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More Honey Than Vinegar: Peer Review As a Middle Ground between Universalism and National Sovereignty

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 March 2016

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Peer review mechanisms, such as the Universal Periodic Review, rely upon traditional sovereign state diplomacy for contemporary human rights implementation. This article argues that this is a positive development for several reasons. First, at a theoretical level, it reveals an evolving maturity of the human rights regime through its capacity to detach from exclusively legalistic approaches to human rights implementation. Second, at a policy level, there is enough evidence of measured positive outcomes of peer review mechanisms to suggest a preference for more co-operative approaches to ensuring human rights compliance as a first and complementary step to other more controversial legal/adversarial means of implementation (such as the third pillar of the R2P concept). Finally, peer review mechanisms offer a theoretical and pragmatic framework conciliating between universalist and relativist conceptual approaches to human rights, accommodating and integrating views that call for compliance with international human rights law as well as those emphasizing respect for sovereignty.

Copyright © The Canadian Council on International Law / Conseil Canadien de Droit International, representing the Board of Editors, Canadian Yearbook of International Law / Comité de Rédaction, Annuaire Canadien de Droit International 2014

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1 On the origin of the expression and its use by Martin Luther King, see Cohen, Joshua, The Arc of the Moral Universe and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010) at 17, n 4.Google Scholar A modern and interesting reformulation of the idea can be found in Keane, David, “Survival of the Fairest: Evolution and Geneticization of Human Rights” (2010) 30:3 Oxford J Legal Stud 467.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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3 Domínguez-Redondo, Elvira, “Role of the UN in the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights” in Chowdhury, Azizur Rahman and Bhuiyan, Jahid Hossain, eds, An Introduction to International Human Rights Law (Boston: Brill, 2010) 119 at 121–25.Google Scholar

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7 On the 1997 UN reforms, aimed at mainstreaming human rights, see Domínguez-Redondo, Elvira, “The Millennium Development Goals and the Human Rights Based Approach: Reflecting on Structural Chasms with the United Nations System” (2009) 13:1 Int’l JHR 29 at 31.Google Scholar In her 2011 annual report, the UN high commissioner for human rights highlighted the approval of the following policy documents as key components of the efforts to mainstream human rights: (1) Human Rights Due Diligence Policy (approved by the UN Secretary General in 2011); (2) the Joint Policies on Human Rights for Peace Missions (endorsed in September 2011 by the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the Department of Political Affairs, and the Department of Field Support); and (3) the Human Rights Mainstreaming Mechanism under the United Nations Development Group, United Nations Development Group, “UNDG Human Rights Mainstreaming Mechanism Operational Plan 2011-2013” (2011), online: < OperationalPlanNov2011.pdf>. See Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, OHCHR Report 2011 (2012) at 190. See also Domínguez-Redondo at 11–12, 42–43, 59–60, 70–72, 79–81, 92–94.

8 One example of this is demonstrated in McMahon, Edward R, The First Cycle of the Universal Periodic Review Mechanism of the United Nations Human Rights Council: A Work in Progress (Berlin: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2012) at 2426, online: < McMahon.pdf>.Google Scholar See also Lempinen, Miko, The United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the Different Treatment of Governments (Turku: Abo Akademi University, 2005) at 167–92.Google Scholar

9 Between 1999 and 2011, the Commission on Human Rights and the Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted resolutions, sponsored by the Organisation of Islamic Countries, on “defamation of religions,” which implied some endorsement of controversial limitations to the right of freedom of expression. HRC Resolution 16/18 (2011) has changed this trend, replacing the focus on “combating defamation” with “combating religious intolerance.” See HRC, Combating Intolerance, Negative Stereotyping and Stigmatization of, and Discrimination, Incitement to Violence and Violence against, Persons Based on Religion or Belief, HRC Res 16/18 (2011), UNGAOR, 16th Sess, UN Doc A/HRC/Res/16/18 (2011). However, proposals to introduce a ban on defamation of religion are still an incendiary topic in human rights fora. See, for example, Osabu-Kle, Daniel , Compatible Cultural Democracy: The Key to Development in Africa (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2000).Google Scholar See also Scharffs, Brett G, “International Law and the Defamation of Religion Conundrum” (2013) 11:1 Rev Faith & International Affairs 66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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19 See ECOSOC Resolution 624B (XXII), ESCOR 22nd Sess, UN Doc E/2929 (1 August 1956) Suppl No 1 at 12; UN Commission on Human Rights, Annual Reports on Human Rights, Res I, UN Doc E/2844-3/CN/4/731 (1956). The most important reform to the reporting system was introduced by ECOSOC Resolution 1074C (XXXIX), ESCOR 39th Sess, UN Doc E/4117 (28 July 1965) Suppl No 1 at 23. See also ECOSOC Resolution 728B (XXVIII), ESCOR 28th Sess, UN Doc E/3290 (30 July 1959) Suppl No 1 at 18; ECOSOC Declaration 1596 (L), ESCOR 50th Sess, UN Doc E/5044 (21 May 1971) Suppl No 1 at 20; and ECOSOC Res 1978/20, ESCOR 1978, UN Doc E/1978/78 (5 May 1978) Suppl No 1 at 27. See further Alston, Philip, “Reconceiving the UN Human Rights Regime: Challenges Confronting the New UN Human Rights Council” (2006) 7:1 Melbourne J Int’l L 185 at 207–15.Google Scholar

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21 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, GA Res 1514(XV), UN Doc A/RES/1514(XV) (14 December 1960).

22 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, GA Res 1904(XVIII), UN Doc A/RES/1904(XVIII) (20 November 1963).

23 ECOSOC Resolution 1074C (XXXIX), supra note 19 at para 3. See also Trindade, Antônio Cançado, “Co-Existence and Co-Ordination of Mechanisms of International Protection of Human Rights (at Global and Regional Levels)” (1987) 202:II Rec des Cours 302.Google Scholar

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27 The possibility of inter-state complaints is foreseen in the Convention against Torture, supra note 18, art 21; the International Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, 2220 UNTS 3 (in force 1 July 2003), art 74; the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, 660 UNTS 195 (in force 4 January 1969), arts 11–13; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 999 UNTS 171 (in force 23 March 1976), arts 41–43; the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, UN Doc A/61/488 (2006) (in force 23 December 2010), art 32; and the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, supra note 18, art 10.

28 See Domínguez-Redondo, supra note 10 at 684–85. See also Higgins, Rosalyn, “Human Rights in the International Court of Justice” (2007) 20:4 Leiden J Int’l L 745.Google Scholar

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30 By April 2013, the only country not to have participated as a state under review was Israel (in the fifteenth session in January 2013).

31 McMahon, supra note 8 at 13.

32 “Universal Periodic Review: On the Road to Implementation” (2013) at 5, online: <> [“UPR”].

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36 For an analysis of the treatment of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals during the first eight sessions of the UPR, see UPR, “Issue Analysis: Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transsexuals” (2011), online: <>. Minority rights are among the top ten issues raised during the UPR process. See McMahon, supra note 8 at 20.

37 On the meaning of peer review in academia and within different inter-governmental bodies, among others, see Arredondo, Tamara Lewis, “The Universal Periodic Review Mechanism of the United Nations Human Rights Council: Transforming the Human Rights Discourse” (PhD thesis, Maastricht University, 2013) at 85108 Google Scholar [unpublished]. On the meaning attached to the expression “peer review” or the finally adopted “periodic review” for the UPR, see Gaer, Felice D, “A Voice Not an Echo: Universal Periodic Review and the UN Treaty Body System” (2007) 7:1 Human Rights LR 109 at 112–21.Google Scholar On the position of regional groups regarding this issue, see Claire Doole and Gasparini, Juan, “Enhancing Council Credibility,” Infosud Human Rights Tribune, (2006) online <,862>.Google Scholar

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71 Simmons, supra note 69.

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73 Addo, supra note 17 at 602, 614–15.

74 See “UPR,” supra note 32; Domínguez-Redondo, supra note 10; McMahon, supra note 8. These include some specific examples of changes that have occurred in state promotion of human rights as a result of the UPR.

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92 Ibid at 544.

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95 Orford, supra note 84 at 178.

96 Simmons, supra note 69 at 27–31.

97 Ibid at 27.

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100 Orford, supra note 84 at 167–72.

101 UN Secretary-General, supra note 99 at para 11. A very interesting critique to the responsibility-to-protect (R2P) concept as redefining sovereignty and dis-tinguishing sovereignty de facto and de jure,can be found in Moses, Jeremy, “Sovereignty as Irresponsibility? A Realist Critique of the Responsibility to Protect” (2013) 39:1 Rev Int’l Studies 113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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108 Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v United States of America), Merits, Judgment, [1986] ICJ Rep 4.

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118 Ibid at 32.

119 Ibid at 34.

120 See Domínguez-Redondo, supra note 10 at 679–80.

121 Domínguez-Redondo, supra note 14 at 274–75. See also Alston, supra note 19 at 204–7.

122 See Lempinen, supra note 8.

123 International Service for Human Rights, “Human Rights Monitor, no 64/2008” (2008) at 11.

124 Democracy Coalition Project, “Human Rights Council Report Card: Government Positions on Key Issues 2008-2009” (2009), online: <>. See also Scheipers, Sibylle SS, “Civilization vs Toleration: The New UN Human Rights Council and the Normative Foundations of the International Order” (2007) 10:3 J Int’l Relations & Development 219 at 234–36.Google Scholar

125 Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1577 UNTS 3, Can TS 1992 No 3, 28 ILM 1457 (in force 2 September 1990). On the concerns about US sovereignty in relation to every human rights convention and this one in particular, see Rutkow, Lainie and Lozman, Joshua T, “Suffer the Children? A Call for the United States Ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child” (2006) 19 Harv Hum Rts J 161.Google Scholar

126 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2515 UNTS 3, Can TS 2010 No 8, 46 ILM 443 (in force 3 May 2008). Senator Mike Lee led the opposition to ratification of the convention in the US Senate on 4 December 2012 using the argument that ratification would pose a threat to American sovereignty. Abrams, Jim, “Disability Treaty Downed by Republican Opposition,” Huffington Post (4 December 2012), online: Huffington Post <>.Google Scholar See also Chaffin, Sally, “Challenging the United States Position on a United Nations Convention on Disability” (2006) 15 Temp Pol & Civ Rts L Rev 121.Google Scholar

127 See Report of the Chairperson of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, UN Doc E/CN.4/2006/120 (26 February 2006).

128 Donald, Alice, Gordon, Jane, and Leach, Philip, “The UK and the European Court of Human Rights,” Research Report 83 (2012) Equality and Human Rights Commission 126.Google Scholar

129 See, for instance, the portrayal of the post-Cold War era as a “Westphalian order” versus an emerging “Eastphalian” order based on what it is described as a “Western-inspired effort to limit sovereignty and qualify the principle of noninterference” using international law standards such as human rights, humani-tarian intervention, or the responsibility to protect. Kim, Sung Won, Human Security with an Asian Face? (2010) 17:1 Ind J Global Legal Stud 83 at 85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

130 Engle, Karen, “Culture and Human Rights: The Asian Values Debate in Context” (2000) 32:2 NYUJ Int’l L & Pol 291 Google Scholar; see also Castellino, Joshua and Domínguez-Redondo, Elvira, Minority Rights in Asia: A Comparative Legal Analysis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) at 1126.Google Scholar

131 See Cerna, Christina M, “Universality of Human Rights and Cultural Diversity: Implementation of Human Rights in Different Socio-Cultural Contexts” (1994) 16:3 Hum Rts Q 740 at 740 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Otto, Diane, “Rethinking the Universality of Human Rights Law” (1997) 29:1 Colum HRL Rev 1 at 10, n 46.Google Scholar Confirming the list based on the UPR review, see Blackburn, Roger Lloret, Cultural Relativism in the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council, ICIP Working Papers 2011/ 03 (Barcelona: Institut Català por la Pau, 2011) at 9, 14, online: <>.Google Scholar

132 The divisive HRC Resolution on Promoting Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms through a Better Understanding of Traditional Values of Humankind,” HRC Resolution 12/21, UNGAOR, 12th Sess, UN Doc A/HRC/RES/12/21 (2009), was sponsored by Russia and co-sponsored by Bolivia, Cuba, Algeria, Bangladesh, Belarus, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Madagascar, Malaysia, Morocco, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia, Vietnam, and Zambia.

133 Alvarez, supra note 117 at 36.

134 McMahon, Edward R, “Herding Cats and Sheep: Assessing State and Regional Behavior in the Universal Periodic Review of the United Nations Human Rights Council” (2010) at 1, 15, Table 5, online: UPR <>.Google Scholar

135 See, for example, Neumayer, Eric, “Do International Human Rights Treaties Improve Respect for Human Rights” (2005) 49 J Confl Resolution 925 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Simmons, supra note 69.

136 Spain, Anna, “Integration Matters: Rethinking the Architecture of International Dispute Resolution” (2010) 32:1 U Pennsylvania J Int’l L 1.Google Scholar

137 Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Equatorial Guinea, 6th Sess, UN Doc A/ HRC/16/13 (2010) at 20.

138 Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Sudan, 11th Sess, UN Doc A/HRC/18/16 (2011) at 16.

139 Africa Peer Review Mechanism, Country Review Report of the Republic of Kenya (2006) at 325.

140 Africa Peer Review Mechanism, Country Review Report of Burkina Faso (2008) at 400.

141 Some related issues in UPR recommendations include asylum seekers, corruption, counter-terrorism, detention conditions, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, freedom of association and of the press, extra-judicial human rights violations by state agents, and internally displaced people.

142 For a seminal report on this subject, see Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, Preventing Deadly Conflict: Final Report (Washington DC: Carnegie Corporation, 1997).

143 See, for example, Pagani, Fabrizio, “Peer Review: A Tool for Cooperation and Change—An Analysis of the OECD Working Method” (2002) OECD Secretary General, online: <>;Google Scholar Herbert, Ross and Gruzd, Steven, The African Peer Review Mechanism: Lessons from the Pioneers (Johannesburg, South Africa: South African Institute for International Affairs, 2008)Google Scholar; Chene, Marie and Dell, Gillian, “Comparative Assessment of Anti-Corruption Conventions’ Review Mechanisms: U4 Expert Answer,” Transparency International (2008), online: < downloadasset/369>.Google Scholar

144 Sarkin, Jeremy and Paterson, Mark, “Africa’s Responsibility to Protect: Introduction” (2010) 2:4 Global Responsibility to Protect 339 at 352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

145 Gierycz, Dorota, NUPI Report: The Responsibility to Protect: A Legal and Rights-Based Perspective (Oslo, Norway: Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, 2008).Google Scholar

146 Malan, Mark, “Conflict Prevention in Africa: Theoretical Construct or Plan of Action? KAIPTC Paper 3 (2005) at 6. at 14, online: <>.Google Scholar

147 Tomuschat, supra note 75 at 71.

148 Domínguez-Redondo, supra note 10 at 703–5.

149 Lauren, Paul Gordon, The Evolution of International Human Rights (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).Google Scholar

150 Posner, Eric A, “Human Rights, the Laws ofWar and Reciprocity” (2013) 6:2 Law & Ethics of Human Rights 147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

151 Zemanek, supra note 109 at 16.

152 Simmons, supra note 69 at 375.

153 See, for example, the remarks of Laura Laserre, president of the Human Rights Council, “Closing Comments, UPR Report of Bahrain, 13th Universal Periodic Review,” Webcast (News and Media, United Nations Webcast, 25 May 2012), online: <>.

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