What challenges and new opportunities exist for organizations working to engage the UNHRC?

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What challenges and new opportunities exist for organizations working 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:

  • How do organization engage the UNHRC when they do not have an office or representative based in Geneva?
  • Share the challenges that you have faced.
  • What new opportunities are on the horizon for human rights organizations with regard to engaging the UNHRC? Share your thoughts and ideas.

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

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The UNHRC website!

There are without doubt a number of serious challenges relating to organizations engaging with the UNHRC, especially for the majoity of non-Geneva based bodies. Securing the funds to travel to Geneva, a visa to enter the country and a badge to physically enter the UN site are the obvious ones, let alone possessing knowledge of and insight into how the whole thing works! These matters notwithstanding, I do find that the task of circumnavigating the UNHRC and UPR websites more than just a bit of a chore in themselves. Unfortunately, the UN is not exactly known for its user-friendly websites and the UNHRC website is no exception in this regard. Moreover, I say this as a native English speaker!

How can domestic NGOs utilize NGOs already in Geneva?

Thank you for sharing these challenges, Matthew! Yes, the UN websites could definitely be improved. :)

One challenge that you raise that has been brought up before is physical access/presence at the UNHRC. There are many human rights organizations around the world who would like to have more access to the UNHRC, but they do not have the resources to have a staff person based in Geneva, let alone an office there.

However, many organizations are based in Geneva (the International Service for Human Rights) and others have offices/representatives there (the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies). How can human rights organizations utilize the organizations, offices, and representatives that are already based in Geneva? Is this already happening? It would be great to learn more about these examples and how organizations could develop these relationships.


Kristin Antin - New Tactics Online Community Builder


I completely agree with you. Imagine one whose english is below average trying to find information online. The other challenge is to call and to speak in English and be understood. Even though other languages are used in the UN we all know that one better understands English.



A way around that, at least for the UPR, is to use UPR-info.org. 

challenges and opportunities

Hi all! Thank you for sharing your experiences. I agree with the challenges highlighted. In addition to the funds to travel to Geneva, I think that many WHRDs question the effectiveness of the Human Rights Council and the impact that it can have at the local level. The challenges and weaknesses of the body, in some cases, outweigh the opportunities and effectiveness. Why to invest human and  financial resources in a mechanism/body that offers little redress at the local level? Obviously, it depends on the country, organization, particular situation, etc…

Another issue is the possibility to partner with some of the organizations that are present in Geneva so they can serve as a bridge. This option can be useful in many cases, however, in some cases WHRDs and women’s groups do not share a common agenda with mainstream human rights groups. I think that building alliances between these organizations is an area that needs to be further explored.

On a positive note, the Council also presents some good opportunities for NGOs and Networks. The WHRDs International Coalition has some good experiences participating in the Human Rights Council to give visibility to WHRDs issues. For example, making interventions during the interactive dialogues with the Special Representative on human rights defenders and also organizing side events. Through these activities the WHRDs Coalition has been able to give visibility to the specifics violations face by WHRDs and also the context that allow those violations to take place.

We also had a positive experience with the Meso American Initiative of WHRDs ( a network of WHRDs from Mexico and Central America) during the March 2011 session, when a delegation of WHRDs was able to meet face to face with the UN Special Rapporteur, they started to see opportunities in engaging more regularly with those bodies.


Partnership with local organizations

Another issue is the possibility to partner with some of the organizations that are present in Geneva so they can serve as a bridge.

This is a very important point. I should say that it is done a little more than it used to but still not enough. Working with local authorities makes work easier for UN agencies unfortunately, especially in Western Africa, the government does not represent properly the civil society and the needs on the ground.

It is well understood that the UN is avery heavy machine but urgent needs should be adressed fast and in an efficient way. Even the ECOSOC program may be very slow and long for organisation that have proven to be active and efficient on the ground. but without the ECOSOC certification no organisation can go to the UN and speak up.



Opportunities for non-ECOSOC NGOs to work w/ UNHRC

Thanks for sharing your comment, Kadida! Yes, it sounds like the ECOSOC process takes a long time (at least 2 years). But it sounds like there are a number of opportunities for NGOs to engage the UN Human Rights Council without the ECOSOC status. Anita highlights these in her comment in another thread:

...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.

Kadida - what has your experience been like in trying to work within the UN Human Rights Council system?

Thanks Macu, long time no see

Thanks Macu, long time no see!

I agree with you that the financial challenge - or more accurately calculation, as you've put it, is a hard nut. I think that in many instances, engaging through a network as you've indicated makes sense. The Human Rights Council has also recently started opening up the opportunity to deliver video-messages (instead of travelling all the way to Geneva for a short statement) which I think can - at least at an initial stage of engaging with the Human Rights Council - be a good alternative. Again, as noted in another thread, I think this only really makes sense if it's used as part of an overall strategy of change that starts at the national level, and where the Council is (merely) used to amplify that. 

The specific example of the women human rights defenders (WHRDs) increase of visibility, both by meeting the Special Rapporteur and other efforts such as the panel debate held at the Human Rights Council plenary in June of last year, is interesting in that it highlights how 'on the ball' organisation(s) need to be to keep an issue visible, and actively developing, particularly with the many competing issues taken up. 

As for the lack of a common agenda with mainstream orgs, as you've put it, do you have specific recommendations on how that could be built? I agree that it would be useful to think about challenges in terms of access not only to the 'formal' UN spaces - in this case the Human Rights Council - but also within and among civil society groups. 

Hi Michael! Great to see you

Hi Michael! Great to see you in these spaces! Re your comments on ideas about how to build bridges between women’s groups and mainstream human rights organizations, I think we could look at the work that some LGBT groups, in particular ARC International, have been doing in Geneva. I think they provide a very good example! They have been very strategic in building alliances an mainstreaming their issue in other organizations’ agendas. For example, doing joint lobbying with other organizations, participating in parallel  events, and overall making sure that other organizations understand their issues.


Narrow or broad engagement?

Useful clarification and example, Macu. What I find interesting about the example you made is that the specialist organisation (Arc in your example) has itself managed to position itself as (almost) a mainstream organisation because of the way it approached its specific expertise, LGBT rights, as part of a much wider struggle against discrimination, and because it also managed to position itself as an organsation that cares about and is active on institutional issues.

So if we extrapolate from that, it seems that one can successfully position a specific issue as mainstream if the approach is - while being specific - also one that keeps the overall dynamics in mind, rather than what one might call a 'parachute' or 'cherry-pick' approach where organisations may only engage on a very narrow set of issues.

Of course, both strategies are legitimate and lead to results, but respond to different objectives - so I think if the aim is to mainstream an issue, it seems that this is more easily achieved (and accepted by other specific and mainstream organisations) by broad engagement. If the aim is a very specific outcome responding to a particular interest, a more narrow engagment may be ok and appropriate. 


You both make some really

You both make some really good points Kantin and Macu.

On the issue of partnering-up national and Geneva-based organizations, we have done this to a much greater extent over the years in relation to the UN Committee against Torture. Regarding the UNHRC, I can only recall a couple of occasions when I have been approached for this purpose, although my colleagues at the APT may have received such requests. This may well be down to the fact that colleagues outside of Geneva do not associate the APT as an organization which engages with the UNHRC, although we do in reality.    

From the perspective of a Geneva-based organization, when issuing invitations, we really need to know the organization we are inviting quite well, especially if we are issuing letters for visa support and securing access to the UN for the invited parties. There also needs to be some form of genuine partnership and/or cooperation, particualrly at the country level. Saying that, we have had some very good experiences in this connection vis-a-vis the UNCAT, so there is no reason this fruitful collaboration could not be emulated in relation to the Human Rights Council.    

Collaboration and partnerships

I would completely agree with Kristin and Matthew on the importance of developing partnerships with NGOs in Geneva - these need to be based on mutual understanding of each other's work and priorities, to know what can and can't be done through partnerships. Before EHAHRDP received ECOSOC status in 2012 we were fortunate to have partners who could help us physically access the UN.

Without a presence in Geneva it can be difficult to keep up-to-date with developments at the Council, so engaging with NGOs who are there and following the situation closely makes all the difference for effectively engaging at the Council. They can help identify openings and opportunities for engagement on your issues, and to decide when it is worth investing precious resources into travelling to attend the Council in person.

And finally on the UN websites - they really could be improved! Difficulty in accessing appropriate information can be such a barrier to groups engaging with the UN. I'd be really interested to hear how important an issue different groups have found this? Do we need to advocate for better access to information?

...not only to come to Gva but also to engage via email only!

Most of the organisations we - the NGO Group for the CRC - work with do not have a presence in Geneva, do not have ECOSOC status and have limited resources that impede them from coming to Geneva. Furthermore, since the NGO Group is a network organisation, we can only accredit members of the NGO Group to the UNHRC, unfortunately.

But thankfully collaborating and partnering up with Geneva-based NGOs is not restricted to badge issues! The UNHRC offers many opportunities to non ECOSOC NGOs to provide their information and influence discussions through email only. The main difficulty is to know when and how and this is where collaboration and partnership with NGOs who routinely use unfriendly tools such as the UNHRC website or extranet can make a difference.

When it comes to specific mechanisms of the UNHRC, such as the UPR and the Special Procedures (see a brief explanation of those mechanisms here), we provide technical assistance to any interested child rights NGO and help them reach out to the UN missions or to the assistants (both by providing them the contact details and by explaining how they should present their info to be as effective as possible and get an answer from diplomats/OHCHR staff). Some of our partners have therefore met with Special Rapporteur during country visits and provided information for their thematic reports, others were successful in getting some UN missions to raise their recommendations during the UPR of their State.

Do any other Geneva-based NGO provide such assistance for non-child rights NGOs? Are there other ways Geneva-based NGOs could assist national NGOs to effectively engage with the UNHRC?

Resources for non-ECOSOC NGOs to navigate UNHRC online system?

Very interesting, Anita - thanks for sharing this!

You write:

But thankfully collaborating and partnering up with Geneva-based NGOs is not restricted to badge issues! The UNHRC offers many opportunities to non ECOSOC NGOs to provide their information and influence discussions through email only. The main difficulty is to know when and how and this is where collaboration and partnership with NGOs who routinely use unfriendly tools such as the UNHRC website or extranet can make a difference.

For those non-ECOSOC NGOs that have important info to share with the UN Human Rights Council, do you know of any resources out there that can help NGOs navigate the UN Human Rights Council website and other tools in order to provide this important information?

A couple of docs to help NGOs navigate the UNHRC

Hi Kristin,

I am not aware of any comprehensive practical toolkit on the UNHRC. That said, the OHCHR has produced a handbook for civil society with specific chapters on the UN HRC, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and the Special Procedures in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish + Georgian, Nepali and Persian. The publication can be downloaded for free and hard copies may be ordered from the address provided on the webpage.

I have also put together a short (12 pages) document summarising the key advocacy opportunities for ECOSOC and non-ECOSOC NGOs at the UNHRC and its mechanisms for my organisation and its partners. The paper provides a short explanation of each entry point, a list of activities that can be undertaken under each entry point, links to the webpages interested NGOs need to go to to get the information they need and contact details of key partners at the UN.

A first and easy step that any NGO interested in engaging with the UNHRC should take consists in joining the OHCHR Civil Society Update, which disseminates information on Special Procedures and their upcoming country visits or reports, dates of upcoming UNHRC and UPR sessions, deadlines for civil society submissions, etc. It is a good way to stay informed of the developments and new entry points and only requires reading the emails you get!

Hope these can help and definitely interested in knowing about other resources!


Participating by video messages

Since last year, NGOs in consultative status with ECOSOC which do not have an office or representative in Geneva, and which do not have individuals accredited to the relevant session of the Council, can submit video messages to be played during certain debates at the Council (includes adoption of UPR outcome reports in HRC plenary session, and interactive dialogue on special procedures' reports on country visits, among others). As with statements made in person, there's no guarantee that NGOs will get on the speakers list and the statements are subject to strict rules: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/GuidelinesNGOVideoStat...

EHAHRDP has not yet tried out this means of participation. What experience do others have of using video messaging, and/or what do you think of the potential for this new modality for engagement?


Hi Rachel and all,

Thanks for highlighting the fact that ECOSOC accredited NGOs can now participate via pre-recorded video-message although, as you point out, subject to several conditions, including that the NGO in question must not have a presence in Geneva and must not have anyone accredited to attend the session.

The upcoming session of the Council will be the third session at which this option has been open to NGOs. However, uptake from NGOs of this new modality has to date been low. The Council's Secretariat which is in charge of developing and tweaking the process wants to make it as user friendly as possible - so I would reiterate Rachel's question to those (few) who have used video-messaging to share how it went and how the process could be improved.

I would strongly encourage NGOs to explore this option. Hopefully it opens up the door to more local NGOs to participate in Council debates and the more these voices can be heard at the Council, the better. ISHR would certainly be happy to provide assistance to NGOs who want to know more about this particular means of engaging. 


Pre-recorded messaging...

Dear Rachel and Heather,

Thanks very much for informing me about the pre-recorded video messaging process, about which I have to plead complete ignorance. I will certainly keep this in mind and inform my contacts for future sessions.

More generally, I really admire the trend which we have seen in recent years of webstreaming the Human Rights Council and treaty bodies, such as the UNCAT and Human Rights Committee. This service is an excellent means of following the related proceedings without travelling to Geneva. A number of my colleagues at the national level have also given me positive feedback about the streaming of events.




One other serious challenge I'd like to raise is that of reprisals. Unfortunately there are many instances of human rights defenders who face harrasment, abuse, assault or worse when they engage or try to engage with the Human Rights Council or its mechanisms. This abuse can come from State representatives in Geneva or in the human rights defenders' home country. 

See this story for just one example.

Threats of this nature can obviously deter defenders from trying to raise issues at the Human Rights Council. The Human Rights Council has an obligation to ensure that defenders who engage with it, who supply it with the valuable information it needs in order to respond appropriately, are able to do so without fear for their own safety.

Unfortunately the Council to date has not put in place protection mechanisms. 

Currently all cases of reprisal that are reported to the UN are included in a report that the Council discusses on an annual basis. There is some space here to hold States accountable for what happens to defenders in their countries, however it is not being used effectively to hold States accountable and deter them from allowing or enabling harm to befall defenders. 

There are indications that the Human Rights Council now recognises that this is a problem, for example it held a panel discussion on the issue where States discussed with panellists how the Council and the UN in general could respond. This was last year so we may see more movement this year on this important issue.

Does anyone have advice to share on how to mitigate potential risks from engaging with the Council? 

Public v. confidential engagement with the UNHRC

This is a very important issue Heather, thanks for raising it!

In a number of occasions, some of our partner organisations also had to cancel activities, including the submission of information to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), for fear of reprisals.

For those who are not familiar with the UNHRC, it is worth recalling that any engagement with the UNHRC is public (and all submissions/interventions are posted on the internet with the name of the NGO).

The approach we and our partners have had so far was to see if an international NGO would be willing to submit information/deliver oral statements under its name to avoid mentioning the source while still raising the issue/concerns at stake.

When this has not been possible, the activity was dropped but, where relevant, the information was still shared with key actors, such as certain UN missions that we know and trust, to try to find a way to get the issue/concerns raised at the UNHRC. Not ideal but the only thing we felt was safe enough.

Managing security to avoid reprisals

Thanks Heather for raising the important issue of reprisals and Anita for the practical suggestions of how HRDs can protect themselves. This is an issue that we have been very concerned about at EHAHRDP –and we also have had to cancel activities that we judged too risky.

I think this highlights the need for human rights defenders to incorporate an analysis of the risks involved in any given situation we are working in and to see how we can mitigate those risks. We shouldn’t assume that the Human Rights Council is an entirely safe space but on the other hand we need not to exaggerate the risks either. This is another area where building strong relationships with NGOs based in Geneva can again be useful to help to understand the working environment of the Council more thoroughly – for example, as Anita noted, that any engagement with the Council is in the public domain.

Resources exist to help HRDs carry out risk assessments and manage their security, so that they can safely and effectively engage with the Human Rights Council, as well as in their more general work. I know that New Tactics has had previous conversations on how practitioners can enhance their safety and has listed a number of resources, including Protection International’s protection manual and EHAHRDP’s recently updated resource book (available in English, French, Arabic, Swahili, Amharic and Somali). If HRDs do find themselves the target of reprisals there are also a number of organisations (including EHAHRDP and Front Line Defenders) that can provide practical protection measures such as temporary relocation, trial observation, and advocacy interventions.

Rachel Nicholson – East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project

Re pre-recorded messaging...

Thank you for sharing this information about participating in the sessions via pre-recorded messaging. We would like to learn more about this and disseminate this information to local WHRDs. I think that the WHRDs International Coalition could play a role in disseminating this information to WHRDs interested in participating at the Human Rights Council. I would be very interested in hearing experiences from national groups that have use it.  Was this an empowering experience for women’s groups working at the local level? What were the main obstacles to access it? It would be great if some of you could share lessons learnt.



AWID made a pre-recorded message in June 2012 UNHRC session

Hello! Lovely to jump into this dialogue!!!

AWID submitted a video message on behalf of the Mesoamerican Initiative of WHRDs to the UNHRC in the June session, and we found it very useful for our partners who were not planning to attend the session in Geneva to be able to present a statement. It was relatively simple to have a videographer record and edit the statement by a WHRD in Mexico, and then we uploaded it with the instructions from the UNHRC.

From the perspective of the Mesoamerican Initiative of WHRDs, they were pleased to have their voices directly represented without having to travel to Geneva, and it felt more powerful than a written statement or a press release. I wonder if some of you who may have been present at the June session's panel on WHRDs can comment on how you experienced the video statement?

Here is a link if you are interested in seeing the video statement. We submitted it in Spanish and it got translated at the UNHRC, just like other interventions.


Requesting other examples of video messages to the Council

Thanks for sharing, Analia! It's great to have the actual video example of one of these messages!

Any other examples out there on how NGOs have utilized video messages to the Human Rights Council! Share them here!

Mixed success of video messages


You've asked about how your statement was experienced in Geneva, in June. I do recall the statement, and I think it came across really well. in some ways, a video statement is almost more powerful than a live one, because for technical reasons the person speaking on the video appears much larger than on the live-webcast. Having video statements 'from the ground' is also interesting as I think delegations listen to it diferently than if the person is in the room. It was also great to have that particular statement as the first (or one of the first) statements delivered by video!

That said, I think as others have said elsewhere, the video statement (as any statement at the Council) should only complement other ways of using the Council. As any process of political negotiation and bargaining, the outcome is determined by people talking to each other, and to really influence that, one needs to be physically present. So

However, its great to hear that you and the WHRDs you work with were pleased and that it was a good experience. How have you used it since then? Has it been the subject of a press release, for instance? It would be interesting to know if it has contributed to some impact at the national/regional level, or triggered any feedback?

How could the UNHRC system be easier? Share ideas!

What I have learned from this online conversation so far is that navigating the UN Human Rights Council system is complicated! How do you think the system, the process or the resources could be different to make it easier on human rights NGOs to effectively utilize this mechanism? Share you ideas!

Kristin Antin - New Tactics Online Community Builder

Thanks all for a very

Thanks all for a very interesting discussion. 

i'd like to share the experience of CIHRS pertaining to the points discussed above. 

- As Anita and others have mentionned, good relationships with NGOs who have a presence in Geneva is crucial for NGOs who do not benefit from this presence. The Cairo Institute works with many partners who do not have ECOSOC status and who don't have a presence in Geneva. However, they monitor what is going on in their national context and have a lot to bring to the Human Rights Council. This is where we usually come in. The Cairo Institute provides training to partners on international advocacy, the Human Rights Council, the UPR and treaty bodies, sometimes in Cairo, sometimes in Geneva. We have also partnered with the ISHR for example to contribute to the international advocacy training they were organising. Beyond training and technical assistance, we manage the logistics involved in actually bringing these partners to Geneva via facilitating the visa process for them by sending invitation letters, booking flights and hotels and walk them through the craziness that the HRC can be. These logistics should not be taken lightly: the human and capital resources involved can be quite significant. Besides, the issue of visas is ever present as the HRC takes place in Switzerland. It is therefore useful to start the visa process well in advance, something that is not always easy as some HR violations that would require the Council's attention, and therefore the HRDs presence, can happen close to the session itself. A way to make it easier would be to have a special procedure for groups at the Swiss embassy who are vouched for and who are intending to participate at the HRC. 

- Another challenge that was mentionned is the case of reprisals. The Cairo Institute has had to face severe disruptions in side events in organised or co-sponsored with 'journalists' applying pressure on panelists. These pressures were reflected at national level with smear campaigns organised against the HRDs who were engaging with the HRC and in Geneva itself, where some participants received threatening phone calls. You can find what happened during one of our side events here . We have also published several press releases pertaining to reprisals, available here. A good way to avoid having these disruptions would be to bar access to side event to identified disrupters and to make sure security is present in case they get violent, which can happen. 

- In terms of video messages, we have had some participants use this means, of a pre-recorded message, which was actually a great way for HRDs under a travel ban to still get their message across. It is worth mentioning that the person who participated through video messages to the HRC had to face reprisals measures back home. 

Paola, Cairo INstitute for Human Rights Studies 

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