By: GICJ/Nora Futtner

On Friday, November 6th, Bulgaria participated in its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR). This took place during the 36th session of the UPR. The adoption of the draft outcome report took place on November 10th, 2020, and it included 233 recommendations from 91 delegations.

In both the compilation reports distributed prior to the UPR and the interactive dialogue, countries, stakeholders, and the United Nations praised Bulgaria’s achievements, while also offering recommendations for areas in which the country should improve. Some of the most common recommendations addressed topics of women’s rights, rights for minority groups (especially the Roma people, individuals with disabilities and migrants and refugees), hate speech and freedom of the media.  

While not comprehensive, this report will provide a summary of this UPR session for Bulgaria, with an aim of providing a snapshot of the human rights situation in the country. The full report of Bulgaria’s third UPR Process includ

1. Background: Overview of the Human Rights Situation in Bulgaria

a. Bulgaria’s Participation in International Human Rights Treaties

b. Summary of Pre-UPR Submissions

i. Compilation of UN Information on Bulgaria

ii. Summary of Stakeholder Submissions

2. Universal Periodic Review Session

a. Presentation of the National Report

b. Interactive Dialogue and Recommendations from State

c. Response of the Bulgarian Delegation

3. GICJ’s Observations

Background: Overview of the Human Rights Situation in Bulgaria

Bulgaria’s Participation in International Human Rights Treaties

  Treaty                                                          Signature Date                                 Ratification Date

CAT (Convention against Torture and other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment)

June 10, 1986

December 16, 1986

CAT-OP (Optional Protocol of the Convention Against Torture)

September 22, 2010

June 1, 2011

CCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights)

October 8, 1968

September 21, 1970

CCPR-OP2-DP (Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming to the abolition of the death penalty)

March 11, 1999

August 10, 1999

CED (Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance)

September 24, 2008


CED, Art. 32 (Interstate communication procedure under the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance)



CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women)

July 17, 1980

February 8, 1982

CERD (International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination)

June 1, 1966

August 8, 1966

CESCR (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights)

October 8, 1968

September 21, 1970

CMW (International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families)



CRC (Convention on the Rights of the Child)

May 31, 1990

June 3, 1991

CRC-OP-AC (Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict)

June 8, 2001

February 12, 2002

CRC-OP-SC (Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children child prostitution and child pornography)

June 8, 2001

February 12, 2002

CRPD (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities)

September 27, 2007

March 22, 2012



Geographic Location of Bulgaria

Summary of Pre-UPR Submissions

To prepare for the review, the Working Group received two reports compiled by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The first gave an overview of the reports of UN treaty bodies, special procedures and other relevant UN documents pertaining to human rights in Bulgaria. The other report was a compilation of fourteen stakeholders’ submissions to the working group before the UPR session. In the section below both reports are summarized with subsections indicating key topics.

Compilation of UN Information on Bulgaria

International obligations and cooperation with international human rights mechanisms and bodies: Numerous UN bodies encouraged Bulgaria to ratify all human rights treaties that it has not yet ratified. These include the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child relating to the communications procedure, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

National human rights framework: UNICEF noted the positive development in 2019 that the Office of the Ombudsman was granted “A” status. This allows the office a greater financial and administrative capacity to protect and promote human rights. It was recommended that Bulgaria strengthen the capacity and financial resources of the Commission for Protection against Discrimination and broaden its mandate.

Equality and non-discrimination: Hate speech, racist discourse and discrimination (including in employment) against minority groups such as Turks, Roma, Muslims, Jews, people of African descent, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers and members of sexual minorities was raised as an important issue to remedy. It was recommended that Bulgaria include a definition of hate speech in their national legislation that is in-line with their international commitments, investigate violence and discrimination against minority groups, promote respect for diversity, and actively act against hate speech in the media.

Human rights and counterterrorism: It was recommended that Bulgaria better define the acts that constitute terrorism and ensure that civilian’s rights are protected whenever possible.

Right to life, liberty and security of person: Bulgaria was recommended to amend the definition of torture, establish an oversight mechanism for police abuse and increase standards of living in detention facilities.

Administration of justice, including impunity and the rule of law: It was recommended that Bulgaria significantly reform their juvenile justice system and address corruption.

Fundamental freedoms: Religious tolerance and investigation of hate speech against religious and ethnic minorities was raised as important. Additionally, protecting journalists, ensuring the transparency of media funding and repealing criminal provisions against defamation was recommended.

Prohibition of all forms of slavery: It was recommended that Bulgaria make steps toward eradication human trafficking, especially of children.

Right to an adequate standard of living: It was recommended that Bulgaria develop a progressive fiscal policy to reduce inequalities, as well as ensure adequate housing, sanitation and infrastructure for all people in the meantime.

Right to health: It was recommended that Bulgaria ensure access to health care for all, as this would reduce numerous issues related to health in the country that have resulted from prohibitively expensive or unavailable health care. A special emphasis was placed on healthcare for children, reproductive healthcare and healthcare for seniors.

Right to education: Several reports recommended that Bulgaria make additional efforts to keep Roma children in school, while also noting significant progress made since 2017. Issues with access to education in rural areas and for children with disabilities were also noted.

Women’s rights: In July 2018, it was determined that the judgement of the Constitutional Court that declared the Istanbul Convention incompatible with the Bulgarian constitution was partially a result of an incorrect translation of the term “gender.” With this misunderstanding addressed, it was recommended that Bulgaria move forward to ratification of the Istanbul Convention. It was further recommended that Bulgaria revise their definition of rape to include marital rape, train police officers to better respond to gender-based violence (GBV) and establish an action plan on violence against women and domestic violence with a special focus on the empowerment of Roma girls.

Rights of persons with disabilities: It was recommended to strengthen the capacity of the Equality and Human Rights Commission with regards to people with disabilities, take measures against ill-treatment of the mentally ill and disabled and promote the ability of disabled people to live independently.

Rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers: It was recommended that Bulgaria take action to protect the rights of those entering the country at border-crossing points, including ending the practice of mandatory detention, ensuring proper care, and implementing the National Strategy on Migration, which has not yet been utilized.

Summary of Stakeholders’ Submissions

Information provided by the Ombudsman

Justice and the prison system: The Ombudsman noted that the National Preventative Mechanism to reform the prison healthcare system had not yet been implemented. Regarding juvenile justice, the Ombudsman recommended creating a system to support the needs of children with deviant behavior that is an alternative to detainment.

Rights of persons with disabilities: The Ombudsman recommended that Bulgaria create mechanisms to help adults with disabilities find employment, and to help provide children with disabilities access the resources they need to succeed in school.  

Information provided by other stakeholders

International obligations and cooperation with human rights mechanisms: Different stakeholders recommended that Bulgaria sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the 1954 convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, and the European Convention on Nationality.

Equality and non-discrimination: The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) recommended that Bulgaria take legal steps to counter discrimination such as penalty enhancements for bias-motivated crimes.

In Joint Submission 3 (JS3) by Biltis Resource Center, it was stated that no significant progress in LGBTQI+ rights had been made since the last review cycle. As evidence, they note that the 2016 Equality between Women and Men Act refers only to the gender binary, and the Constitution and the Family Code define marriage as between a man and a woman.

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (EUFRA) expressed concerns about the counter-terrorism act, which allows the closure of non-profits if they are suspected of supporting or carrying out terrorism. This could lead to the silencing of civil society groups.

Ill-treatment by the police was identified by the CoE European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT). They recommended that Bulgaria amend the legislative and institutional framework on police to meet their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Right to life, liberty and security of person: The CPT recommended that every detained person be allowed a full and independent medical assessment and a reasonable standard of living during their imprisonment. EUFRA recommended that the legal framework be amended to end the practice of detaining people for up to 24 hours without any criminal charges raised against them.

Fundamental freedoms: The CoE Commissioner for Human Rights noted significant issues with media freedom and called upon Bulgarian authorities to take all efforts to protect journalists and their critical work. The OSCE/ODIHR recommended that Bulgaria ensure free and fair elections, based on its observations of the March 2017 early parliamentary elections.

Prohibition of all forms of slavery: The CoE Group of Experts on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) asked Bulgaria to implement the national mechanism for referral and support of trafficked persons in order to effectively reduce the practice. GRETA also recommended that all victims of trafficking should be ensured increased support, including access to compensation, in order to ease their reintegration into society.

Rights of women: Violence against women, including domestic violence, was identified as a “serious and growing” problem. It was recommended that the government of Bulgaria sign the Istanbul Convention. In Joint Submission 2 (JS2), Advocates for Human Rights recommended implementing steps to reduce bias against women and thoroughly investigate all cases of gender-based violence.  

Rights of the child: The CoE Commissioner on Human Rights expressed concern that Roma children and children with disabilities are over-represented in institutions and stressed that such institutions should be replaced by family and community-based care.

Minority rights: OSCE/ODIHR informed the committee about discrimination against the Roma community, including the issue of hate speech and lack of representation in the parliament. EUFRA also noted that Roma communities have been subject to evictions and demolition of their homes. The committee recommended that Bulgaria include plans to support the integration of the Roma and condemn all hate speech against them.

Rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers: Bulgaria’s detention of migrants was a major point. It was recommended in Joint Submission 4 (JS4) by Global Detention Project and Foundation for Access that Bulgaria cease automatic detention and use the practice only as a last resort and for the least amount of time possible.

The European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) noted that despite a recommendation made in 2014 for Bulgaria to actively promote a positive image for asylum seekers and refugees, the condition has improved little, and anti-migrant acts continue. Regarding stateless persons, Joint Submission 5 (JS5) recommended that steps be taken to assist stateless persons in accessing social rights and a minimum of sustenance and care by facilitating access to statelessness determination procedures.

Presentation of the National Report

Mr. Georg Georgiev presents the national report virtually.

The presentation of the national report was led by Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Georg Georgiev. Mr. Georgiev highlighted developments regarding the implementation of previous recommendations since the beginning of the second UPR cycle for Bulgaria and included other updates about the status of human rights in the country. The national report draws upon information by various stakeholders, including government departments and civil society organizations.

Mr. Georgiev emphasized Bulgaria’s respect of the United Nations human rights system. He mentioned that Bulgaria is a party to all primary human rights conventions of the United Nations, regularly participates in reporting on all primary human rights conventions of the United Nations and wishes to continue dialogue on human rights issues with the international community and civil society.

The voluntary pledges of Bulgaria are to strengthen ethnic and religious tolerance, protect the rights of the child, protect the rights of migrants and refugees and take targeted actions to enhance the rule of law, democracy and good governance. Throughout the presentation of the national report, Bulgaria maintained the importance of continuing to uphold human rights in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and not using the pandemic as a pretext to restrict human rights.

Mr. Georgiev then turned to the main developments that have taken place in Bulgaria since its second UPR cycle. He noted that significant progress has been made in the development of national human-rights mechanisms; in 2019, Bulgaria established a National Committee for International Humanitarian law, and accredited the national Ombudsman with “A” status. Further, a mechanism to monitor the implementation of recommendations from constructive dialogues with different UN Treaties was established in 2020, as was a mechanism allowing for payment of compensation to victims of abuses.

On specific issues, Mr. Georgiev highlighted Bulgaria’s efforts on the topics of anti-corruption, the rights of the child, rights of persons with disabilities, women’s rights, hate speech and bias, and living conditions for migrants. The main points from the presentation are summarized below:

Anti-corruption: The fight against corruption was noted as one of the main priorities of the Bulgarian Government. In 2017 and 2018, they made legal changes to ensure the integrity of judges and independence of the judiciary and established an anti-corruption mechanism.

Rights of children: In 2018, a mechanism was created to coordinate education for children, resulting in decreased drop-out rates among Roma children.

Rights of people with disabilities: Bulgaria established legal equality for people with disabilities and promoted the transition from institutionalized care to home-based care. Bulgaria intends to achieve the gradual closure of homes for youth with mental problems and shift them toward home care.

Rights of women: Bulgaria has made several improvements in the area of women’s rights and empowerment, such as the amendment of the Gender Equality Act, Social Services Act and Protection against Discrimination Act and implementing a National Gender Equality Strategy. Bulgaria has also taken steps to provide better prevention against gender-based violence by training the police force on these crimes, as well as providing adequate support systems for victims.

Discrimination, hate speech and bias: Bulgaria states that they do not tolerate any form of discrimination or bias against minority groups, including persons in the category of LGBTQ+. Steps have been taken to combat these issues, like supplementing the legal aid framework to guarantee more severe sanctions for violent crime that is bias-motivated and collaborating with organizations to conduct trainings. Additionally, Bulgaria has drafted a law to strengthen the powers of the national media regulator in order to curtail hate speech in media.

Rights of Migrants, asylum seekers and stateless persons: Bulgaria is invested in improving the living conditions of asylum seekers in various ways and ensuring that unaccompanied foreign children have the same rights as Bulgarian children who lack parental care.

To conclude, Deputy Minister Georg Georgiev acknowledged that Bulgaria has several human rights challenges that require more attention and reiterated that the country has a standing invitation to all United Nations Special Procedures. Furthermore, he welcomed the comments of states during the interactive dialogue and stated that Bulgaria would use the dialogue to steer their national conversation on human rights.

Interactive Dialogue: Key Recommendations From States

Like most delegations, Finland presented its recommendations virtually.

Ninety-one delegations participated in the interactive dialogue. Many countries commended Bulgaria for its continued engagement with UN human rights mechanisms and for the progress made in protecting and promoting human rights, especially the national plan for integration of the Roma community and new legal protections for women and children with disabilities.  

Common recommendations included that Bulgaria should ratify all human rights conventions it has not yet ratified, especially the Council of Europe (CoE) Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (“Istanbul Convention”), and the optional protocol on the convention on the rights of the child. 

Nearly all delegations that choose to give recommendations included one relating to the rights of women. Countries such as Israel, Lichtenstein, Slovenia, Denmark and the UAE emphasized that Bulgaria should take further steps to eliminate all violence against women, including domestic violence, and ensure that reforms made in the legal code are implemented. Canada recommended that Bulgaria thoroughly investigate all cases of rape, and train law enforcement on how to deal with such cases. Support for victims was also a focal point; Belgium underlined that Bulgaria should ensure that all victims have pathways for justice, while Malta recommended that proper support be given to victims.

Many States touched on the importance of increasing women’s empowerment in the country, including through supporting women with education and employment opportunities. Laos recommended that the government publically promote gender equality, and Haiti recommended a social media campaign to fight against the toxic masculinity that often leads to gender-based violence. Burkina Faso recommended that Bulgaria ensure risk-free maternity for all women by ensuring affordable reproductive health services.

Healthcare in general was also spoken on numerous times; Iceland recommended Bulgaria invest in early diagnosis and prevention technologies, and Iran and Cuba emphasized the importance of affordable healthcare.

Continued progress in combatting human trafficking in Bulgaria was also important to the delegations that participated in the interactive dialogue. Nepal, Nigeria, Togo, Bahrain, and Cyprus all gave recommendations to address the root causes of trafficking, help victims and train law enforcement. Figi recommended that Bulgaria implement a national anti-trafficking strategy. The United Kingdom recommended that Bulgaria also focus their support on child victims of trafficking.

Several countries also emphasized other rights for children in their statements. As an example, Timor Leste recommended that Bulgaria invest in efforts to help children in poverty, and Laos said that Bulgaria should promote a high quality of life for all children. Japan emphasized children with disabilities as an important sub-group that should be given due regard.  Libya, Nepal, Pakistan and Japan all urged Bulgaria to ensure that children have access to quality education, especially Roma children and those living in remote areas.

Austria, Switzerland, Montenegro, Poland, The Netherlands and Norway were concerned about discrimination against Roma people, resulting in them having reduced positive outcomes in health, education and employment. Germany recommended that Bulgaria refrain from demolishing Roma settlements before providing them with adequate alternatives. Several countries urged an end to the discrimination and bias against other minority groups, including LGBTQ+ individuals, and the restoration of a full spectrum of human rights for minorities.

The importance of an independent media was expressed by the United States, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway and others. Transparency of ownership of the media is a large factor in ensuring its independence, argued Ireland and Canada.  

Also relating to the media was the issue of hate speech in the media—Israel and Jordan recommended that Bulgaria take steps to eliminate this. Many States, including Slovakia, Palestine, Lichtenstein, Morocco, the Philippines and Sudan, made recommendations relating to the elimination of hate speech in Bulgaria.

On the topic of the rights of migrants and refugees, The Bahamas, among others, recommended that Bulgaria develop standards for asylum seekers and refugees. Bolivia and the Philippines recommended Bulgaria support migrants in finding employment.

Figi was the only country to make a recommendation for Bulgaria to address environmental challenges and create disaster risk reduction policies with the aid of women and indigenous and local communities.

Response of the Bulgarian Delegation

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Georg Georgiev was joined by Mr. Milko Berner, Deputy Minister of Interior, Mr. Nikolay Prodanov, Deputy Minister of Justice, Ms. Zornitsa Roussinova, Deputy Minister of Labor and Social Policy, and Ms. Karina Angelieva, Deputy Minister of Education and Science in responding to the interactive dialogue.

The Bulgarian delegation stated that they appreciated the comments and recommendations from the state parties during the interactive dialogue. Over the course of the dialogue, they offered a number of explanations and comments on specific issues, which are summarized below:

Rights of children: The delegation re-emphasized that the rights of children, including children with disabilities was a main priority. This year, Bulgaria plans to invest in early childhood development. On the issue of education for children, the delegation explained that they finalized the Regulation on Inclusive Education, amended the education budget and introduced obligatory education for all children starting at the age of four.

Mother tongue in elections: The delegation explained that the election must be conducted in Bulgarian, as per the constitution, but that political debate can be conducted in any language.

Refugees, migrants and stateless persons: Since 2015, UN agencies have provided Bulgaria with support and training and Bulgaria now believes its methods of dealing with refugees are satisfactory and abide by international law. It was emphasized that unaccompanied foreign children are never detained by the police. On the topic of stateless persons, the delegation explained that they introduced a national procedure for granting statelessness status in 2016 that has since been effective.

Police violence: The delegation stated that police were given control of upholding health measures and maintaining public order during coronavirus lockdowns and says that they completed their work with professionalism and transparency. They went on to explain that all cases of alleged police misconduct are properly judged by independent judicial authorities.

Rights of people with disabilities: People with disabilities are afforded personal assistance, employment support and direct cash support. Institutionalization has been significantly diminished in favor of daycare centers for individuals with mental and physical disabilities and their families.

Hate speech and hate crimes: Bulgaria has implemented regular trainings for law enforcement on hate crimes and homophobia. The delegation explained that they already have the proper legal framework to deal with hate speech and hate crimes, but that the legislation must be implemented in court.

Women’s rights: Bulgaria responded that it already has the proper legislative framework to counter domestic violence and address victim compensation and it plans to support their implementation. Furthermore, Bulgaria revoked the marital rape exemption in the criminal code, which was a major concern for many stakeholders. The delegation said that they plan further legislative improvements especially on topic of supporting victims. They explained again that despite calls to ratify the Istanbul Convention, they are unable to do so because of constitutional restraints.

Freedom of the media: During the meeting on the adoption of the UPR draft report, the minister of culture delivered a short update on media freedom, as he was unable to do so during the UPR session due to time constraints. He said that Bulgaria is in the process of making legal amendments on transparency of media ownership to ensure media independence. Furthermore, every attack on journalist is immediately and fully investigated.

GICJ’s Observations

The Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) is pleased to note that Bulgaria accepted most of the measures from the last UPR session and hopes that it will do the same in this cycle. The Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) wishes to offer a few observations concerning the statements made by the Bulgarian delegation and the extent of progress in the years since the previous review.

First, Bulgaria has made the commendable steps of creating a national mechanism to coordinate education and mandating early childhood education from the age of four. GICJ hopes that these strategies include provisions to support all children, especially from Roma communities. According to World Bank Data, only 15% of the Roma population graduate from high school, which is an astonishingly low number. The drop-out rate in Roma communities will be a key metric to monitor in the interim years before the next UPR.

Second, GICJ would like to call into question the repeated statements of the Bulgarian delegation that they have done everything possible to ensure protection of human rights during the pandemic. Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported that Bulgaria was using agricultural airplanes to spray disinfectant on Roma communities. In May, UN Human Rights officials called upon the Bulgarian government to stop such practices immediately, as it perpetuates stereotypes of Roma settlements as unsanitary. At the time, there were very low infection rates among Roma communities, so it is reasonable to anticipate further discriminatory actions if transmission increases. GICJ urges all stakeholders to closely monitor Bulgaria’s treatment of Roma and other minorities as the pandemic continues.

Third, GICJ is pleased to hear that ending hate speech in the media is a priority for Bulgaria, as it was raised as a major concern during the interactive dialogue. However, GICJ is concerned about the method that Bulgaria will use to achieve this goal. The delegation stated that they have increased the budget of the media regulator to target hate speech. As Bulgaria already has a well-noted problem with media freedom, GICJ urges Bulgaria to ensure that this new mandate to target hate speech is not used as a method of silencing alternative viewpoints. Hopefully, the proposed legal amendments that mandate disclosure of media ownership will help to ameliorate this possibility.

Finally, it was made abundantly clear throughout the UPR process that Bulgaria has a substantial problem with violence against woman, including domestic violence. Bulgaria still has yet to ratify the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence and has in fact doubled down on its justification that it is blocked from ratifying the convention due to constitutional restraints. As was explained in the pre-UPR submissions, this justification no longer stands now that the translation error has been remedied. GICJ believes that Bulgaria should ratify the Istanbul Convention as a signal to the international community that it is serious about ending gender-based violence in the country.

GICJ hopes for further progress on the human rights situation in Bulgaria and to see good improvement on the recommendations made by the UN and Stakeholders in the interim years before the next session.

Justice, Human rights, Geneva, geneva4justice, GICJ, Geneva International Centre For Justice

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