UPR of the UK: praise and criticism as the UK defends its human rights record
Thursday, 31 May 2012 15:23


The United Kingdom’s (UK) second examination under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) was held on Wednesday 23 May. Representing the UK was a 25-strong delegation led by the Minister for Justice, Lord McNally. Since the UK was last in the hot seat the UPR’s question-and-answer system has undergone a significant alteration. The old first-come-first-served system has been exchanged for an equal time distribution mechanism. In spite of the UK’s high profile, raised by events such as the 2011 London riots and the recent phone hacking scandal, only 60 States spoke, and the session finished early. Lord McNally was the sole respondent to States’ questions.


During the previous UPR session several key themes emerged during the interactive dialogue. These included the detention of terror suspects for up to 28 days without trial, the use of corporal punishment against children, and the protection of rights for both migrant workers and their families. These issues were broached immediately within Lord McNally’s opening speech. The 2011 Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIM) Act, for example, reviewed existing counter-terrorism measures, such as the maximum detention period without trial for terror suspects - reducing it to 14 days. Lord McNally then assured States, alluding to the Child Poverty Strategy and the Children’s Act of 2004, that the rights of British children were safeguarded within statute law. Citing research, Lord McNally claimed that violence against children had dropped dramatically as a result of these initiatives.


States, with one or two exceptions, warmly welcomed the UK and congratulated it for its continuing human rights efforts. The Equality Act - ensuring equal opportunities based on the principle of non-discrimination, and the reformation of the defamation law - helping to safeguard the freedom of expression, stood out as prime examples of the UK’s commitment. The UK however also faced criticism on several issues. The Philippines began the dialogue, raising concerns about the rights of migrant workers and their families. Thailand, Timor-Leste, Argentina, and Iran, as well as several NGOs who submitted written information,[1] shared the Philippines’ deep concern about abuses against ‘unprotected’ migrant workers. The reviewing States also picked upon several other issues including the admission age into the armed forces and human rights infringements caused by counter-terrorism.


Below are some of the recommendations made to the UK:


  • Ratify ILO Convention 189 on domestic workers and the Convention on Migrant Workers
  • Ensure that migrant workers can retain their overseas domestic worker visa as a safeguard of their rights
  • Treat access to clean drinking water and sanitation as basic rights
  • Standardise human trafficking countermeasures across the UK
  • Withdraw reservations concerning the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on children in armed conflict
  • Prevent prison overcrowding and improve prison conditions
  • Combat prejudices and negative stereotypes leading to racial discrimination or incitement to racial hatred
  • Adopt legislation to further restrict the detention of terror suspects without charge and ensure that ‘secret evidence’ is only used in cases where there is a threat to public security
  • Immediately and thoroughly conduct enquiries regarding torture by members of the British armed forces
  • Carry out immediate and independent investigations regarding all allegations concerning detention facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq
  • Combat racial profiling within counter-terrorism


In response Lord McNally parried several of the questions, and provided insightfully constructive responses to others. The oblique Argentine request for the UK to secede the Malvinas Islands, was met by a friendly yet droll refusal. Lord McNally also addressed States’ concerns regarding the status of migrant workers and their families’ rights. He stressed that current provisions are sufficient. However a recent study, by the London based charity Kalayaan, has shown that 20% of migrant workers registered with the organisation are being physically and mentally abused.[2]


Whilst the delegation expressed appreciation for the dialogue, it unwaveringly defended most of its current human rights provisions under scrutiny. These included prison conditions, crowd control methods (known as ‘kettling’), and in particular the legal age of entry into the armed forces. Slovenia and Slovakia, among others, pointed out that the entry of 16 year olds into the army directly contravened the CRC, to which the UK is a signatory. Lord McNally replied that the age simply mirrored the point at which compulsory education ended. Whilst 16 year olds can join the army, they cannot be deployed until they are 18.


The UK’s defensive dialogue was combined with a stubbornness regarding the ratification of various conventions, including the ILO convention on migrant workers and the CRC optional protocol on children in armed conflict. The UK’s reluctance was explained by Lord McNally to be a side effect of due care and diligence. He explained that both existing legislation and the compatibility of such treaties with the UK’s legal framework needed to be carefully considered before ratification. This cautious approach was echoed when the UK deferred its position on all recommendations made to it by the working group until the Human Rights Council’s 21st session. However, plans including the creation of a UK bill of rights come as a welcome reminder that the UK continues to engage seriously with the UPR, setting another high standard for itself in four years’ time.

[1] NGOs cannot make oral interventions during the review - these concerns were included in the summary of stakeholders’ information for the UK, at

[2] Kalayaan submitted information for inclusion in the stakeholders’ report for the UK


Last Updated on Friday, 01 June 2012 10:26
© by The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) 2018