Today, The Bahamas is under review at the 43 Session of Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations in Geneva. The UPR, now in its fourth cycle, was established by the Human Rights Council and is designed as a peer review. States report on what they have done since the previous review to improve human rights conditions and fulfill their obligations to the people.
A written State report is submitted, and the Working Group reviews this report along with a compiled report including information from treaty bodies (such as Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, also known as CEDAW) and other UN entities, and submissions by other stakeholders including non-governmental organizations. It is understood that States usually present a highlight reel, downplaying human rights violations and failures to take appropriate action while overstating its commitment and the progress being made. This is one of the reasons that it is important for other stakeholders to submit reports that include the challenges faced in-country and independent views of the progress being made. In addition to submitting written reports, non-governmental organisations have the opportunity to speak at UPR pre-sessions, sharing information and highlighting key areas within which they want Member States to give recommendations.
In a three-and-a-half hour meeting of the UPR Working Group, questions are posed to the State under review, comments can be made, and recommendations are given by Member States. These are based on the reports made available to them. The State has the opportunity to answer questions during the session.
There are three sessions per year in which 14 States are reviewed. A total of 42 States are reviewed each year, so the cycles are five years long in order to cover all 193 UN Member States. Following the review, an outcome document is produced with support from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR). The outcome document contains the recommendations made by Member States, and the State under review can support (meaning accept) or note (usually meaning reject) the recommendations made. It is expected that the State spends the next five years, leading to its next review, implementing the recommendations.
In the third UPR cycle, The Bahamas received scores of recommendations. Germany recommended the establishment, as soon as possible, of a national human rights institution (NHRI). Importantly, it called for the NHRI to be in compliance with the Paris Principles. Indonesia called on The Bahamas to “step up efforts in establishing a national human rights institution in line with the Paris Principles”. It is interesting that it was reported last week that a resolution was passed, unanimously, to appoint a parliamentary committee on human rights. Five Members of Parliament and three senators are to form this committee responsible for “investigation of alleged human rights violations through parliamentary inquiries, holding public hearings on human rights-related issues and carrying out on-site visits”.
Regarding the formation of the committee, the leader of the Free National Movement said: “We support this committee but what we do not support is having it appointed as a charade to give this government an opportunity to tick a box to the international community and say that we are committed to addressing this.”
It is important to note that this parliamentary committee is not, and does not even come close to, a national human rights institution. NHRIs both promote and protect human rights. They conduct and publish research, provide training, monitor the human rights situation, receive and investigate reports of human rights violations, provide advice to the government, and support human rights defenders. The Paris Principles state that the NHRI must be independent of the government, guaranteed by statutory law or constitutional provisions. It must be properly funded in a way that does not affect its independence, and it is expected to be accessible to the general public.
It certainly appears as though the government has made the deliberate decision not to establish the NHRI, instead creating another committee that is highly likely to fail. In fact, it is probably designed to fail as the government has completely ignored the Paris Principles which are necessary to make the entity effective, accessible, and, critically, independent. It will, no doubt, highlight this shameful substitution to give the appearance of progress, and hope that other States do not notice.
Slovenia and Ukraine recommended the establishment of the Office of the Ombudsman in accordance with the Paris Principles. Last week, it was reported that the Ombudsman Bill, 2023 was tabled in Parliament, just as similar legislation was tabled by the previous administration in 2017 with no further action. Organization for Responsible Governance has made the Bill available in the Policy Review Centre section of its website, and the page has a form for members of the public to provide feedback on the Bill. This is an opportunity for civic engagement, and being informed on the Paris Principles will make feedback stronger and more relevant to the obligations the government has to the people.
There were six recommendations on persons with disabilities, and all of them was supported (accepted) by the State. Jamaica and Maldives called for The Bahamas to create an environment for people with disabilities to be included in the mainstream education system. Senegal recommended the development of a social protection policy to benefit people with disabilities and guarantee their civil, political, economic and cultural rights.
Seven recommendations were made specific to discrimination against women, four on violence against women, and one on the advancement of women. All of these recommendations were supported (accepted) by the State. They included passing legislation to criminalise marital rape, taking effective measures to ensure gender equality, and combatting violence and discrimination against women and girls. None of these have been implemented, so these recommendations are likely to be repeated. The State may also face questions about its failure to implement these recommendations over the past five years.
The Government of The Bahamas does not generally come back to The Bahamas and update the people on its participation in international mechanisms. The media does not usually offer particularly in-depth reporting on proceedings either, but the information is available on the OHCHR website. The session with The Bahamas review at the 43rd Session of the Universal Periodic Review will be streamed on the United Nations Web TV at 8:30am today. This can be accessed at https://media.un.org/en/webtv/schedule/2023-05-03. Tune in, take notes, pay attention to the information reported by the media and by the government itself, and look out for the release of the outcome document. It will not only give an indication of the gaps between international human rights standards and where The Bahamas is now, but, through its response —supported or noted — the State’s position on the closing that gap.