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Three Categories of International Comments on National Human Rights Action Plans and Their Implications — An Analysis Based on upr reports
October 09,2020   By:CSHRS
Three Categories of International Comments on National Human Rights Action Plans and Their Implications
An Analysis Based on UPR reports

Xu Yao *

Abstract: At least 57 countries have formulated and implemented 78 national human rights action plans, and the international assessment of them has had direct influence on their international human rights images of their issuers and the focuses of future planning. According to related reports from the universal periodic review by the united nations Human rights Council, three categories of comments in a rough quantitative proportion of 1:4:2 have been made by the international community on these plans, which can be categorized as: Attention, Laudatory and expectation, representing objective attention, appreciation or encouragement and anticipation of further implementation or improvement, respectively. In terms of regions, Asian countries have received the most Attention Comments, europe and Africa fewer, and America the least. The marked achievements in the formulation and implementation of human rights action plans in China have attracted widespread attention and recognition, and further efforts should be made to implement steady and consistent human rights policies, improve the implementation mechanisms and integrate the external and internal functions of human rights action plans so as to promote the sustainable development of China’s human rights cause.

Keywords: National Human Rights Action Plan  · UPR  · human rights diplomacy

To push forward the human rights development in a country through national human rights action plans has become a universally recognized practice around the world. Since 2009, China has formulated three national Human rights Action plans,with the first two having been completed and passed their final evaluation, and the third under implementation and to be completed by the end of 2020. Serving as the national human rights policy program or infrastructure, action plans not only play a crucial role in promoting domestic human rights development, but also contribute to the international image of their issuers with regard to human rights protection. In fact, the policy declaration function is one of key driving factors behind their formulation for many countries. 1 However, up to now, whether these plans have been met with the expected response from the international community and what attitudes the international community holds toward the formulation and implementation of human rights action plans of various countries have not yet been studied in detail by domestic and foreign academic circles. Based on international assessments of these action plans from the third Universal Periodic Review (UPR), this Paper analyzes and summarizes the specific attitudes of the international community toward the human rights action plans and also provides reference for China to objectively assess its existing plan and develop new ones.

I. Global Overview of the Formulation of National Human Rights Action Plans

The formulation and implementation of national human rights action plans was initiated at the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna in 1993. Since then, a number of countries have systematically promoted their human rights development in the form of human rights action plans. According to the website of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), 39 countries have developed 51 national human rights action plans. 2 In addition, a blanket search and analysis of national reports from countries participating in the UPR process has revealed 27 additional human rights action plans from 18 countries. So far, at least 57 countries have developed 78 national human rights action plans. Given that some countries have not yet participated in the third UPR or have not yet presented the elements of human rights action plans in the UPR, there should be more countries formulating and implementing human rights action plans than the aforesaid numbers.

The countries and plans are listed by continent as follows in Table 1. 3

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Countries have generally developed and implemented their human rights action plans in three stages: the Exploration Stage (1994-2000), the Stabilization Stage (2001-2010) and the Leap Stage (Post-2011). A closer look at the national reports of countries participating in the UPR reveals that the UPR mechanism has played a significant role in promoting countries to improve their human rights status by developing and implementing national human rights action plans and absorbing and imple-menting the recommendations from the international community on human rights. 4

II. Three Categories of International Comments on Human Rights Action Plans from the UPR

The UPR is a country-driven process under the auspices of the United Nations Human Rights Council that involves the review of the human rights records of all UN member countries, with each country taking the opportunity to disclose its actions to improve its domestic human rights situation and its compliance with its human rights obligations. A review cycle is a four-and-half year period within which all UN member countries’ human rights records are reviewed. The working group convenes three two-week sessions a year, or 14 sessions in total over the course of an entire cycle. Since the launch of the mechanism in 2008, three cycles of UPR have been completed: the first lasted from 2008 to 2011, the second from 2012 to 2016, and the third starting in 2017 will end in 2021.

According to the website of the United Nations Human Rights Council, there are four main categories of reports or information related to the UPR: first, National Reports, submitted to the UPR by a country on its human rights protection and progress; second, United Nations Information Collection, consisting mainly of information in the reports of treaty bodies and special procedures, including the views and opinions of countries and UN documents compiled by the OHCHR into reports; third, an Information Summary by Related Stakeholders, compiled by the OHCHR on the human rights status of countries from non-governmental organizations, national human rights institutions, human rights activists, academic institutions, regional organizations and civil society representatives; and fourth, Working Group Reports, including brief reports from countries participating in the review and inputs from other countries.

This study focuses on the international assessments of human rights action plans in the Working Group Reports. From March to May 2020, the author thoroughly looked at the participation of all 57 participating countries in the three cycles of the UPR, sorted out and analyzed the related assessment results of national human rights action plans, figured out the following basic facts and came up with some related conclusions.

Three attitudes can be found in the comments of related countries. First, while making comments on the formulation and implementation of human rights action plans of countries, relatively neutral words, such as “notice”,“recognize” and“highlighted”, are used to express the objective attention paid by commenting countries, stopping short of obvious praise or criticism. Such content is referred to as Attention Comments in this paper. Second, when it is to express affirmation and appreciation of a country’s formulation and implementation of a human rights action plan, clearly commendatory words, such as “praise”, “satisfied”, “happy”, “welcome”, “congratulate”, “glad to see” and “affirm”, are used, or the appreciated details of an action plan are specified. Such comments are called Laudatory Comments in this paper. Third, when it is to put forward further expectations or specific suggestions for a country in its implementation of a human rights action plan, show concern about certain specific items or rights, request to disclose certain practices, or call for support from the international community, etc., words such as “hope”, “urge”, “encourage”, “advise”, “ask”, “inquire”, “concern” and “call on” are usually adopted. Such recommendations usually appear in the “conclusions and recommendations” section of a Working Group Report, and they are referred to as Expectation Comments in this paper.

III. Geographical Distribution of Three Categories of Comments by Continent

A. Comments on Asian countries that have developed human rights action plans

A total of 17 countries in Asia have developed 26 national human rights action plans, making Asia the most active continent for the formulation of action plans. According to the above assessment criteria, related comments on the human rights action plans of Asian countries from the UPR were sorted out, analyzed and categorized as shown below in Table 2: 5

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As shown in Table 2, the distribution of three categories of comments is as follows: (1) The 17 Asian countries have receive a total of 320 comments, with each country receiving comments 18.8 times on average. Excluding one country that has received no comments (Pakistan), countries that have developed action plans have received comments 20 times on average. (2) Among three categories of comments, Attention Comments were given 53 times, Laudatory Comments 171 times and Expectation Comments 96 times. If the total of three categories of comments is taken to be 100, the ratio of the three is about 17:53:30. (3) If countries receiving 20 times or more of comments are considered as the countries of high attention (the same below), seven countries fall into this category. These being: Sri Lanka (43 times), Indonesia (37 times), China (32 times), Jordan (29 times), Lebanon (28 times), Azerbaijan (26 times) and South Korea (20 times), accounting for 41.2 percent of the total number of Asian countries receiving comments on their human rights action plans.

B. Comments on European countries that have developed human rights action plans

A total of 11 countries in Europe have developed 14 national human rights action plans. The international comments on these countries’ action plans during their participation in the UPR are shown as follows in Table 3:

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As shown in Table 3, (1) The 11 European countries received a total of 117 comments, receiving comments 10.6 times per country. This is well below the average for Asian countries. If the six countries receiving no comments are excluded, the remaining five countries received comments 23.4 times per country per country, higher than that for the Asian countries. (2) Among the categories of comments, Attention Comments were made 15 times, Laudatory Comments 68 times and Expectation Comments 34 times. If the total number of comments in the three categories is taken to be 100, the ratio of the three is about 13:58:29. (3) Three countries received a lot of atten-tion: Finland (three times), Moldova (31 times), and Sweden (21 times), accounting for 27.3 percent of the total number of European countries. By this measure, Europe’s action plans receive less attention than those of Asian countries.

C. Comments on American countries that have developed human rights action plans

A total of 12 countries in the Americas have developed 18 national human rights action plans 6 . Related comments received by those countries during their participation in the UPR are shown as follows in Table 4:

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As shown in Table 4, the 12 countries in South America received 102 comments, receiving attention 8.5 times on average per country, which is lower than the average for Asian and European countries. If the three countries receiving no comments are excluded, the remaining nine countries received comments 118 times per country, much lower than the European and Asian countries.

Second, among three categories of comments, Attention Comments were made 14 times, Laudatory Comments 57 times and Expectation Comments 31 times. If the total number of comments is taken to be 100, the ratio of the three is about 14:56:30. It is obvious that, in terms of the ratio of three categories of comments, the American countries are similar to the Asian and European countries in that they receive Laudatory Comments far more than Attention Comments and Expectation Comments. Meanwhile, Expectation Comments expressing suggestions or concerns accounted for less than one-third.

Third, the countries receiving the most comments were Mexico (29 times) and Honduras (23 times), together they accounted for 16.7% of the total number of comments.

D. Comments on Oceania countries that have developed action plans

A total of three countries in Oceania have developed national human rights action plans. Relatedcomments received by those countries during their participation in the UPR are shown as follows in Table 5:

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As shown in Table 5, (1) The three Oceania countries received a total of 49 comments, with each country receiving comments 16.3 5 times on average, which is below the average for Asian countries and above the average for European and American countries; among the three categories of comments, Attention Comments were made two times, Laudatory Comments 33 times and Expectation Comments 14 times. If the total number of comments is taken to be 100, the ratio of the three is about 4:67:29; and (3) one country received the most comments (31 times), accounting for 66.6 percent.
 
E. Comments on African countries that have developed action plans

A total of 14 countries in Africa have developed 15 national human rights action plans. Related comments received by those countries during their participation in the UPR are shown as follows in Table 6:

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As shown in the table above, first, the 14 African countries received a total of 152 comments, receiving comments 10.9 times per country on average. If the seven countries receiving no comments are excluded, the average number of comments for the remaining seven countries will be 21.7 times.

Second, among the categories of comments, Attention Comments were made 21 times, Laudatory Comments 92 times and Expectation Comments 39 times. If the total number of comments is taken to be 100, the ratio of the three is about 14:60:26. The number of Laudatory Comments is much higher than that of Attention Comments and Expectation Comments, accounting for 60 percent of the total. At the same time, the Expectation Comments expressing concerns account for 26 percent, ower than for other continents.

Third, there were four countries receiving the most comments, Ethiopia (35 times), Uganda (24 times), Somalia (23 times) and Liberia (20 times), and together they accounted for 28.6 percent of the total.

F. An overview of the comments on the action plans of countries in five continents

A comprehensive comparison among continents is made in Table 7:

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A comparative analysis in Table 7 shows that: first, Asian countries have the highest interest in developing and implementing national human rights action plans and receive the most attention. Asia leads all the continents in terms of the number of countries formulating national human rights action plans, the number of comments received, the average number of comments received and the most countries whose plans are frequently commented on. Compared with Europe, South America and Africa, there are fewer zero-comment countries in Asia. These are all indicators of Asia’s plans receiving high attention.

Second, Europe and Africa are similar. Both have 14 countries that have developed action plans, the average number of comments received per plan is slightly more than 10, and the ratio of three categories of comments, the number of most frequently commented countries and the number of zero-comment countries are very close or even equal. These two continents can be considered to be continents receiving moderate attention.

Third, compared with Asia, Europe and Africa, South America is a continent receiving a low degree of attention in terms of the number of countries with action plans, the number of comments received and the average number of comments received. At the same time, Oceania is a unique continent due to its country base, special geographical location and other reasons. Judging from the average number of comments received, Oceania is not a continent of low attention, Tuvalu, a Pacific island country, especially. is receiving high attention.

Fourth, there are striking similarities in the ratio of three categories of comments across the continents, each continent has received Laudatory Comments that account for more than 50 percent of the total. Excluding Oceania, which has a small sample size, all the other four continents have received Laudatory Comments between 53 percent and 60 percent of the total. At the same time, the Expectation Comments received by each continent are also very close, all are in the 26 percent to 30 percent range.

Fifth, a panoramic view of the situation in Asia, Europe, South America and Africa will reveal that, from a macro perspective, developing countries with a certain material foundation have the greatest interest in formulating and implementing national human rights action plans and receive the highest degree of attention. Relatively speaking, developed countries receive less attention than developing countries in the formulation of action plans. At the same time, less developed countries, particularly in Africa, tend to receive less attention for the formulation and implementation of action plans because of other, more noticeable human rights issues or difficulties.

IV. Distribution of the Three Categories of Comments by Country

Table 8 shows the rankings by the number of comments received in the three categories by the countries with action plans, irrespective of continent.

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Based on the data in Table 8, the following conclusions can be drawn: first, an overview of the comment activities reveals that, the 40 countries with comment records received Attention Comments a total of 105 times , Laudatory Comments 421 times and Expectation Comments 214 times, which amount to 740 times of all categories of comments, with an average of 18.5 times of comments per country. This shows that the formulation and implementation of national human rights action plans is a human rights policy initiative of universal concern to the international community.

Second, judging from the overall mix and implications of three categories of comments, the mainstay is the Laudatory Comments, which appear 421 times, accounting for 56.9 percent of the total 740 times. This indicates that the formulation and implementation of national human rights action plans are moves that are widely recognized by the international community, which to some extent also reflects the common understanding of different countries of developing human rights action plans as a means to improve their human rights image, as well as the “foreign publicity” function of human rights action plans. It also encourages more countries to develop new human rights action plans aimed at improving their international human rights image. Second, Expectation Comments were received 214 times, accounting for 28.9 percent of the total. This indicates that nearly one-third of the attention is focused on how to further implement the action plans, and that the formulation of action plans is only the first step, while the follow-up implementation is also a matter of general concern to the international community. Finally, Attention Comments were received 105 times in all, accounting for 14.2 percent of the total. Such “noted” comments indicate the neutral concerns of the commenting country with regard to the action plan and imply, and to a certain extent, the need to observe further results. In general, the Attention Comments, Laudatory Comments and Expectation Comments appear in a “1:4:2” ratio, which means on average, among seven comments received a country, one will be “noted”, four will express appreciation and two will focus on future implementation of the plan.

Third, in terms of the distribution of three categories of comments in individual countries, 27 countries have received more Laudatory Comments than Expectation Comments, accounting for 67.5 percent of the total 40 countries; four countries received an equal number of Laudatory Comments and Expectation Comments, ac- counting for 10 percent; nine countries received fewer Laudatory Comments than Ex- pectation Comments, accounting for 22.5 percent. This shows that for most countries, the formulation of action plans is more likely to win the approval of the international community, while for some countries, the international community pays more attention to the implementation of the plans.

It should be noted that the above table does not include those countries that have received no comments These being Argentina, Burundi, Cape Verde, Chile, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Greece ,Latvia, Lithuania, Malawi, Mauritania, Norway, Pakistan, , Paraguay, South Africa, Tanzania, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine, a total of 17 countries. The main reasons for the formulation and implementation of these national human rights action plans, with no record of evaluation by other countries, include: (1)Human rights action plans were developed earlier in the 1990s and early 21st century, while the UPR mechanism was only established along with the Human Rights Council through Resolution No. 60/251 at the United Nations General Assembly on March 15, 2006. This Resolution authorized the Human Rights Council, “on the basis of respect for all countries, to adopt a way that can ensure universal coverage and equal treatment of all countries to conduct a universal and periodic review of the implementation of human rights obligations and commitments of each country based on objective and reliable information” 7 . On June 18, 2007, one year after the first Human Rights Council (HRC) session, the HRC members agreed on its institution-building programme (A/HRC/RES/5/1), one priority of which would be the new UPR mechanism. The first cycle of the review lasted from 2008 to 2011. This has led to a long lag between the earliest action plans developed and the initiation of the UPR mechanism, which can be as long as 18 years. As a result, the earliest group of human rights action plans is not a priority for the UPR process. (2) Some national human rights action plans were developed at a later time and have not yet been introduced in the recent UPR process. Since the third cycle of UPR is scheduled for the period 2017-2021, some countries have not yet participated in the review and some have not yet posted related information on the OHCHR website. All of this will lead to a lack of related evaluation records in the above statistics and analyses. (3) Some countries having developed and implemented national human rights action plans did not introduce such action plans as their main human rights policies and measures, or they have other more notable issues or policies attracting international attention, thus diluting the attention on their national human rights action plans in the UPR process. Generally speaking, only when a country under review introduces its action plans in its national report or in the UPR process will such action plans attract the attention of and be evaluated by other countries. In this sense, the degree of attention is closely related to the importance the formulating country itself attaches to the plans as well as how detailed the plans are.

V. Suggestions on Improving China’s National Human Rights Action Plans

As far as China is concerned, it ranks fifth among the 40 countries with a record of evaluation in terms of overall attention. The formulation and implementation of its human rights action have attracted great attention. Considering that China is located in Asia, which has a preference for formulating and implementing human rights action plans, and the neighboring countries and the international community have been paying close attention to China’s actions, China should continue to strictly implement the contents and requirements of the third phase of national human rights action plan, release the assessment report on time upon the completion of the action plan and launch the formulation of its fourth national human rights action plan. Considering that currently only two countries, Mexico and Indonesia, have developed four human rights action plans, if China can introduce its fourth human rights action plan on schedule, it will help strengthen the steadiness and continuity of China’s human rights policy and show the “consistency” of the Chinese government’s attitude toward human rights protection. Taking an optimistic perspective, China’s experience in developing and implementing national human rights action plans is even expected to become a “highlight of human rights improvement” similar to “poverty alleviation”.

At the same time, it should be noted that most countries have more Laudatory Comments than Expectation Comments, but China has less Laudatory Comments than Expectation Comments, with the two presented in a ratio of 11:15. China is also the only country, among the top 20 most-watched countries, that presents a status with more Expectation Comments than Laudatory Comments. Expected suggestions include: list progress indicators to enhance implementation measures, further strengthen plan implementation as well as the assessment of the implementation status, strengthen international cooperation in human rights, strengthen the participation of civil society in the plan assessment, advance progressive measures for promoting the plan, strengthen the implementation of projects involving ethnic minorities and other disadvantaged groups, strengthen the human rights education and training, etc. This shows that while recognizing China’s formulation and implementation of its human rights action plans, the international community pays close attention to how China implements such action plans. This requires us not only to strengthen the formulation of human rights action plans and ensure its continuity and stability, but also to consolidate the implementation mechanism to ensure that all policies are fully implemented. It is expected that in future international exchanges on human rights issues, more information be provided on how to ensure the implementation of the plan, including the difficulties encountered in implementation and how to overcome them. These measures will help enhance China’s credibility in the international communication of human rights action plans and optimize China’s national image in the field of international human rights protection in an all-round way.

It is predicable that a country receives the most attention when it develops and implements a human rights action plan for the first time. As the number of plans increases, the international attention to the formulation of human rights action plans itself may decline if not driven by special circumstances or issues. Giving up the efforts to develop action plans just because of a decline in the attention may lead to negative comments. This situation requires China balance the external and internal functions of its fourth human rights action plan, strengthen its function of improving human rights at home, and moderately lower the expectation for the action plan to improve international human rights diplomacy. At the same time, in the long run, the global focus on the human rights action plan will gradually shift from “formulation” to “implementation”. If China can continue to proactively improve the mechanism for “implementation” and summarize the experience, it would not only contribute to the substantive advancement of China’s human rights cause, but also turn into a “new highlight” of international human rights diplomacy in the future.
 
(Translated by NIU Huizi)

* XU Yao ( 许尧 ), Associate Research Fellow and Ph.D in Management of the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Nankai University (National Human Rights Education and Training Base) and Zhou Enlai School of Government, Nankai University. This paper is a phased achievement of the major project “A Comparative Study of National Human Rights Action Plans of Different Countries (Project No.: 13JJD820022) of the National Human Rights Education and Training Base, and the sub-project “New Developments of the Theory and Practice in Socialist Human Rights with Chinese Characteristics since the 18 th National Congress of the Communist Party of China under the Marxist theory research and construction project “Research on Several Major Basic Theories of Human Rights.
1. Xu Yao and Han Xue, “International Convergence and Local Integration: Reflections on National Human Rights Action Plans”, Journal of Guangzhou university 11 (2017): 18-25.
2. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, accessed March 17, 2019, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/phases/ PlansActions/Pages/PlansofActionin dex.aspx.
3. Xu Yao, “National Human Rights Action Plans: A Macro View from a Global Perspective.”, Chinese review of International Law 5 (2019): 54-63.
4. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, accessed March 17, 2019, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/phases/ PlansActions/Pages/PlansofActionin dex.aspx.
5. For clarification: (1) The starting numbers in three categories of appraisal columns indicate the times of such attitudes or evaluations held in that category; (2) The number appended to the country name in the tables indi-cates the number of times a commenting country has expressed similar attitudes or comments. As there have already been three cycles of the Universal Periodic Review held, it is possible for the same commenting country to express similar appraisals of a particular country under review in different cycles. For example, in both the second and the third cycles, Cambodia expressed suggestions or encouragement to China for the implementation of its national human rights action plans, and the number 2 is labeled next to Cambodia; (3) If there are double implications in the appraisal of a country under review by the commenting country, they are counted separately in the different attitude columns. For example, if both affirmation and expectation are expressed in some aspects, they are recorded separately in the corresponding columns; (4) The various attitudes in the tables do not distinguish between the different cycles of the UPR of a country under review; (5) The marked — indicates that no other country has been found to have commented on the formulation and implementation of a human rights action plan, or that the OHCHR website has not yet published the Universal Periodic Review Working Group report following the formulation of the action plan. The subsequent tables in this paper follow the same rule.
6. In this paper, South America and North America are analyzed as a whole.
7. For a basic overview of the Universal Periodic Review, see the UN Human Rights Council, accessed April 17, 2020, https://www.ohchr.org/CH/HRBodies/UPR/Pa- ges/BasicFacts. Aspx.
 

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