“Keepers of the Truth”: Documenting Human Rights at the UN Universal Periodic Review

Julie Billaud is a legal anthropologist researching Afghanistan, European Islam, gender, international governance and human rights. She is the author of ‘Kabul Carnival: Gender Politics in Postwar Afghanistan’ (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015). She is currently Associate Researcher at Sussex Asia Center (University of Sussex).

The Universal Periodic Review is a human rights monitoring mechanism put in place in 2008 by the (reformed) UN Human Rights Council. Intended to complement the other human rights mechanisms, UPR is distinctive in a number of ways. Rather than scrutinizing specific issues by a group of experts, it produces holistic reviews carried out by peers (other states). The UPR is universal, in the sense that instead of imposing itself to selected violators, it is upheld by all participating states on a voluntary basis. The 3.5-hour public review of a State’s human rights performance before the “UPR Working Group” (193 Member States) in Geneva is a key moment in the UPR process. It takes the form of an “interactive dialogue” in which the State under Review (SuR) presents its human rights successes and challenges, and Participating Governments make comments, ask questions and offer recommendations for improvement, which the State under Review is free to accept or reject. However, this ‘public’ moment is only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ to a plethora of activities stretching across time and space, well beyond the meeting rooms of the Palais des Nations.

In this presentation, I focus on the ‘backstage’ of the UPR, namely the Secretariat (located at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) whose task is to produce a series of documents for the UPR. Often overlooked in studies of transnational governance, International Secretariats nevertheless play an important ‘behind the scene’ role in global bureaucratic processes. Based on a three-month internship carried out in 2011 – as part of a broader ethnographic inquiry into the UPR realized in collaboration with Jane Cowan – and during which I became embedded in the everyday bureaucratic work of a team of UN drafters, I reflect on the meaning of documentation processes for international regulatory regimes. In contrast with scholars of bureaucracies who use the framework of governmentality to analyse the disciplinary force of paperwork, my fieldwork made me realize that such a totalizing approach fails to capture the intense negotiations triggered by documentation flows. I argue that if UPR modalities deeply constrain individual initiative, the apparent certainty provided by bureaucratic rules, tools and procedures is mythical. Because bureaucracies are spaces that function as mediums of social relations, documentation involves both compliance with rules and subtle attempts at subverting them.