In their letter, the organisations express their deep concern that despite the sovereign right of their country to reject recommendations concerning the meaning of gender and gender identity, marriage and ratification of the so-called Istanbul Convention, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights encourages Bulgaria to implement them as part of a newly developed “Comprehensive National Action Plan on Human Rights”, thus calling for their revision.
In the letter, they state that in order for Member States and civil society to continue to participate in good faith in the Universal Periodic Review, they must be confident that its principles will be respected by all stakeholders.
According to civil society organizations, the nature of the letter and the choice of recommendations from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights exceeded its mandate.
The OHCHR letter violates the basic principles and guidelines of the UN and the UPR and constitutes unlawful interference, undermining its role in promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, the organizations said.
It duplicates the efforts of member states for the periodic review in a selective manner, trying to review the responses of the Bulgarian government to recommendations that it legitimately and definitively chose not to support, the letter said.
In their address, they urge the Office of the High Commissioner to withdraw its letter and refrain from taking such action in the future.
Copy of the letter is sent to Teodora Genchovska, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Republic of Bulgaria, Birgit van Hout from the United Nations Human Rights Regional Office for Europe and Gianni Magazzeni, Chief of the UPR Branch at OHCHR. Below is the text of the letter along with the names of the organization that have signed it.
TO: H.E. Michelle Bachelet
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Teodora Genchovska, Foreign Minister of Bulgaria
Birgit van Hout, The United Nations Human Rights Regional Office for Europe
Gianni Magazzeni, Chief, UPR Branch, OHCHR
Open letter about: OHCHR’s Letter to Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry
Madam High Commissioner,
The undersigned 18 organizations wish to express our deep concern and regret regarding the OHCHR’s letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria on May 17, 2021, concerning the country’s third cycle review before the UPR Working Group at its 36th Session. The letter required greater attention to be given to certain recommendations highlighted in its annex, including particularly some, which Bulgaria had noted. Despite our state’s sovereign prerogative to reject certain recommendations, concerning the meaning of gender and gender identity, marriage and the ratification of the so-called Istanbul Convention, the OHCHR encouraged Bulgaria to implement them as part of a newly developed ‘comprehensive national human rights action plan’ thereby effectively calling for their reconsideration.
We wish to highlight that both the nature of the letter, and choice of recommendations, by the OHCHR, reflect an overreach of its mandate. As such, the letter violates core UN and UPR specific principles and guidelines.
In accordance with the principles laid out in the Human Rights Council Institution-building Package (IBP), the UPR is supposed to be a State-driven, non-political, non-selective, not overly burdensome and constructive mechanism. Moreover, the IBP clearly lays out the limited mandate of the OHCHR within this process: (1) compiling relevant UPR documentation for each State under review, including the summary of stakeholders’ information; (2) providing the troikas with necessary assistance and expertise; and (3) assisting in the implementation of [supported] recommendations and conclusions regarding capacity-building and technical assistance, “in consultation with, and with the consent of, the State under Review [emphasis added]”.
Due to the intergovernmental nature of this process, only States may formulate UPR recommendations, which the State under review may choose to either support or reject. This prerogative of the State under review bases itself on the principle of sovereignty, a founding principle of the UN.
The OHCHR’s letter duplicates the UPR efforts of Member States in a selective manner by attempting to rediscuss the government of Bulgaria’s responses to recommendations it legitimately and definitively chose not to support. Not only advocating for the reconsideration of previously noted UPR recommendations represents an overreach of the OHCHR’s own mandate; it also causes an unnecessary and burdensome duplication of work for the State under review. This practice is particularly concerning in light of the OHCHR’s duty to manage Member States’ assessed and voluntary financial contributions in a manner that is consistent with its own mandate.
According to the IBP of the HRC, the basis of the UPR is the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights instruments to which a State is party, and voluntary pledges and commitments made by States, while also taking into account applicable international humanitarian law. We are deeply concerned that the OHCHR’s letter prioritizes certain recommendations on matters not grounded in international human rights law, but rather referring to alleged ‘standards’, which are highly contested by the majority of States. Examples include the definitions of gender and marriage, as well as the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. We wish to stress the importance of the principles of universality and impartiality at the heart of the international human rights framework, on whose respect the legitimacy and accountability of the UN and its entities, including the OHCHR, depend.
The OHCHR has the duty to ensure that the credibility of the UPR process is not threatened by its actions. For Member States and civil society alike to continue engaging in the UPR in good faith, it must first trust that all stakeholders will uphold its principles. The OHCHR’s letter to the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs represents an unwarranted, selective, and partial interference in the UPR process, undermining its role for the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Given the above, we strongly urge your office to retract the letter and refrain from undertaking such actions in the future.
Thank you for your attention to this matter and we are looking forward to receiving your response.
Association Society and Values, Mihaela Djorgova
National Association March for the Family, Ivaylo Tinchev
Revival Foundation, Lina Hotnishka
Mission Recovery Foundation, Fillip Rashev
Light of the Balkans Foundation, Ivan Valkov
Road to Freedom Association, Dimitar Karpov
Citizens’ initiative of the parents Pazardjik, Grozdana Yantrova
National Association of the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast, Todor Georgiev
Civil Association Faith and Future, Veneta Merk
Civil Association Choice for Life, Daniela Nikolova
SARRA Foundation, Valentina Ivanova
New Life Association, Dimitrina Ivanova
Full Life Foundation Dimitar Spilkov
Bulgarian Athos Association, Valentin Todorov
National Civil Association Nature for People
Eco Glasnost Association, Emil Georgiev
National Civil Association for the Protection of Property Owners, Zdravko Metodiev
Cornerstone Foundation, Maia Hristozova
 Letter from the OHCHR to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Caretaker Government (17 May 2021).
 A/HRC/46/13/Add.1, see for example Rec. 134.30, 134.6 and para 8, and their equivalent on p 3 and 5 respectively of the OHCHR’s letter.
 A/HRC/RES/5/1, para 3.
 Ibid, paras 33-46.
 Charter of the United Nations, art. 2(1).
 Id. (3), Annex, para 1.
 Id. (1), Annex.