Universal Periodic Review – the UK’s status as a human rights champion could be under threat

gan Marcial Boo

Cyhoeddwyd: 27 Apr 2023

At the end of March, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) delivered a joint statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council on behalf of us, the Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC), and themselves. It was the latest important stage of the UK’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

The UPR is a unique process which takes place every five years and sees a country’s human rights record scrutinised by all United Nations Member States before they make recommendations for future improvement. 

Last November I was in Geneva at the United Nations Human Rights Council as member states made recommendations to the UK. Our joint statement with NIHRC and SHRC was our opportunity to comment on these recommendations before the UK responds to them.

What did the recommendations say?  

During this UPR, the UK received 331 individual human rights recommendations on areas including education, healthcare, employment, and access to justice. Of these, the UK government has accepted 135, partially accepted 55 and rejected 141. In one of the most common recommendations, twenty states advised the UK to make sure that changes to our laws don’t diminish human rights protections. This was an issue that we highlighted in our own 2022 UPR report.

Indeed, many of the recommendations accepted by the government aligned with those we made to them in our report. In particular, the UK has committed to remove barriers to accessing healthcare for groups with protected characteristics, and to ensure that changes to human rights laws do not reduce protections.

UK’s status as a human rights champion

We do, however, have continued concerns about risks to Britain’s longstanding reputation as a champion of human rights.

The government has accepted only 40% of the recommendations made to it by UN member states, which is less than half the global average of 85%, and the UK’s lowest ever acceptance rate.

The government has rejected recommendations including to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14, and to introduce a statutory time limit on immigration detention, both of which are in line with basic international standards.

We do, however, have continued concerns about risks to Britain’s longstanding reputation as a champion of human rights.

What happens next?

In implementing 135 recommendations, the actions of the government will have a positive impact on human rights protections across the UK. But these will only materialise if implementation takes place thoroughly across government.

This gap between accepting a recommendation and making it happen is not unique to the UK. So a growing number of states are putting in place National Mechanisms for Implementation, Reporting and Follow-up to ensure that the recommendations are properly acted on. These mechanisms can involve establishing a cross-government unit to coordinate work, prepare UN reports and ensure the implementation of recommendations across departments. The UN recognises this approach as best practice. We stand ready to give the government our independent advice on how best to create such a mechanism in the UK.

In the meantime, we will encourage the government to implement the UPR recommendations over the next three years. Our priority will be on the recommendations which have been accepted and which align with the focus of our own work on health and social care, rights at work, and children and young people, as well as wider human rights concerns.

We will also take advantage of opportunities to push for policy or legislative change in line with these UPR recommendations. And we will continue monitoring the UK’s progress in meeting these recommendations through our Human Rights Tracker which we update on Human Rights Day every December.

We encourage the government and Parliament to continue to engage with the UPR process and recommendations to make sure that the human rights of people in the UK remain protected and are even better promoted.