GCH 2021 Annual Strategic Retreat

The 3rd Annual Strategic Retreat of the Geneva Cities Hub focused on how to support the involvement of local and regional governments (LRGs) in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which provides a concrete multilateral entry point for LRGs to directly interact with States.

To do so, retreat participants first discussed lessons learnt from the Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs) submitted in the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals reporting mechanism. VLRs constitute an interesting precedent of LRGs participation in a State-led/oriented multilateral mechanism. Then, the retreat fostered collective reflection on why, when where and how to support the engagement of LRGs in UPR.

There were different views on parallels to be drawn between SDGs and UPR (SDGs refer to development goals, while UPR relies on human rights, with clear international obligations for the duty bearers) and also various opinions about which UPR stages should see the engagement of LRGs. Nonetheless, links are also obvious both in terms of processes and content (SDGs are anchored in human rights and UPR recommendations have important SDGs components).

Overall, all participants underlined the added value of LRGs’ involvement in UPR and the need to move forward for the 4th cycle of UPR.

The GCH will therefore continue to work in 2022 with partners to identify which LRGs and States could be interested in the issue and how LRGs wishing to contribute to UPR could be supported concretely.


Introduction

On 10 December 2021, the Geneva Cities held its 3rd Annual Strategic Retreat[1] to discuss how to support the involvement of local and regional governments (LRGs) in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The meeting gathered participants from LRGs, city networks, States, UN entities, civil society, academia, as well as independent experts.

The retreat constituted a logical step in a process that started with an informal GCH’s research about how UN human rights mechanisms take into account LRGs in their work. Without much surprise, the research concluded that few human rights mechanisms take into account LRGs, in spite of the obvious added value that their engagement can bring, given that they are often the ones delivering human rights on the ground. With that research, the GCH also realized that nothing prevented human rights mechanisms – including Special procedures, Treaty bodies and UPR – from engaging with LRGs.

The GCH has chosen to focus on UPR because it is a well-structured and impactful UN process with clear follow-up and consistent State engagement. It therefore constitutes an important entry point for LRGs in a Geneva-based multilateral process where they can directly interact with States and be seen by them.

The main objective of the retreat was to unpack what is meant by “engaging” LRGs in UPR, a state-led/oriented mechanism. To do so, the meeting was divided in two parts. It first discussed lessons learnt from the Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs) submitted by LRGs in the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reporting mechanism. Second, the retreat fostered collective reflection on why, when where and how to support the engagement of LRGs in UPR.  

  1. Drawing lessons from the VLRs’ experience

Each year, LRGs are more and more numerous to submit VLRs[2], alongside Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) submitted by States. UN Regional Economic Commissions which assist numerous cities in the implementation of SDGs, also support LRGs willing to submit VLRs, for instance through the development of guidelines. Several lessons learnt have been drawn from that process:

  • VLRs are only the “tip of the iceberg” since they result from a complex and long process (duration vary considerably: between 6-9 months, up to 24 months or only 3 months in some cases) involving many stakeholders and being used to raise awareness, localize and realize SDGs. However, once structures are in place, they can be used for other processes, such as UPR.
  • VLRs constitute concrete tools to promote transparency and accountability of LRGs within their territory. They also are a tool to enhance governance within an administration by clarifying who does what.
  • VLRs constitute political tools to carve space for LRGs in an international arena led by States and to sometimes demonstrate that LRGs are ahead of their national governments in relation to SDGs achievement. VLRs also help connect cities among themselves and exchange experiences.
  • VLRs facilitate participatory governance because local communities, including groups in vulnerable situations, may be engaged throughout the process. It was underlined that engaging a wide range of actors contributes to robust VLRs.   
  • VLRs support vertical and horizontal integration of various actors and themes and thus favour cross-sectoral and multi-stakeholder collaboration at local level, but also between the local and national levels. In that sense, VLRs contribute to open door for LRGs to engage with the national administration.  
  • VLRs support data collection at local level and thus help to develop capacities of LRGs, given the complexity of the process. It was also mentioned that data contained in the VLRs already include or should include relevant human rights’ data.

These lessons above must be kept in mind when supporting LRGs’ engagement in UPR. However, it was also emphasized that the SDGs and UPR processes are different. First, SDGs reporting process does not entail a structured peer-reviewed mechanism with follow-up like UPR. Thus, VLRs do not benefit from sufficient visibility and follow-up is not warranted. In addition, while one refers to development goals, the other relies on human rights, with clear international obligations for the duty bearers and accountability to be upheld. Some participants therefore cautioned against the comparison between international processes and suggested instead to focus on the preparatory and implementation phases at national level and the role of LRGs in that context.

  1. Engaging LRGs in UPR                 

In order to unpack the meaning of “LRG’s engagement” in UPR, specific questions were put forward by the GCH to guide the discussions. The experience of LRGs with VLRs (see above) and the perspectives of participants enabled to provide elements of response to those questions.

  • WHY would LRGs engage in UPR and why would States accept and/or support such an engagement are fundamental questions. Several points were brought in relation to:
    • the important role that LRGs play in human rights implementation, in particular when it comes to economic, social and cultural rights:
      • From the point of view of States under review in UPR, engaging LRGs could enable them to promote the concepts of “localization of human rights” and “effectiveness of implementation by LRGs”.
      • From the perspective of LRGs, engaging in UPR helps promote their own human rights initiatives/policies (which can sometimes be ahead of national ones), mobilize and educate local communities through a participatory process and also provide a tool for accountability at local level. In addition, engaging in UPR enable LRGs to lobby their national authorities in relation to human rights. A participant referred to a “sandwich” or a “hamburger” strategy, with international pressure at the top, local communities pushing below and national authorities in the middle.
    • UPR as a political tool for LRGs to get more visibility both at international (including through peer exchanges with other cities) and national levels (similarly to VLRs, UPR can support vertical and horizonal integration of various actors and themes). LRGs’ enhanced participation to UPR certainly contributes to implement the UN Secretary General Common Agenda’s recommendations and ensure that LRGs do not always remain at the periphery of UN multilateralism.
  • As to WHEN is agood timing to push for LRGs involvement in UPR, the response was very clear: it’s now, in time for the beginning of UPR 4th cycle (October 2022) which will focus on implementation. While States have to submit their reports by July 2022, stakeholders will have to submit their reports before 31 March 2022. Therefore, one should not miss the opportunity to engage LRGs in UPR, during the preparatory process, but also during and after the UPR reviews themselves.
  • WHO should be engaged in UPR ? All LRGs interested or a selection of them for each member State? If so, which LRGs and based on which criteria? What should be the role of international/national city networks in that regard? These questions were not addressed during the debate. While important, not responding to them at this stage does not prevent LRGs from getting involved in UPR, given that the participation is on a voluntary basis, similarly to VLRs.
  • WHERE should LRGs be involved in relation to UPR? In the preparatory processes at national level? At the international level during the UPR which take place in Geneva? Contrasting views were shared during the event. While some favoured the participation of LRGs only during the preparatory and implementation phases – i.e., at national level, others mentioned that engaging LRGs at the international level in Geneva help heighten LRG’s recognition of the importance of UPR and can reinforce the connections of local movements to local and national officials around UPR, and human rights more generally.
  • HOW to concretely proceed to support LRGs involvement in UPR immediately and in the longer-term? A lot of points are included in this question, such as the status of LRGs in UPR, the written input that they can provide on their own or as part of an input by other actors, the content of that input, the UPR recommendations to be addressed, etc. During the retreat, some participants shared their own experiences related to the involvement of LRGs in the UPR of their respective States and the points below were underlined:
    • Several avenues were put forward for the participation of LRGs in UPR:
      • During the national consultation processes led by States: LRGs could provide direct input to the national report of the State under review and/or be involved in the work of the National Mechanisms for Reporting and Follow-up (NMRF), in particular in relation to the NMRF action and/or implementation plans. Or they could also submit their own report.
      • By providing input to the mid-term review report by the State or other stakeholders and by submitting their own mid-term review report.
      • By being included in the national delegation that present the UPR report.
      • By intervening during the Human Rights Council sessions under agenda item 5 which discusses all State reviews in plenary session.
    • On the content of LRG’s input to UPR, it was suggested that focusing on economic, social and cultural rights would be a good start, given the prominent role played by LRGs in this area.
    • It was underlined that certain LRGs would need support from various organizations, including OHCHR, UN-Habitat or UN Regional Economic Commissions, in order to engage in such a complex multilateral process like UPR. 
  • Finally, the question of HOW MUCH the engagement of LRGs would cost was not discussed during the retreat. It was not expected to come up with specific figures, but rather to discuss the process to ensure that LRGs get adequate resources to engage in UPR.  

Conclusion

All participants agreed on the importance and relevance of engaging LRGs in UPR, in particular in view of its upcoming 4th cycle focused on implementation. While there were different views on parallels to be drawn between SDGs and UPR (development goals vs. human rights), there are also obvious links. SDGs are anchored in human rights and UPR recommendations have important SDGs components, as demonstrated by the Human Rights Data Explorer, which help visualize the connections between human rights recommendations for individual countries and the 2030 Agenda’s goals and targets. Thus, relying on the SDGs reporting process and on the content generated by VLRs is therefore valuable to better support LRGs’ engagement in UPR. Further, enhanced involvement of LRGs in UPR – a well-structured, peer review process with clear follow-up – may actually help shed more light and provide more visibility to the human rights-related content of VLRs.

The GCH will therefore continue to work in 2022 with partners to identify which LRGs and States could be interested in the issue and how international partners could concretely support LRGs wishing to contribute to UPR.


[1] Since its establishment, the GCH has been holding strategic annual retreats. In 2019, the retreat focused on the vision and general mandate of the GCH and in 2020, it reflected upon the role of local and regional governments (LRGs) in multilateralism and how it could be enhanced, including in the area of human rights. These retreats have greatly helped shaped the GCH strategy, thanks to the collaboration and support of partners, including GCH founders and donors, UN agencies – in particular Habitat and UNECE, LRGs representatives, diplomats, city networks and academia.

[2] It was noted that in addition to VLRs, national associations of LRGs have also started to submit Voluntary Subnational Reviews (VSRs) which are “country-wide, bottom-up subnational reporting processes that provide both comprehensive and in-depth analyses of the corresponding national environments for SDG localization”. More information on UCLG website.

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