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. As of 1 October 2013 there are 37 thematic and 14 country mandates.
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 reports to the General Assembly. Their tasks are defined in the resolutions creating or extending their mandates.
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 in order 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.
Mandate holders carry out country visits to analyse the human rights situation at the national level. They typically send a letter to the State requesting to visit the country, and, if the State agrees, an invitation to visit is extended. Some countries have issued "standing invitations", which means that they are, in principle, prepared to receive a visit from any thematic special procedures mandate holder. As of 1 January 2014, 108 States had extended standing invitations to the special procedures. After their visits, special procedures' mandate-holders issue a mission report containing their findings and recommendations.
Most special procedures receive information on specific allegations of human rights violations and send urgent appeals or letters of allegation to States asking for clarification. Mandate holders may also send letters to States seeking information about new developments, submitting observations, or following-up on recommendations. These letters do not necessarily allege that a violation has taken place or is about to occur. In 2012, a total of 603 communications were sent to 126 countries. 74% of these were joint communications of two or more mandate holders. Communications sent and the responses received are reported at each regular session to the Human Rights Council.
Nomination, selection and appointment of mandate holders
In its resolution 5/1 the Human Rights Council clarified the parameters related to the selection and appointment of special procedures mandate holders: Candidates can be nominated by Governments, the Regional Groups operating within the United Nations system, international organisations or their offices, non-governmental organizations, other human rights bodies and individuals. A Consultative Group appointed by the Council reviews all applications for Special Procedures’ positions and proposes a list of candidates to the President of the Council. Resolution 16/21 has further strengthened and enhanced transparency in the selection and appointment process of mandate holders. National Human Rights Institutions that comply with the Paris Principles may also nominate candidates. Furthermore, candidates have to submit an application for each mandate they wish to apply for with a motivation letter. Shortlisted candidates are afterwards interviewed by the Consultative Group.
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.
In 2006-2007 the Human Rights Council engaged in an institution building process, which included a review of the special procedures system. On 18 June 2007 the Human Rights Council adopted resolution 5/1 entitled "Institution-building of the United Nations Human Rights Council," which included provisions on the selection of mandate holders and the review of all Special Procedures mandates. The Human Rights Council also adopted resolution 5/2, containing a Code of Conduct for special procedures mandate holders.
In 2011, the Human Rights Council undertook a review of its work and functioning. The outcome of this review reaffirmed and strengthened essential principles, such as the obligation of States to cooperate with special procedures and the integrity and independence of special procedures. The outcome reaffirmed as well 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 also confirmed their strong opposition to reprisals against persons cooperating with United Nations human rights mechanism. 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).
Since 2006 several new thematic mandates were established:
- Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery (2007)
- Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation (2008)
- Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights (2009)
- Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association (2010)
- Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice (2010)
- Independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order (2011)
- Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation & guarantees of non-recurrence (2011)
- Working Group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises (2011)
- Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment (2012)
- Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons (2013)
The Human Rights Council also established the following new country mandates since 2006:
- Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in the Sudan (2009)
- Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran (2011)
- Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Côte d’Ivoire (2011)
- Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic (2011)
- Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus (2012)
- Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea (2012)
- Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Mali (2013)
- Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Central African Republic (2013)
Code of Conduct and working methods
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 the self-regulation of the special procedures system and of individual mandate holders. In 2008 the Human Rights Council adopted a Presidential statement concerning the terms of special procedures mandate holders and their compliance with the Code of Conduct.
Annual Meeting and Coordination Committee
Annual meetings of special rapporteurs, independent experts and chairs of working groups have been organized since 1994. The meeting serves to coordinate and harmonize the work of special procedures and mandate holders to meet and exchange views with States, the President of the Human Rights Council, civil society/non-governmental organizations (NGOs), national human rights institutions (NHRIs), and representatives from OHCHR and UN entities. In 2005 Special Procedures mandate holders also established a Coordination Committee. The Committee's main function is to seek to assist coordination among mandate holders and to act as a bridge between them and the OHCHR, the broader UN human rights framework, and civil society. The Coordination Committee promotes as well the standing of the Special Procedures system.
History of the 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 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.