A Rough Guide to the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council

The Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council referred to as the ‘crown jewel’ by then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, are an essential element of the UN human rights system. The origins of these UN independent human rights experts can be traced back to 1967, when the Commission on Human Rights, the predecessor of the current Human Rights Council, established an Ad Hoc Working Group of Experts on South Africa. Since then, their numbers have – over the 13 years of the Council’s existence – increased to over 50 individual mandates, covering both thematic and country-specific issues.

55[1]and counting…

As of August 2019 there are 55 current Special Procedure mandates and 79 mandate-holders, who serve in their personal capacity as independent experts. Within the various mechanisms referred to as ‘Special Procedures’ five distinct types can be identified, each with their own specific form and function. These include: ‘thematic Special Rapporteurs’, ‘thematic Independent Experts’, ‘thematic Working Groups’, ‘country-specific Special Rapporteurs’, ‘country-specific Independent Experts’.

Country-specific mandates (11), which normally last for a period of one year, subject to renewal, allow mandate-holders to examine, advise, and report on the human rights situation in a specific country, as set out in the related resolution. ‘Country-specific Independent Experts’ tend to focus on technical assistance and capacity-building under item 10 of the Council’s agenda, and their mandates are in most cases established with the consent of the country concerned. ‘Country-specific Special Rapporteurs’ (7), often established under items 4 or 7 of the Council’s agenda, focus more on documenting human rights violations and abuses and generally do not enjoy the support of the country concerned.

Thematic mandates (44), which last for a period of three years, subject to renewal, allow mandate-holders to analyse major phenomena linked to certain economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights, or specific groups, as set out in the relevant resolution. ‘Thematic Independent Experts’ tend to focus on norm-setting, elaborating and clarifying the nature of relevant human rights obligations. Whereas ‘Thematic Special Rapporteurs’ and ‘Thematic Working Groups’ tend to emphasise promotion, protection, and implementation of mandate-relevant human rights obligations, by way of communications and country visits. Since, the creation of this mechanism in the 1960’s, no thematic mandate has ever been discontinued[2]. This partly explains the explosive growth of the overall numbers of individual mandates, which went from 2 in the 1960-80’s to 55 in 2019, and is projected to reach a 100 individual mandates by 2030 if the current trend continues.

The President of the Human Rights Council plays a pivotal role in the selection of Special Procedure mandate-holders, as it is the Human Rights Council that appoints individual experts upon his recommendations. The Consultative Group (five ambassadors, one from each regional group) assist the President in this task by reviewing all applications and proposing a short-list of candidates for his/her consideration. In its resolution 5/1 (the so-called Institution-Building Package), the Human Rights Council identified six general criteria, which are of ‘paramount importance’, when nominating, selecting, and appointing mandate-holders. These include: expertise; experience in the field of the mandate; independence; impartiality; personal integrity; and objectivity. Additionally, the resolution calls for ‘due consideration (to) be given to gender balance, and equitable geographic representation, as well as to an appropriate representation of different legal systems.’

For more comprehensive information on the Special Procedures system see the Universal Rights Group policy reportsSpecial Procedures: Determinants of Influence” and “History of the United Nations Special Procedures Mechansim: Origins, Evolution and Reform”.

The Special Procedures’ toolbox

The Special Procedures exert their influence and fulfill their mandate through various tools. One of the most important means of generating impact is through conducting country visits. These independent missions – at the request of a mandate holder and subsequent invitation from the country concerned – allow Special Procedures to review, understand, and work with governments to improve on-the-ground enjoyment of human rights. A number of States have also extended a ‘Standing Invitation’, which is an open invitation by the government to all thematic Special Procedures to undertake country visits and forms a useful indicator of a State’s willingness to cooperate with Special Procedures.

Through their regular reports to the Human Rights Council and the elaboration of soft law instruments, such as UN Guidelines, Special Procedures have made a significant contribution to the elaboration, interpretation, and acceptance of human right norms. Their work in this regard is not limited to norm-setting and norm-shaping, but also promotes the implementation of those norms.

Another important tool at the disposal of Special Procedures mandate-holders is the so-called communications procedure. This procedure enables victims of alleged human rights violations (or their representatives) to interact directly with the UN, by sending petitions (i.e. individual submission) to either a specific mandate-holder or by filling in OHCHR’s online questionnaire. Upon receipt and after review of the submission the mandate-holder can decide to send a communication to the concerned State. This can take the form of a ‘Letter of Allegation’, if it concerns past violations and does not require immediate action; or an ‘Urgent Appeal’, if it concerns time-sensitive, ongoing or imminent grave violations. In this case, the mandate-holder will ask the government to clarify the facts of the case or to take action.

Finally, Special Procedures also use the media (both traditional and social media), as a way to exert influence and to fulfill their mandate. They will often use press releases to raise public awareness about a particular issue, and holding a press conference at the end of a country visit has become standard practice.

For more comprehensive information on the UN human rights petitions system see the Universal Rights Group policy report “Reform of the UN human rights petitions system”.

Connectivity between Special Procedures and other UN human rights mechanisms

To ensure that their mandate is carried out in the most effective way, Special Procedures mandate-holders can work in close cooperation with one another, wherever relevant. To this end, mandate-holders created the Coordination Committee in June 2005, as a means to facilitate cooperation and to act as a bridge between Special Procedures, the Office of the High Commissioner, the broader UN human rights framework, and civil society. For instance, Special Procedures mandate-holders can organise joint visits or issue joint communications when a situation concerns more than one mandate. Moreover, Special Procedures mandate-holders meet annually in order to discuss and exchange views with member States, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs).

Special Procedures and other UN human rights mechanisms can also play a cross-fertilisation role, reinforcing each other’s mandates. For instance, Special Procedures can share information with treaty bodies, while at the same time integrating concluding observations and general comments from treaty bodies into their work. Both mechanisms can use each other’s recommendations to reinforce their operations as well as other aspects of their work. Additionally, Special Procedure mandate-holders, as well as other UN human rights mechanisms, are also encouraged to cooperate with the broader UN system, such as UN Country Teams.

In the same way, Special Procedure experts may also work with regional human rights mechanisms, NHRIs, and NGOs, which can all provide valuable support to the Special Procedure system. This broad effort of cooperation with a wide range of partners aims to strengthen and reinforce the overall UN human rights system. 

For more information on connectivity between Special procedures and other mechanisms of the UN see Universal Rights Group policy report “Clustering and the integrated implementation of recommendations: the key to unlocking the complementary power of the UN’s compliance mechanisms”


[1]The mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic will start once the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry ends, increasing the number of Special Procedures to 56.

[2]In 2000, the mandates of the Independent Expert on structural adjustment policies and of the Special Rapporteur on the effects of foreign debt on the full enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, were merged into the current mandate on foreign debt


Feature photo: UNSRs Christof Heyns and Maina Kiai open the Member States briefing on the project to develop recommendations for managing peaceful protests. 15 June 2015.