Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council


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.

In the context of the 2011 review of its work and functioning, the Human Rights Council:

  • reaffirmed the obligation of States to cooperate with the Special Procedures,
  • reiterated the integrity and independence of Special Procedures,
  • reaffirmed the principles of cooperation, transparency and accountability and the role of the system of Special Procedures in enhancing the capacity of the Human Rights Council to address human rights situations.

Member States confirmed their strong opposition to reprisals against persons cooperating with the United Nations and its human rights mechanism and representatives.

The Council further recognized the importance of ensuring transparent, adequate and equitable funding to support all Special Procedures according to their specific needs (see HRC resolution 16/21).

Special Procedures are individual experts

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.

Special Procedures have a defined scope of work

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 of alleged violations and concerns of a broader, structural nature by sending communications to States,
  • conduct thematic studies and convene expert consultations, contributing to the development of international human rights standards,
  • engage in advocacy and raise public awareness, and
  • provide advice for technical cooperation.

Special Procedures report annually to the Human Rights Council and the majority of the mandates also report annually to the General Assembly.

There are 44 thematic and 11 country mandates – since September 2020.

Country visits

At the invitation of States, mandate-holders carry out country visits to analyse the human rights situation at the national level. Some countries have issued "standing invitations" to the Special Procedures, which means that they are prepared to receive a visit from any thematic mandate-holder. As of 27 May 2020, 126 Member States and 1 non-Member Observer State have extended a standing invitation to thematic special procedures.

At the end of their visits, special procedures' mandate-holders engage in dialogue with the State on their findings and recommendations and present a report to the Human Rights Council.

Communications

Most Special Procedures receive information on specific allegations of human rights violations and send communications (urgent appeals, allegation and other letters) to States, and occasionally to non-State actors, asking for clarification and action. Mandate-holders may send letters to States seeking information about legal, policy or structural developments, submitting observations, or following-up on recommendations.

The Annual Facts and Figures, provided as an annex to the Special Procedures Annual Report since 2018, provides an overview of total communications sent and related information. Communications sent and the responses received are reported at each regular session to the Human Rights Council.

Other activities

Either at the request of the Human Rights Council or at the initiative of the mandate-holders, special procedures:

  • prepare thematic studies,
  • develop human rights standards and guidelines,
  • participate in expert consultations, seminars and conferences,
  • organize panels during the sessions of the Human Rights Council,
  • organize consultations with a wide range of actors at the national, regional and international level
  • raise public awareness about specific human rights situations and phenomena attesting threats to and violations of human rights through public statements and interaction with a wide variety of partners.

About the Special Procedures system

Coordination amongst the Special Procedures: Coordination Committee of Special Procedures and the Annual Meeting of Special Procedures

At their annual meeting in 2005, Special Procedures mandate-holders established a Coordination Committee to facilitate coordination amongst mandate-holders and act as a bridge between them and OHCHR, the broader UN human rights framework, and stakeholders.

Annual meetings of Special Procedures mandate-holders have been organized since 1994. The meeting is intended to better coordinate and harmonize the work of special procedures, and for mandate-holders to address topical issues. It also gives them the opportunity to exchange views with States, the President of the Human Rights Council, regional human rights organizations, national human rights institutions, representatives from OHCHR and UN entities, and civil society organizations.

Code of Conduct and working methods of the Special Procedures

The Code of Conduct, adopted by the Council in 2007, and the Manual of Operations, adopted by Special Procedures mandate-holders during their Annual Meeting in 2008, provide guidelines on the working methods of Special Procedures. Mandate-holders also established an Internal Advisory Procedure to review practices and working methods, which allows any stakeholder to bring issues relating to working methods and conduct to the attention of the Coordination Committee. The procedure was devised to enhance the independence and effectiveness of Special Procedures and cooperation by States, and to contribute to self-regulation of the special procedures system and individual mandate holders.

Nomination, selection and appointment of mandate holders

In its resolution 5/1 and 16/21, the Human Rights Council clarified the parameters related to the selection and appointment of Special Procedures mandate-holders.

Independent United Nations experts of the Human Rights Council are appointed through a competitive and transparent process which involves:

  • Interested parties fill in an online written application in response to a call for candidatures issued by the Secretariat.
  • Shortlisted candidates are then interviewed by telephone by the Consultative Group composed by five Ambassadors nominated by each of the five regional groups.
  • The Consultative Group makes recommendations to the President of the Human Rights Council through its public report.
  • The appointment is finalized when the selected candidate put forward by the President is approved by the Human Rights Council.

According to resolution 5/1, the following general criteria will be of paramount importance while nominating, selecting and appointing mandate-holders: (a) expertise; (b) experience in the field of the mandate; (c) independence; (d) impartiality; (e) personal integrity; and (f) objectivity. Due consideration should be given to gender balance and equitable geographic representation, as well as to an appropriate representation of different legal systems.

Eligible candidates are highly qualified individuals who possess established competence, relevant expertise and extensive professional experience in the field of human rights. Individuals in decision-making positions in Government or in any other organization or entity which may give rise to a conflict of interest with the responsibilities inherent to the mandate are excluded from being appointed as experts. Technical and objective requirements have been further clarified in HRC decision 6/102.

History of the Special Procedures system

In the early days of the United Nations, the Commission on Human Rights – the predecessor of the Human Rights Council – focused on elaborating human rights standards. The Economic and Social Council had passed a resolution stating that the Commission had "no power to take any action in regard to any complaints concerning human rights" (ECOSOC Resolution 75 (V) (1947)).

However, in 1965, the Commission on Human Rights was faced with a number of individual petitions from South Africa and came under considerable pressure to deal with them. As a result, in 1967 the Commission departed from previous practice and established an ad-hoc working group of experts to investigate the situation of human rights in Southern Africa (CHR resolution 2 (XXIII)). The ad-hoc working group can be considered as the first Special Procedure of the Commission on Human Rights.

Following the 1973 coup in Chile against President Allende by General Augusto Pinochet, the Commission established an ad-hoc working group in 1975 to inquire into the situation of human rights in Chile. In 1979, this working group was replaced by a special rapporteur and two experts to study the fate of the disappeared in Chile. This led to the establishment of the first thematic Special Procedure in 1980: the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances to deal with the question of enforced disappearances throughout the world (CHR resolution 20 (XXXVI)).

Ten years later, in 1990, there were six thematic mandates covering enforced disappearances, extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, religious intolerance, mercenaries, torture and sale of children. Since then, many new mandates have been established to deal with human rights challenges in various parts of the world. They now cover all regions and rights: civil, cultural, economic, political, and social.