The Special Procedures are a mechanism of the Human Rights Council to address specific country situations or thematic issues relating to human rights. This is a central mechanism of the United Nations because it covers all human rights aspects: civil, cultural, economic, political, and social.

The Special Procedures originates from a request of African and non-aligned States to investigate allegations of torture and ill treatment by the South African police (E/CN4/Res/2 (XXIII), 6 March 1967). Upon this pressure, the Commission on Human Rights, which was the predecessor of the Human Rights Council but did not have any power to take action regarding human rights violations (ECOSOC Resolution 75 (V) (1947)), created a first working group of experts to investigate the situation of human rights in Southern Africa. This was the beginning of the Special Procedures. In the 1970s, another working group of experts was mandated to investigate the situation of human rights in Chile following the coup of Pinochet.  Later, a Special Rapporteur and two experts replaced the group, which led to the establishment of the first thematic Special Procedure: the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (CHR resolution 20 (XXXVI). In the following decade, six thematic mandates covering enforced disappearances, extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, religious intolerance, mercenaries, torture and sale of children were established.  As of 1 January 2013 there are 36 thematic and 12 country mandates that deal with human rights challenges in all regions and cover civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.  

Through the special procedures mechanism, the Human Rights Council appoints independent human rights experts to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country perspective. The special procedures are carried on either by a Special Rapporteur, or a working group, which comprises five members originating from all the five different regions. These experts are appointed by the Human Rights Council to serve in their personal capacity, contribute to developing the understanding of human rights norms and protect these rights using the various tools at their disposal. In order to guarantee their independent status in order to function in all impartiality, these experts are not members of the United Nations staff.

The experts can be nominated by governments; regional groups operating within the United nations human rights system; international organizations; non governmental organizations; other human rights bodies; or by individual nominations. They must have an expertise and experience in the field of the mandate; be independent, impartial and objective; and have a high personal integrity (criteria of Human Rights Council Decision 6/102). The principle of non-accumulation of human rights functions must be respected. In the same way, individuals holding decision-making positions, whether in governments or other groups, which may lead to a conflict of interest, will be excluded. A consultative group comprising representatives of each regional group will consider the candidates and establish a list for the president of the Human Rights Council.

In fulfilling their mandate, the experts must respect a code of conduct (Human Rights Council Resolution 5/2) stating that their behaviors must be based on the following principles: independence, truthfulness, loyalty and impartiality. The mandate-holders are entitled to the same privileges and immunities of the United Nations, however, they must respect the national legislation while on country-visits. The mission of the special procedures experts is to identify critical situations rather than acting as judges verifying acts. Throughout their work, the mandate-holders must work toward a dialogue with the concerned governments regarding the alleged violations. Thus, the nation of their mission is rather humanitarian that judicial.

The work of these experts consists of visiting countries; acting on individual cases and broader concerns by sending communications to States and other to attract their attention to violations or abuse; conducting thematic studies and expert consultations, and contributing to the development of international human rights standards. The special procedures report annually to Human Rights Council.

The Special Procedures are divided into two categories: the thematic mandates and the country mandates.

Regarding the thematic mandates, their experts investigate the human rights situation in all part of the world, irrespective whether the Government concerned is party to any of the relevant human rights treaties. Their mission consists of monitoring and responding to allegations of human rights violations against individuals or groups.
As for the country mandate, the experts take into account of all human rights (civil, cultural, economic, political, social) in assessing the human rights situation in a specific country.

Both types of special procedures are accountable to the Human Rights Council.

The detailed functions of the Special Procedures are to:

  • Analyze the relevant thematic issue or country situation, including through undertaking fact-finding missions

  • Advise governments and other relevant actors on measures that should be taken regarding the human rights situation

  • Alert the United Nations organs and agencies, as well as the international community, to the need to address specific situations and issues. In that regard, the Special Procedures are preventive in nature as they provide ‘early warnings’ of problematic situations and encourage preventive measures

  • Advocate on the behalf of victims of human rights violations by requesting the relevant States and governments to respond to allegations and provide redress

  • Activate and mobilize the international and national communities, and the Human Rights Council, to address human rights issues and encourage cooperation

  • Follow-up on recommendations

The mandate-holders of the Special Procedures have 3 tools at their disposal to achieve their mission:


When receiving information on specific allegations of human rights violations, the special procedures experts send urgent appeals or letter of allegation to States asking for clarification. They may also send letters to seek information about new developments, submit information, or follow-up on recommendations. Victims or their representatives may correspond with mandate-holders without having to exhaust all the domestic remedies available. The communication process is quasi non-judicial as it aims at providing protection for the victims by attracting the government’s attention on certain situations. Communications may deal with individual, group or communities cases, as well as with general trends and patterns of human rights violations. It is important to note the communications do not imply any value judgment on the part of the mandate-holder; rather, their purpose is to seek clarification on certain issues. All the communications sent and the responses received are regularly reported to the Human Rights Council.

Urgent appeals: ‘in cases where the alleged violations are time-sensitive in terms of involving loss of life, life-threatening situations or either (sic) imminent or ongoing damage of a very grave nature to victims that cannot be addressed in a timely manner by the procedure under letters of allegations’ . The governments are required to respond to urgent appeals within 30 days.

Letters of allegation: in cases where the alleged violations have already occurred and whose impact on victims can no longer be changed, the mandate-holder will transmit a letter of allegation. The governments are required to respond within 2 months.


In order to examine the human rights situation at the national level, the mandate-holders of the Special Procedures can undertake fact-findings missions to countries with the consent of the State concerned.

Country-visits are usually undertaken upon the mandate-holder’s initiative that asks the Government concerned to extend an invitation, but the Government can also take the initiative of inviting the Special Procedures experts. 92 States have issued « standing invitations », which means that they agree to receive a visit from any thematic special procedure expert.

While on country-visits, the experts assess the human rights situation in general as well as within the specific institutional, legal, judicial and administrative aspects. They meet with national and local authorities, including members of the judiciary and parliaments, national human rights institutions, NGOs, civil society organizations and victims of human rights violations, United Nations and other inter-governmental agencies. At the end of the visit, a press conference is organized. The mandate-holder then issue a mission report to the Human Rights Council including their findings and recommendations regarding the human rights situation of the country concerned.

Throughout their visits, the Special Procedures experts or representatives of the Commission on Human Rights, as well as the United Nations staff accompanying them, should be given the following guarantees and facilities by the Government that extended them an invitation :  

a. Freedom of movement in the whole country, including facilitation of transport, in particular to restricted areas
b. Freedom of inquiry, in particular as regards:
-Access to all prisons, detention centers and places of interrogation
-Contacts with central and local authorities of all branches of government
-Contacts with representatives of non-governmental organizations, other private institutions and the media
-Confidential and unsupervised contact with witnesses and other private persons, including persons deprived of their liberty, considered necessary to fulfill the mandate of the special rapporteur
-Full access to all documentary material relevant to the mandate
c. Assurance by the Government that no person that has been in contact with the special rapporteur or representative will be threatened, harassed, punished or subjected to judicial proceedings.
d. Appropriate security arrangements
e. Extension of the same guarantees and facilities mentioned above to the United Nations staff assisting the special rapporteur or representative before, during and after the visit.

c)Annual Reports

At least annually, the Special Procedures experts are required to submit a report to the Human Rights Council, and for some to the General Assembly. These reports include a summary of the different activities undertaken by the experts in fulfillment of the mandate, and recommendations addressed to governments, or occasionally to other actors including the United Nations agencies. The recommendations must not exceed the mandate of the experts or the mandate of the council.

The reports are then subjected to discussion with the delegates to the Human Rights Council or the Third Committee of the General Assembly. During the discussion, the governments have the possibility to make observations on the presentation of the mandate-holders. These dialogues are a crucial component of the cooperation between special procedures experts and States .

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