Methods of work

1. The practical activities of the Special Rapporteur

The Special Rapporteur’s formal mandate is a very broad one, requiring the identification of strategies, priorities and activities to implement it. The “protection” of human rights defenders is the Special Rapporteur’s overriding concern. Protection is understood to include the protection of defenders themselves and the protection of their right to defend human rights.

The Special Rapporteur makes every effort to ensure that the same standards are applied equally to each State, in keeping with the mandate’s global character. Several broad types of activities are undertaken, although there is often some overlap between them, with some activities serving a number of different objectives.

(a) Contacts with human rights defenders

First and foremost, the Special Rapporteur tries to be accessible to human rights defenders themselves by:

Being available to receive information from defenders, including allegations of human rights violations committed against them (see “(d) Individual cases” below), and using this information in identifying concerns to be raised with States;
Regularly attending national, regional and international human rights events (including one session per year of the Human Rights Council), which provide opportunities for contact with defenders from around the world.

(b) Contacts with States

The Special Rapporteur maintains regular contacts with States.

General contacts are conducted through forums such as sessions of the Human Rights Council in Geneva and the General Assembly in New York, during which the Special Rapporteur presents annual reports to States, responds to their questions and can meet with individual State delegations to discuss issues of concern, including individual cases.

More specific contacts are conducted on a bilateral basis in meetings or in writing and these are used by the Special Rapporteur to raise specific issues of concern with individual States and to seek State support, for example, in addressing a case or in obtaining an invitation to visit.

(c) Contacts with other key actors

The Special Rapporteur meets, during the year, with numerous other actors of relevance to the mandate and its activities, including members of national parliaments; members of national human rights commissions; staff and human rights mechanisms of regional intergovernmental organizations; and groups of States having a commitment to improving the role and situation of human rights defenders.

(d) Individual cases

The Special Rapporteur takes up with the States concerned individual cases of human rights violations committed against human rights defenders. Information on such cases is received from a variety of sources, including State authorities, non-governmental organizations, United Nations agencies, the media and individual human rights defenders.

As information arrives, the Special Rapporteur first seeks to determine if it falls within the mandate. Secondly, every effort is made to determine the probable validity of the allegation of human rights violation and the reliability of the source of the information. Thirdly, the Special Rapporteur makes contact with the Government of the State where the alleged violation is said to have occurred. Contact is usually conducted through either an urgent appeal or a letter of allegation addressed to diplomatic mission to the United Nations in Geneva for transmission to capitals. The communication provides details of the victim, the human rights concerns and the alleged events. The primary objective of the communication is to ensure that State authorities are informed of the allegation as early as possible and that they have an opportunity to investigate it and to end or prevent any human rights violation.

Urgent appeals are used to communicate information about a violation that is allegedly ongoing or about to occur. The intention is to ensure that the appropriate State authorities are informed as quickly as possible of the circumstances so that they can intervene to end or prevent a violation. For example, a death threat reportedly made against a human rights lawyer in response to his or her human rights work would be addressed through an urgent appeal.
Letters of allegation are used to communicate information about violations that are said to have already occurred and whose impact on the human rights defender affected can no longer be changed. This kind of letter is used, for example, in cases where information reaches the Special Rapporteur long after the human rights abuse has already been committed and reached a conclusion. For example, where a human rights defender has been killed, the matter would be raised with the State through a letter of allegation.

In both types of letter, the Special Rapporteur asks the Government concerned to take all appropriate action to investigate and address the alleged events and to communicate the results of its investigation and actions. Letters of allegations focus primarily on asking the State authorities to investigate the events and to conduct criminal prosecutions of those responsible. The letters sent to Governments are confidential and remain so until they are made public in the communications report of all the Special Procedures. The Human Rights Council which is now issued three times per year during each session of the Council.

The Special Rapporteur constantly consults with other United Nations Special Rapporteurs whose own mandates are involved in a particular case and frequently sends joint letters of concern with these mandate holders.

The page, on this website, entitled ‘Submitting complaints’ sets out guidelines on the kind of information the Special Rapporteur requires in order to take action on a case and on how the information should be submitted.

(e) Country visits

The Special Rapporteur is mandated to conduct official visits to States. Some States have issued standing invitations, and in other cases the Special Rapporteur writes to the Government requesting that an invitation be extended. These visits provide an opportunity to examine in detail the role and situation of human rights defenders in the country, to identify particular problems and to make recommendations on how these could be resolved. By the nature of the mandate, the Special Rapporteur is required to look critically at the situation of human rights defenders in a country. Nevertheless, the process is intended to provide an independent and impartial assessment which will be of use to all actors in strengthening both the contribution of defenders to human rights and their protection.

Country visits usually take place over a period of 5 to 10 days, during which the Special Rapporteur meets with heads of State and Government, relevant government ministers, independent human rights institutions, United Nations agencies, the media and human rights defenders themselves, among others.

Issues raised during such visits include: violations committed against human rights defenders; challenges to the “environment” within which defenders conduct their human rights work, including freedoms of association and expression, access to funding and the support to defenders provided by domestic legislation; and efforts undertaken by the authorities to protect human rights defenders from violations.

A few months after each visit, the Special Rapporteur issues a report on the visit indicating, among other things, main concerns and recommendations for action. The report is then formally presented by the Special Rapporteur at the Human Rights Council.

(f)  Workshops and conferences

Every year, the Special Rapporteur attends a number of events – including workshops and conferences - organized around the central theme of human rights defenders, or around broader themes relevant to defenders These events may be organized by States, the United Nations, academic institutions, non-governmental organizations or other actors.

(g) Strategies

The Special Rapporteur may identify themes that are considered to have a fundamental bearing on the role and situation of human rights defenders across the world and seek to support defenders through action specifically in those areas. Together with raising awareness about the Declaration on human rights defenders, themes such as democratization processes or the impact of security or anti-terrorist legislation on human rights defenders are also of interest to the mandate.  In addition, special attention is paid to specific groups of defenders at risk, including women defenders, those working on economic, social and cultural rights, land issues, minorities' rights, indigenous issues, etc.

(h) Reports

The Special Rapporteur ‘s annual reports to the Human Rights Council and to the General Assembly, required under the mandate, provide a record of the year’s activities, describe the primary trends and concerns identified during the year, and make recommendations for how these should be addressed. Some reports examine major themes of concern, for example the challenges faced by defenders working on economic, social and cultural rights, the right to protest in the context of freedom of assembly or the impact of security legislation on human rights defenders and their work. The reports are very useful indicators of the problems confronted by defenders in specific countries and regions, as well as of particular themes of global concern. The recommendations outlined in each report provide a basis for action by States, United Nations agencies, human rights defenders themselves, the private sector and a range of other actors.

The goal of all the above groups of activities is to contribute to the protection of human rights defenders and the implementation of the Declaration on human rights defenders.

2.  Logistical and resource arrangements – the role of OHCHR

The Special Rapporteur has access to only limited resources. Strategies and activities need to be adapted accordingly.

The Special Rapporteur receives substantive support in the implementation of the mandate from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in particular through the relevant human rights officer(s)”.1 These are OHCHR staff members, based in Geneva, who are responsible for managing, under the instructions of mandate holders, day-to-day activities of the thematic mandates established by the Human Rights Council. For example, OHCHR officers regularly receive information on alleged violations committed against human rights defenders, which they analyse and communicate to the Special Rapporteur. They support the Special Rapporteur in drafting reports and help in the preparation and conduct of country visits. Day-to-day external contacts with the mandate – by embassies, non-governmental organizations and United Nations staff – are most frequently maintained via contact with the human rights officers. The Administrative Services of OHCHR provide support in the organization and funding of travel and other activities.

Some funds are provided from the United Nations budget for travel by the Special Rapporteur to conduct about two official country visits per year, to attend the sessions of the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, and to participate in consultations in Geneva. Occasionally, United Nations agencies and NGOs provide additional resources to support the holding of workshops, the publication of research reports and other general activities related to the mandate.


[1] Depending on the availability of resources, there may be more than one person providing support to the Special Rapporteur.