's my take based on  my participation in an advocacy  process on optional  protocol on complaints procedure , but i'm willing to learn from the expertise of others.


Leonida Odongo

Human Rights Council vs treaty bodies

Hi Leonida and Kristin,

This discussion is revealing again, I think, a confusion between the treaty bodies and the Human Rights Council. Kristin pulled out the distinction in a previous thread. It is not an easy one to get to grips with, but it's important to keep in mind that the UN human rights system is effectively composed of an independent, expert driven side; and a political State driven side. On each side you have different bodies.

While the treaty bodies, inclduing the Committee on the Rights of the Child which you mention Leonida, are made up of independent individual experts, the Human Rights Council falls on the political side of the system, and is made up of States. The Human Rights Council is the subject of the discussion in this conversation. 

As you might imagine this leads to very different kinds of debates and discussions. The treaty bodies monitor the implementation of international human rights standards, (treaties or conventions - Leonida you mentioned the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child). They take a much more legal and technical approach to assessing whether a State that has signed one of these conventions is meeting its obligations to implement the provisions of the convention. 

The Human Rights Council's debates, on the other hand, between States, are naturally politicised. This can obstruct a genuine debate about human rights concerns, as national interest is often placed front and centre. However as Michael mentioned, they also tend to be more visible. and this itself can be valuable.

There are other differences between the two sides of the system. First, for a State to be held accountable to an international convention or treaty, it must have ratified that treaty in its parliament. That is, it must have agreed to be bound by the terms of that treaty. If it has not agreed then it cannot be held accountable for implementing the terms of the treaty.

The Human Rights Council, on the other hand, can assess any situation in any country, - whether a State has ratified a treaty does not matter -all human rights in all countries are open for discussion. 

The other difference, which Kristin and Leonida indicated, is that if you want to bring a complaint to a treaty body that your country is violating a treaty it has ratified, you must first have exhausted all domestic legal remedies.

This is again not a requirement for raising a situation in the Human Rights Council. Again, any human rights situation in any country may legitimately be raised in the Human Rights Council.

Sorry for this long message - I hope this helps a bit to clarify the difference between these two very important sides of the UN human rights system.



There is a Human Rights Council Complaints Procedure

I hope I am not going to confuse people more ... but just to be 100% correct, there is a Human Rights Council Complaints Procedure that allows the Human Rights Council to examine complaints alleging "consistent patterns of gross and reliably attested violations of all human rights and all fundamental freedoms occurring in any part of the world and under any circumstances", in addition to its faculty to raise any human rights situation in any country, as mentioned by Heather above.

However I don't know that this procedure has been useful for civil society actors....I have no direct experience with it, but it seems to combine the worst of both worlds as it requires: the exhaustion of domestic remedies, a "consistent pattern of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights", AND is led by States instead of independent experts....The only plus side to me is that it is also open to NGOs that have "direct and reliable knowledge of the violations" (whereas other international complaint mechanisms require a link with direct individual victims) and seems to cover "all human rights", not only the treaties/conventions ratified by the State concerned.

Has anyone ever used this procedure? If so, is it a "safe" mechanism to use for NGOs/victims?

Human Rights Council Complaints Procedure

Thanks for mentioning this Anita. It is a confidential process and I've also not directly engaged with the mechanism, so it's hard get much information to judge whether it is a "safe" mechanism for NGOs and victims to use. I think it would be important to know, for example, whether all information submitted in a complaint is shared with the State involved to make that decision on safety.

Although my organisation has not actually used the procedure, I'm sure that our advocacy on Eritrea benefitted from the fact that a confidential complaint was being considered by the Council at the same time (as we later discovered when the Council adopted a resolution bringing the confidential procedure to an end and transferring the matter for public consideration). It meant the issue was already on the radar of members of the Council and I'm sure helped generate additional interest.

Exhaustion of domestic remedies - overview

To clarify the interesting discussion in this thread:

  • Human Rights Council - no need to exhaust any remedies
  • Individual communications to Special procedures of the Human Rights Council - no need to exhaust domestic remedies, no need to check ratification or acceptance of competence 
  • universal periodic review (UPR) - no need to exhaust any remedies (but not an individual complaints mechanism, but periodic review


  • Human Rights Council Complaint Procedure - exhaustion of domestic remedies needed, no ratification check needed
  • Treaty body individual communications procedures (where they exist) - exaustion of domestic remedies needed, ratification required, acceptance of competence of Committee to receive individual communications required. 

A good overview of each, including a setting out of the different 'communications procedures' and their pros and cons is contained in the handbook for civil society by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) 

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