Special Procedures

According to the OHCHR, “The Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council are independent human rights experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective. The system of Special Procedures is a central element of the United Nations human rights machinery and covers all human rights: civil, cultural, economic, political, and social.”

“Special procedures are either an individual (called ‘Special Rapporteur’ or ‘Independent Expert’) or a working group composed of five members, one from each of the five United Nations regional groupings: Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and the Western group. The Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and members of the Working Groups are appointed by the Human Rights Council and serve in their personal capacities. They undertake to uphold independence, efficiency, competence and integrity through probity, impartiality, honesty and good faith. They are not United Nations staff members and do not receive financial remuneration. The independent status of the mandate-holders is crucial for them to be able to fulfil their functions in all impartiality. A mandate-holder’s tenure in a given function, whether it is a thematic or country mandate, is limited to a maximum of six years.”

“With the support of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Special Procedures undertake country visits; act on individual cases and concerns of a broader, structural nature by sending communications to States and others in which they bring alleged violations or abuses to their attention; conduct thematic studies and convene expert consultations, contribute to the development of international human rights standards, engage in advocacy, raise public awareness, and provide advice for technical cooperation. Special Procedures report annually to the Human Rights Council; the majority of the mandates also report to the General Assembly. Their tasks are defined in the resolutions creating or extending their mandates.”

As of 27 March 2015 there were 41 thematic and 14 country mandates. Examples of current thematic mandates include:

  • Working Group on Arbitrary Detention;
  • Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism;
  • Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities;
  • Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances;
  • Special Rapporteur on the right to food;
  • Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights;
  • Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders;
  • Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order;
  • Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination;
  • Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography;
  • Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and
  • Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences.

Examples of current country mandates include:

  • Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus;
  • Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia;
  • Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Central African Republic;
  • Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea;
  • Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Haiti;
  • Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran;
  • Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in the Sudan;
  • Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic; and
  • Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories.

Special Procedures with a country mandate may request a visit to the country to assess the situation of human rights at the national level. The relevant Government may then respond by sending an invitation for a fact-finding mission. “During such missions, the experts assess the general human rights situation in a given country, as well as the specific institutional, legal, judicial, administrative and de facto situation under their respective mandates. They will meet with national and local authorities, including members of the judiciary and parliamentarians; members of the national human rights institution, if applicable; non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations and victims of human rights violations; the UN and other inter-governmental agencies; and the press when giving a press-conference at the end of the mission.”

Under the terms of reference for country visits, the Government which issued the invitation must ensure the Special Procedures have freedom of movement throughout the country, freedom of inquiry including access to all prisons, detention centres and places of interrogation, contacts with all levels and branches of government and with non-governmental and other private institutions as well as the media and confidential and unsupervised contact with witnesses and other private persons including people deprived of their liberty. They are also to have full access to all documentary material relevant to the mandate. The Government must also provide assurance that persons, whether officials or private individuals, who have been in contact with the special rapporteur/representative in relation to the mandate, will not, as a result, suffer threats, harassment or punishment or be subjected to judicial proceedings and provide appropriate security without hindering the freedom of movement and inquiry of the Special Procedure.

“Special procedures mechanisms can intervene directly with Governments on allegations of violations of human rights that come within their mandates by means of letters which include urgent appeals and other communications. The intervention can relate to a human rights violation that has already occurred, is ongoing, or which has a high risk of occurring. The process involves sending a letter to the concerned State identifying the facts of the allegation, applicable international human rights norms and standards, the concerns and questions of the mandate-holder(s), and a request for follow-up action. Communications may deal with individual cases, general patterns and trends of human rights violations, cases affecting a particular group or community, or the content of draft or existing legislation, policy or practice considered not to be fully compatible with international human rights standards. In some cases, communications are also sent to inter-governmental organisations or non-State actors.”

Country visits’ findings, conclusions and recommendations by special procedures are published in mission reports to the Human Rights Council.

Special Procedures mandate-holders hold annual meetings so as to better coordinate and harmonize their work, to address topical issues and to “exchange views with States, the President of the Human Rights Council, regional human rights organisations, national human rights institutions, representatives from OHCHR and UN entities, and civil society organisations.”

Additional information on Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council can be found on their website.