As number of Special Rapporteur mandates passes the 50 mark, new study highlights need for renewed support and reform

by the URG team Human rights institutions and mechanisms, Prensa BORRAR, Special Procedures

Wednesday 19th March 2014, Geneva

The United Nations’ (UN) independent human rights experts – otherwise known as ‘Special Procedures’ – are considered by many to be, in the words of then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the ‘crown jewel’ of the international human rights system. From their first appearance in 1967 when the Commission on Human Rights established an Ad Hoc Working Group to inquire into the situation of human rights in southern Africa, Special Procedures have grown into one of the international community’s most important tools for promoting and protecting human rights. Today, as the number of active mandates passes the 50 mark for the first time, a major new study into the Special Procedure mechanism by two think tanks – the Brookings Institution (BI) and the Universal Rights Group (URG) – concludes that in order for the mechanism to remain sustainable, relevant and effective, it should be modernised to face the challenges of the 21st Century.

The BI-URG policy report ‘Human Rights Special Procedures: Determinants of Influence’, based on a reappraisal of UN resolutions, reports and statements going back to the 1940s, around fifty interviews with mandate-holders, diplomats and other stakeholders, and new empirical research into the effectiveness of the Special Procedures ‘tool-kit’ (e.g. country visits, petitions, and norm-setting reports), draws attention to the remarkable strength and resilience of this key UN mechanism, but also calls for the international community to take careful, targeted steps to better support the system. According to many UN policymakers, there is a risk of the mechanism becoming a victim of its own success unless its rapid horizontal expansion is matched by changes in how it operates, how it interacts with states, how it is managed, resourced and overseen.

The study shows, inter alia, that:

  • All systemic reform efforts since the late 1990s have fallen victim to differing state visions of what Special Rapporteurs are, what they are there to do, and the degree to which they should be able to address violations or merely work with states to promote human rights. Interestingly, state positions in this regard have largely reversed from the time when the first mandate – on apartheid South Africa – was created in 1967.
  • The key areas of disagreement in the past remain in play today, and the decisions of policymakers on these crucial ‘determinants of influence’ will shape the future effectiveness of the Special Procedures.
  • It is vital that states do not take any steps that would undermine the independence of Special Rapporteurs, and the current means of protecting the mechanism’s integrity – a code of conduct backed up by self-regulation – should be retained.
  • The fact that Special Procedures are unpaid yet expected to devote large parts of their time to their UN work has meant that, today, most mandate-holders are Western-based academics.
  • The exponential growth in the number of Special Rapporteurs in recent years has led to a debate on whether this helps close ‘protection gaps’ or dilutes the strength of the system. Certainly, without more resources and without greater follow-up and implementation, further growth risks undermining the system.
  • States too often fail in their responsibility to cooperate with Special Rapporteurs in order to better promote and protect human rights at home. At present, there is no means of dealing with persistent non-cooperation.
  • Special Procedures too often undertake visits, issue reports, and then move on to the next country, without devoting sufficient attention to follow-up on the implementation of their recommendations. There is also no UN forum for discussing implementation and challenges thereto.
  • Special Procedures receive a tiny fraction of the UN’s regular budget – around the same proportion allocated to UN activities focused on ‘the peaceful use of outer space’. This leaves mandate-holders and the secretariat (OHCHR) significantly under-resourced.
  • The willingness of states to receive country visits by Special Rapporteurs varies widely from region to region, and country to country. Steps should be taken to improve transparency and public accountability in this regard.
  • The Special Procedure petition system – one of the only direct and regular means by which people can access the UN human rights machinery– is systematically failing the needs of victims. Only a small proportion of petitions are actively taken up by Special Rapporteurs; of those that are taken up, states only respond to around half; and of those just 8% result in actual steps to address the violation.
  • Special Procedures are increasingly turning to social media to amplify their voice and influence, but this is leading to tensions with states.



Notes to editors

For more information, please contact Marc Limon at [email protected]

The policy report will be launched on Wednesday 19th March at 1pm in the restaurant des Délégués at the Palais des Nations (UNOG).


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