Activities outside Parliament

Inter-Parliamentary Union and Commonwealth Secretariat Conference

Strengthening the Role of Parliamentarians in Establishing Human Rights [in Implementing Universal Periodic Review Recommendations]. The Case of the UK

Dr. Hywel Francis MP, Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights of the UK Parliament

(Geneva 12-13 November 2012)



May I begin by thanking the organisers of this conference for their invitation to speak today. I would also like to congratulate them on this important initiative.

It has been very humbling to hear at this conference of the way Parliamentarians and Non-Governmental Organisations are working to establish human rights in our respective countries. I firmly believe that the ‘personal is the political’ or in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt that human rights start in small places, in our homes, in our work places and our communities.

Before entering Parliament I was a university teacher working in local communities with workers organisations such as trade unions and disabilities and carers groups. More recently I have worked as a Member of Parliament with a range of cultural and linguistic groups including my Bangladeshi community whose younger members have established an annual celebration of UNESCO’s International Mother Tongue Day.

Increasing the role of parliamentarians in relation to human rights is an idea whose time has come. In my own country, as you all know, the idea of human rights is often buffeted by political controversy. Critics of human rights often complain about the lack of democratic legitimacy in human rights decision-making. That is why it is so important that we work tirelessly to find new ways of strengthening the role of democratically elected parliamentarians in debates about human rights.

Speaking as a parliamentarian since 2001, I think I can say with some confidence that the amount of debate about human rights in the Westminster Parliament has increased significantly over that period. However, it is not always as well informed as it might be and there is undoubtedly a great deal of important work still to do to bring human rights into the heart of the democratic process.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights

That has been one of my jobs, since I became Chair of the UK’s Joint Committee on Human Rights in September 2010, shortly after the last General Election in the UK.

Let me say a few words about the Joint Committee on Human Rights, or “the Human Rights Committee” as I shall refer to it. The first thing is that it is not to be confused with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the UK’s principal National Human Rights Institution. The Human Rights Committee is a parliamentary select committee. It has a very wide remit, to consider matters relating to human rights in the UK (not abroad). It has all the powers of a parliamentary select committee, including powers to “call for people and papers”, so it is in a strong position to carry out investigations into human rights issues of pressing concern.

The Committee has 12 members who are drawn from both the Lords and the Commons – the upper House and the lower House. Members are from all parties and none. The Committee always tries to reach decisions by consensus, and usually manages to do so. The capacity for the human rights framework to transcend partisan divisions is always a pleasant surprise to me.

The Human Rights Committee’s work is very varied.

  • It scrutinises all Government Bills for compatibility with all relevant human rights standards, including the UK’s international human rights obligations. So, for example, it will tomorrow be publishing a Report on the Government’s controversial Justice and Security Bill, which proposes to extend the use of secret evidence in legal proceedings.
  • It carries out inquiries into important human rights issues. In the last session of Parliament, for example, it conducted major inquiries into the implementation of the right of disabled people to independent living, and into the human rights compatibility of the UK’s extradition law and policy. It is about to start work on a major inquiry into the rights of a particularly vulnerable group – unaccompanied migrant children.
  • It scrutinises the Government’s response to court judgments about human rights, including judgments of national courts under the UK’s Human Rights Act, and judgments of the European Court of Human Rights under the ECHR. So, for example, the Committee will be looking very carefully at what legislative proposals the UK Government brings forward on prisoner voting later this month.
  • It also monitors the UK’s compliance with all of its international human rights obligations, including its implementation of recommendations from the UN Treaty Bodies.

In all of this work the Human Rights Committee seeks to work closely with National Human Rights Institutions and civil society organisations, and maintains good working relationships with Government Departments. As a parliamentary committee, its role in the national human rights machinery is quite distinct from all these other actors.

The UPR process and the Human Rights Committee in the UK

That brings me to the main subject of this panel: the experience of the UPR process in the UK, as seen from the perspective of the Human Rights Committee, and Parliament as a whole.

I cannot speak from experience of the first UPR cycle, in 2008, as that was before my time as Chair of the JCHR. I will mention briefly later what I have been told by staff about the first cycle.

Lord McNally, the Minister for Human Rights, wrote to me in March this year to inform me that the UK’s second Universal Periodic Review was due to take place in May, and to send me a copy of the UK’s national report which had by then already been sent to the UN. The Minister explained the nature of the UPR process and the likely timetable. He said the Government were “keen to engage NHRIs and NGOs in this process”, and that he would “update” my Committee in due course.

The Human Rights Minister wrote to me again in June, to inform me that the UK’s UPR had taken place in May, and sending me a copy of the Human Rights Council Working Group’s Report, including the recommendations made to the UK. He told me how the Government now intended to proceed: by consulting with colleagues in the UK Government and the Devolved Administrations as well as civil society on which recommendations the UK will accept, before responding formally to the UN Human Rights Council in September.

In September Lord McNally wrote to me again to inform me that the UK’s response to the UPR recommendations had been formally presented to the UN Human Rights Council, and to send me a copy of that response. In it, the Government indicate which recommendations they support, in whole or in part, and which they reject, and gives detail about the UK’s response, including how it is proposing to implement the recommendations it accepts.

The Minister also said in that letter that the Government plans to consult with the Devolved Administrations and civil society to determine the best approach to developing a framework for monitoring and implementation of the UPR recommendations and concluding observations from treaty monitoring bodies. The intention is to update the Human Rights Council on progress through a “mid-term report” in 2014.

So the Human Rights Committee has been kept closely informed by the Government of each step in the UPR process. According to my staff’s recollections of the UK’s first UPR cycle, in 2008, the Government has been more proactive in keeping the Committee informed at the various stages of the process. The Committee has not, however, been invited to participate as such, nor has it been formally consulted. The Government has been keen to consult and involve the Devolved Administrations, civil society organisations and National Human Rights Institutions, but its approach to Parliament and parliamentarians has been different: to keep them informed.

The outcome of the UPR process, however, does inform the work programme of the Human Rights Committee. The Committee’s legal advisers read all of the relevant documentation and it informs the advice they give the Committee about the Committee’s priorities. Many of the subjects of the UPR recommendations are already on the Human Rights Committee’s work programme.

Others have been on it in the past and the fact that they are the subject of a UPR recommendation might influence the Committee to revisit that issue. For example, the Committee corresponded with the Government on the subject of caste discrimination in July this year and it referred to the UPR recommendation on that subject in its letter.

The UPR process and the UK Parliament

If one looks to see what other activity there was in Parliament surrounding the UK’s second UPR, the answer is virtually none. There were a couple of written parliamentary questions put down in April and May, when the UPR was taking place. These asked who was going to be representing the Government at the review itself and what issues the Government was proposing to raise in the review. The Government simply replied that the UK had submitted its national report to the Human Rights Council on 5 March and held consultation events with civil society organisations before doing so.

Apart from these parliamentary questions, there were no parliamentary debates or, as far as we are aware, any other scrutiny in Parliament or its committees of the Government’s report to the Human Rights Council. With the exception of the Human Rights Committee’s limited engagement with the UK’s National Report and the Working Group’s recommendations, the entire process passed Parliament by.

This is consistent with the generally low profile of the UPR process in the UK Parliament. A search of the parliamentary database for references in Parliament to the Universal Periodic Review since it was established in 2006 revealed that there are some 188 references to it. This sounds like a lot, but almost all of these are in the context of written questions about the human rights record of other countries. The most frequent reference to the UPR process is in Government responses to written parliamentary questions, when the Government often replies that it has raised or intends to raise a particular human rights concern in the context of that country’s UPR. With the exception of the handful of written questions referred to above, the UK Parliament appears not to have engaged at all with the scrutiny of the UK’s human rights record through the UPR process.

Lessons to be learnt for the future

I would like to finish with some questions about what we should learn from this experience about Parliament’s role in the UPR process.

Should Parliament have been more formally consulted by the Government, or invited to participate in some substantive way, rather than merely be kept informed?

Should Parliament or its Human Rights Committee have asserted itself more to require the Government to take its views into account?

If so, at what stage should Parliament be involved and how?

What more could the Human Rights Committee have done at each stage of the UPR process?

As our Legal Adviser indicated in his presentation this afternoon, there are various ways in which Parliaments or their human rights committees could get more involved in the UPR process. They could, for example:

  • Contribute to the Government’s draft report as a consultee
  • Scrutinise the Government’s draft report before it is submitted to the Human Rights Council
  • Report on the Government’s draft report before it is submitted, or on the report as submitted, and make that report available to the Working Group conducting the Review.
  • Contribute to the Government’s response to the recommendations as a consultee
  • Scrutinise the Government’s draft response to the recommendations
  • Report on the Government’s draft response to the recommendations, or on the response as submitted to the Human Rights Council, and make that report available to the Human Rights Council
  • Scrutinise/monitor implementation of the recommendations by the Government, alongside implementation of concluding observations from the treaty bodies

The national report could be laid before Parliament, giving Parliament an opportunity to debate it either before it is submitted to the UN Human Rights Council, or before the Human Rights Council considers it, so that it can do so with the benefit of the parliamentary debate.

Parliament, or a representative of its human rights committee, could have a more direct role in the UPR review process itself, not as a stakeholder, but as an independent scrutineer of the Government’s record with its own democratic legitimacy.

I throw these suggestions out for discussion, and I look forward to learning from the experience of other parliamentarians with their own UPR process.

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