Sunday 2 February 2014

What does "155 human rights recommendations" mean?

While watching (well, listening) to the three and a half hour session where New Zealand's human rights performance was examined, it occurred to me that the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a very strange mechanism. The human rights record of every country certainly is something that needs to be scrutinised internationally on a regular basis, but one minute thirty-five second bullet speed speeches from a relatively small selection of countries doesn't seem like the best way to do it. Regardless, over the course of the session 76 countries participated and gave recommendations. The media has recently made some noise about the "155 recommendations" that were presented, without really explaining what the process is or where the recommendations came from. In particular, the Green Party has criticised the National government for what must be an appalling human rights record since there were such a large number of recommendations made. Green MP Jan Logie said "What this report tells us is that we're slipping backwards and the Government has actually been undermining those rights through legislation and policy."

Well the draft report of the UPR working group is available publicly, so why not have a look at what some of the recommendations were?
- 26 recommendations about signing and ratifying a number of international human rights agreements
- 7 recommendations about implementing a written Constitution and improving our Bill of Rights
- 3 recommendations to increase foreign aid (official development aid) to 0.7%
- 15 recommendations about improving Maori rights and treaty settlements
- 3 recommendations on the Canterbury earthquakes (including "speed up the rebuilding and compensation process" from Germany, because it's just that easy...)
- 17 recommendations on poverty and inequality
- 12 recommendations on combating discrimination, particularly against Maori and Pasifika
- 9 recommendations on gender equality
- 28 recommendations on domestic violence, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking
- 1 recommendation to relinquish the use of tasers (Namibia)
- 10 recommendations on equitable access to health and education
- 5 recommendations on cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity
- 2 recommendations on counter-terrorism and surveillance

The above numbers don't add up to 155, but it shows the sorts of topics that were raised in the recommendations - this is still a simplistic summary of the recommendations themselves. Some of the recommendations overlapped on multiple topics so don't take those numbers as gospel. There were a lot of duplicates, with multiple states essentially recommending the same thing, whether it be to sign and ratify a particular treaty or to "continue its efforts" in protecting children's rights. Many recommendations were suggesting that New Zealand continue doing the work that it's already doing - in fact, 31 recommendations literally began with the word 'continue'. Some were congratulating New Zealand and encouraging that we "exchange with other States" our information and experiences. There were also some parts of the review that just don't make sense in the NZ context:

"29. Iran (Islamic Republic of) expressed concern over insufficient safeguards to protect the rights of minorities from discrimination and marginalization, putting them at a higher risk of torture ...
69. In response to a comment from Iran, New Zealand reaffirmed that torture did not occur in New Zealand."

Some of the review unfortunately showed a lack of understanding of the actual situation in New Zealand, and that's not surprising given the low level of resourcing and information that these recommendations are actually based on. The country reviews are based upon a 20 page report submitted by the state under review, a 10 page compilation of UN information from various reports, and a 10 page summary of information from other stakeholders such as NGOs. While I appreciate that resources and time are limited, this doesn't seem like the best way to find out information about the current state of our human rights. Such reviews need to be based on independent information that isn't influenced by the state itself. The people making the recommendations need time and resourcing to fully familiarise themselves with the country, make further enquiries, and verify their recommendations before they are released.

While 155 recommendations seems like a lot, the media hasn't mentioned whether this is a low, medium, or high number in comparison to the other 192 countries that undergo periodic reviews. Here's a few countries from recent reviews and the number of recommendations they got:
Congo, Democratic Republic of171
United States of America228
Russian Federation231

So the number of recommendations given to New Zealand wasn't particularly high. And of course, the number of recommendations doesn't actually mean anything - some recommendations are short and simple, others are very long and have multiple parts. Rather it's the substance of those recommendations that should be the focus (but the media doesn't seem to care). Interestingly, New Zealand agreed to examine all of the recommendations given - it is relatively common for states to reject recommendations given to them. For example, Israel rejected all recommendations that referred to Palestine, the DR of Congo rejected all recommendations related to female participation in politics, and Colombia rejected recommendations around "military criminal justice" and the use of torture.

Ultimately it doesn't really make sense to wave the number "155" around as if New Zealand has a terrible human rights record. We all know that there are some human rights aspects that are downright shocking, and we all know that there are things we need to do as a country. This review should not be ignored. But waving the Universal Periodic Review around as the Green Party and the media have done recently shows a "wilful ignorance" of what the document actually says and what it actually means.


  1. Hi Andrew. Excellent comments. I felt it good that our UPR process 2014 got any great media notice at all, but also keenly conscious of the points you make. You know that the Radio NZ Nat radio 10 am news bulletin Tuesday 28 Jan, just nine and half hours after UPR session ended, said our human rights record had been highly praised by Human Rights Council delegates at Geneva? Depending on which bits of the comments & recommendations you focus on, that was also true. I just wish that a number of media organs had included the points you make in their coverage of our UPR hearing.

    1. Hi John, thanks very much for your comment. I'll have a look for a recording of that news bulletin and will listen to it. I guess a big part of the problem is that the media has to make the story into a bite size piece, they can't write a 900 word article about it! It's easier (and more attention grabbing) to talk about "155 recommendations" out of context than to explain everything.