Shows two different hands holding two Charter of the United Nations.

UN Charter-based institutions including special procedures

Photo: © UN Photo

What are they? How are they relevant to my work? 

The term ‘special procedures’ refers to the list of mechanisms established by the Human Rights Council to report and advise on human rights from a thematic and country-specific perspective. Special procedures cover all human rights: civil, cultural, economic, political and social as well as issues relating to specific groups. Special procedures mandate-holders are either an individual (called a Special Rapporteur (SR) or Independent Expert (IE)) or a Working Group (WG) of five members. Mandate holders serve in their personal capacities, they are not UN staff and do not receive salaries or other financial remuneration for their work. 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 are appointed by the Human Rights Council and their work is supported by the OHCHR.

As part of their mandates, special procedures examine, advise and publicly report on human rights issues and situations. They conduct thematic studies and convene expert consultations, contribute to the development of international human rights standards, engage in advocacy and provide advice for technical cooperation. Upon the invitation from Governments, they visit particular countries or territories in order to monitor the situation on the ground. Special procedures also act on individual cases and concerns of a broader, structural nature by sending communications to States and other entities in which they bring alleged violations or abuses to their attention. Finally, they raise public awareness of a specific topic through press releases or other public statements. Special procedures report annually to the Human Rights Council; the majority of the mandates also report annually to the General Assembly.

Cooperation by States is essential for mandate holders to fully implement their mandate, in particular in terms of conducting country visits that are taking place at the invitation of States and implementing their recommendations. A majority of countries have extended ‘standing invitations’ to thematic special procedures, which means that they are prepared to receive a visit from any mandate-holder.

In addition to their individual mandates, mandate holders also increasingly work as a system in order to better coordinate among themselves and with other human rights mechanisms and maximize the impact of their work. The Coordination Committee of Special Procedures has contributed to these efforts by facilitating coordination among special procedures, including in expressing their views collectively and publicly on issues of common concern. An annual report of special procedures is presented every year to the Human Rights Council. This report provides information on the system of special procedures as a whole and its achievements, including facts and figures. It gives a comprehensive picture of what special procedures have done individually and as a system in a given year, inter alia in terms of country visits, communications, thematic reports, follow-up activities, joint actions, development of international standards, or advocacy. The report also reflects the work of the Coordination Committee.

As of September 2016 there are 43 thematic mandates and 14 country mandates under the special procedures. The full list of mandates and related mandate holders along with additional information can be found here

Find the thematic and country mandates here: UN Special Procedures Thematic Mandates and UN Special Procedures Country Mandates.

How is the work of Special Procedures relevant to UN Country Teams?

The system of special procedures covers all human rights: civil, cultural, economic, political and social. They aim at promoting and protecting human rights worldwide, including by making specific recommendations to improve the situation of human rights in a particular country or territory or to address certain types of human rights issues. Virtually all phases of a special procedures mandate can be valuable for the work of UNCTs, in particular:

  1. Knowing the work of special procedures, in particular their thematic report and recommendations and raising awareness about their work
  2. Participating and supporting actively the preparation, conduct and follow-up to visits of special procedure
  3. Communicating with special procedures in relation to specific human rights situations

Thematic work, in particular reports: what are the benefits of reading them?

Special procedures typically present an annual thematic report to the Human Rights Council (including research, studies, guidelines etc). Many of the thematic special procedures also present annual thematic reports to the General Assembly. Through these thematic reports special procedures mandate holders identify root causes, patterns and complexities relating to particular human rights violations, highlight good practices around the world, and issue recommendations. These recommendations outline measures to be adopted to overcome particular obstacles and to strengthen political, institutional, legal, judicial and administrative frameworks to ensure the promotion and protection of a particular right. The findings and recommendations of special procedures’ reports represent important resources and reference materials for UN planning and programming. They provide legal, policy and operational guidance on human rights issues for development and humanitarian actors and provide clarification on the applicable legal framework. They provide concrete analytical tools to inform UN country analysis and programming processes on the ground, as well as contributing to advocacy efforts and as such are a valuable tool for UNCTs.

Reports and studies that are prepared by special procedures are typically public and available for review (they are available on the respective web-pages of thematic Special Procedures).

How is this information useful to UNCTs?

  • Special Procedures’ thematic work, in particular their reports, give useful guidance and insight into the elements that contribute to violations of a particular human right, or that may contribute to its promotion and protection.
  • Thematic recommendations can be used to either validate programming or identify areas where increased measures need to be taken.
  • The advocacy role of Special Procedures is an important way in which attention is drawn to emerging thematic concerns or priority situations.
  • Utilizing the work of the Special Procedures would contribute to a more coherent and consolidated approach to human rights concerns throughout UN entities.

Country visits: what are the benefits of participating actively?

Through their announcements, presence, reports and press releases, Special procedures’ country visits raise awareness, both domestically and internationally, about particular human rights issues and can play a critical role to substantiate and consolidate advocacy efforts by the UNCT. Because mandate holders are independent and are not affiliated with any particular UN agencies they are in a position to convey messages on human rights issues from an independent and highly legitimated voice and their visits can help draw the attention of the media, civil society and the public to human rights issues.

The preparation and carrying out of the country visit will receive support from a wide range of institutions, though primarily from the OHCHR, which provides administrative and other services. Both OHCHR and the UNCT have important roles to play in planning and executing visits, including coordinating with government ministries, organizing and scheduling meetings (with NGOs, CSOs, academia), press conferences, and logistics (travel, communications, interpretation). Briefings from the UNCTs are also useful to help inform special procedures mandate-holders about the specific context of the visit. With the mandate holders’ consent, members of the UNCT will often accompany the mandate holder during their country visits.

UNCTs will also provide valuable information and reports in preparation of the visit. This information will be treated as confidential. It gives special procedure mandate holders important additional country context for data and information received from other channels. Insights contribute to the identification of the main issues to address during the upcoming mission and assist in identifying persons, sites and material which the mandate holder should visit and consult before and during the mission. It also helps ensure recommendations are targeted and practical.

Special procedures usually issue a press statement at the end of the visit in which they share their preliminary assessment. After their country visits, special procedures produce reports that are presented as an addendum to their annual report to the Human Rights Council. Country visit reports provide detailed information on the country’s human rights situation, including specific challenges and areas of concern. Special procedures may also conduct follow-up visits to countries. Follow-up visits will normally look at whether recommendations of the prior report have been implemented, and what are the obstacles in this regard. In addition to follow-up country visits or follow-up reports, some mandate holders send questionnaires to the country concerned or organize workshops or seminars to assess how their recommendations have been implemented. Such follow-up activities are also reported to the Council.

Typically, the special procedures recommendations will require follow-up in order to be implemented. While the Government should lead the implementation of the recommendations the UNCT has an important role in advocating with the Government to engage with special procedures and follow-up to their recommendations and may provide capacity development assistance. Moreover, the advice and the findings and recommendations of the special procedures provide useful analytical tools to build on and inform UN programming including the Common Country Analysis and the development of the UN Development Assistance Framework (CCA / UNDAF) and have at times also led to joint UN programming on specific human rights issues.

How is this information useful to UN Country Teams?

Getting involved in the preparation and follow-up of special procedures’ country visits is a good starting point for:

  • Communicating with the Government ministry/ies in charge of preparation of the visit
  • Providing information to the special procedures mandate holder about thematic areas which require the most focus in a particular country as well as the national and regional context in which the visit will take place
  • Raising awareness of and creating dialogue on human rights and development issues at the local and national level, both within and between a large range of domestic stakeholders
  • Creating opportunities to support the work of civil society and to have and support multi-stakeholder dialogues with groups that are typically under-represented (women, elderly, youth, persons with disabilities, minorities, etc.), and ensuring that meetings are inclusive and representative of these voices
  • Exploring the possibility of engaging with the special procedures mandate holders, who are internationally recognized experts in their field, by arranging a round table discussion or similar learning activity
  • Using the momentum created by the visit to keep human rights issues, including the obligations of the Government, on the agenda with various stakeholders at the national level
  • Utilizing the country reports to assist in programming and / or the formulation of UNDAFs and informing the setting of priorities and new focus areas. UNCTs can encourage wide circulation of the special procedures findings and use the recommendations as a platform for long-term advocacy and dialogue with the government and other local stakeholders including civil society and the media
  • UNCTs can engage in a discussion with the government to implement Special Procedures recommendations and identifying areas for providing capacity development assistance and technical advice

UNCT Checklist for engaging with Special Procedures

Access a print-friendly version of the UNCT Checklist by clicking here.

General Checklist

  • Read all reports of special procedures reports relating to the country, as well as those in relation to thematic issues of relevance to your country    
  • Read all the communications sent by special procedures to the country and the responses received by the Government, if any    
  • Know whether there is a special procedure with the mandate to monitor the situation on the country (country mandate)    
  • Know about existing thematic mandates or cross-cutting themes on a subject of interest for your programming    
  • Know whether the government has issued a standing invitation to special procedures    
  • Know which government ministries and individuals are responsible for issues related to cooperation with special procedures, including responses to special procedures’ communications, responses to requests for visits by special procedures, the issuance of standing invitations and follow-up to special procedures recommendations    
  • Know whether any special procedure mandate holders is planning to undertake a visit to the country    
  • Know whether any opportunities exist to invite special procedures to in-country events, seminars or discussions (not official missions)    
  • Provide information to local and national stakeholders on how to engage with Special Procedures mandate holders    
  • Keep track of situations or cases that may deserve attention from special procedures mandate holders    
  • Know who in the local OHCHR office or UNCT will coordinate special procedure visits and ensure representation from civil society and other relevant stakeholders    
  • Know which individuals, from the country, if any, are special procedure mandate holders and could hence be helpful in training and / or awareness-building    

Mission Preparation Checklist  

  • Know how to give feedback to special procedures on the preparation of a visit and on main issues to be addressed and request the Terms of Reference for the visit    
  • Know which individuals will be involved in a mission to the country:    
    • From the OHCHR (both headquarters and country/regional presence)    
    • From the UN agencies, funds and programmes in the country    
    • From local and national government (which ministries) and the NHRI    
    • From any relevant NGOs and grassroots organizations    
    • From the press and other media    
  • Know what the proposed mission meeting schedule is, including traveling times

Mission Engagement Checklist  

  • Participate in the UNCT briefing of the special procedures mandate holders    
  • Know the meeting schedule and in-country contact information for the mandate holder and team    

Follow-Up Checklist    

  • Request a draft report from special procedures for the UNCT’s comments prior to publication and utilize the final report to analyse what role the UNCT can play in addressing issues identified    
  • Follow the presentation of the report to the Human Rights Council and the response from the government    
  • Identify the different channels available for disseminating the results and recommendations of the Special Procedures visit, contribute to their follow-up and engage with various national stakeholders in this context, including the government    
  • Keep in contact with the Special Procedures mandate holder through OHCHR after the visit and work to support appropriate follow-up to the recommendations

    Case Studies

    Independent Expert on Minority Issues informs UNDP programming

    In 2006 UNDP convened, together with the Independent Expert on Minority Issues and OHCHR, a consultation on UNDP’s engagement with minorities in development processes to take stock of key issues, challenges, and gaps with regard to UNDP’s engagement with minorities in relevant practice areas and identified entry points that would help UNDP to better address these issues. In 2008 the partnership continued with the objective of developing a UNDP Guidance and Policy note on minority issues. The result – the Marginalised Minorities in Development Programming: A UNDP Resource Guide and Toolkit – was published in May 2010 and provides an overview of the international and regional legal standards and mechanisms relevant for minority rights including practical tools and guidance that will enable UNDP staff, and UN staff more generally, to understand the key conceptual issues and fundamental principles for the promotion and protection of minority rights, and how to better utilize them in their work.

    Case Study: Development of the Guiding Principles on Internal displacement

    The Representative of the Secretary General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) led the process of developing the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in cooperation with the key humanitarian actors including UNHCR, OHCHR and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1999, which consolidated the legal framework related to displacement drawn from international humanitarian and human rights law and international refugee law, and addressed gaps in the law. The Guiding Principles inform the work of international humanitarian agencies both during an emergency and during early recovery and reconstruction and provide a tool to ensure protection of IDPs. The mandate of the Special Rapporteur has been instrumental in consolidating international recognition of the Guiding Principles, and their operationalization within the humanitarian community and has also actively promoted and guided the incorporation of these principles into domestic law and policy in several countries around the world.

    Kenya Case Study: Close collaboration yields results

    The Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs) undertook an official country visit to Kenya in October 2011. The visit is an example of close collaboration between special procedures and the UN Country Team, the Resident Coordinator’s office and individual agencies such as UNHCR, OHCHR, OCHA and UNICEF – towards effective human rights advocacy and coordinated UN programming that considers and includes the human rights of IDPs.

    The strategic approach to this visit was to involve as many of the key actors as possible in the field visits, relevant meetings, key messages and proposed strategies moving forward. The Special Rapporteur collaborated very closely with the RC’s office, UNHCR, OCHA, and OHCHR in both the preparation and conduct of the visit. Engagement with the RC’s office, allowed the RC and the Special Rapporteur to exchange views on approaches to mitigate or avoid post-election violence and displacement, to address the situation of IDPs, and join their efforts in order to address durable solutions, including by jointly calling a donor meeting. The Special Rapporteur also had the opportunity to be fully briefed by the RC and the agencies mentioned above, and to provide a briefing on the findings of his visit to the UNCT as a whole. This helped to assist the UNCT in both informing and sensitizing the entire UNCT on human rights mainstreaming, standards relating to IDPs, and the important connection between development, human rights and displacement.

    UN partners also accompanied the Special Rapporteur to relevant Government meetings, and were able to engage with the Government on relevant issues both during and after the meeting. This close engagement with UN counterparts allowed for in depth discussion of issues, strategies and to more effectively follow up on these issues and the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations once the visit ended including engagement with the Government.

    This strategic and unified approach allowed agencies working on displacement in the country to maximize their impact and advocacy messages, while the visit of the Special Rapporteur provided additional impetus and momentum to the efforts already being undertaken on the ground. Exchange of views also took place when formulating recommendations to the country visit report.

    Follow-up activities have continued including through advice provided by the Special Rapporteur to develop a draft law on IDPs and the development of an implementation and prioritization strategy which is a process led by the Kenyan National Human Rights Commission, in cooperation with the IDP protection cluster (which includes government and UN counterparts).

    Tajikistan Case study: Catalytic efforts on Violence against Women following a Special Procedure visit

    The visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women (VAW) to Tajikistan in 2008 was closely supported by the UN Country Team and members of the expanded Gender Theme Group (GTG) including the UN and international agencies. The UNCT was instrumental in sharing all relevant reports, studies and data from the on-going projects on VAW with the Special Rapporteur and also facilitating consultations between the Special Rapporteur and various senior government ministers, the Chairperson of the Supreme Court and Chairpersons of both the Committee on State Statistics and the Committee for Women and Family Affairs, and members of Parliament. A special meeting with the representatives of civil society organizations, including women’s groups, the Council of Ulema and imams was organized to discuss the issues around VAW in Tajikistan in depth. UNCT/GTG members had also facilitated meetings with survivors of violence at crisis centers, women in shelters for victims of trafficking and women in rural districts.

    The subsequent report from the Special Rapporteur highlighted various issues including that VAW in Tajikistan is not sufficiently acknowledged as a problem warranting public attention and therefore goes largely unreported and unrecorded. Women’s economic dependency, legal illiteracy and practices pertaining to marriages, residency and housing have aggravated their vulnerability to violence. The report highlighted that women and girls are also victims to sexual violence and exploitation on the streets and to trafficking inside and outside Tajikistan. Women’s lack of awareness of their rights, and issues pertaining to residency registration and the rise of early, polygamous and unregistered marriages were found to further aggravate their vulnerability. While some encouraging steps have been taken, responses by State bodies to protect and support victims of violence and prosecute perpetrators had been noted as insufficient.

    The report was widely discussed at the highest level and was widely covered by the media. The UNCT/GTG organized a national round-table meeting to discuss the findings and recommendations and adopt a Resolution for practical implementation of the measures directed at elimination of VAW.

    The key points of the Resolution included: 1) development and adoption at the national level of a law on combating all forms of violence against women and girls, 2) improving a national legislative framework and undertaking its review to provide sufficient arguments for a need for a specific law and also to make recommendations for changes within existing legislation to make it in compliance with the law.

    Since that date, the UNCT took a leading role in supporting the Government in the development of the Law on Domestic Violence. During a four year period the UNCT facilitated the development process, conducted public hearings and provided extensive comments on various drafts. These efforts have resulted in ensuring an open and transparent consultative process between the Government, civil society and international community. The Law was endorsed by the parliament in the end of 2012 and approved by the President in March 2013.

    The State Committee on women and family affairs has been tasked to monitor the implementation of the law. The UNCT and GTG are taking an active role in providing technical and financial support to the Committee in ensuring that the Law is understood by the public and local authorities and especially that law-enforcement bodies are trained and informed on the procedures related VAW and handling of such cases.

    Vietnam Case Study: Special Procedures as a starting point

    In Vietnam, UN support to the UPR and the Special Procedures has been an inter-agency effort, highlighting the complementary mandates of UN agencies, funds and programmes and the added value of the UN working together. The UPR process led to a deepening of the UN’s engagement on human rights. As part of the follow-up an invitation was extended to six Special Procedure Mandate Holders to visit Vietnam. From the visits carried out, the recommendations presented an opportunity for the UN to enhance its work on human rights in the country.

    Visits of Special Procedures to Viet Nam were considered by the UNCT to be an important step in the dialogue on human rights albeit at times sensitive and political. A focus on capacity building activities before the first mission of the Special Rapporteur with technical assistance from OHCHR in Geneva to explain the procedure and help manage the expectations was considered essential in the country context.

    Uganda Case Study: Getting Marginalized Issues on the National Agenda and the Role of Special Rapporteurs

    The Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the highest attainable standard of health carried out a series of country missions to Uganda to get important – but marginalized – health-related issues onto the national agenda. These issues included the need to strengthen national accountability mechanisms and the right of access to preventive measures and treatment for those people affected by neglected tropical diseases. These missions were intended to sensitize both the public and the government on the right to health so that the government can fulfill its obligations and rights-holders claim their entitlements.

    Visits in both 2005 and 2007 led to increased public awareness, advocacy and national ownership around the issue of the right to health. The Special Rapporteur’s recommendations were incorporated into capacity building efforts by the Ugandan Ministry of Health with support from WHO and OHCHR. This aimed to exemplify the link between health and human rights and explore how human rights can be used as a tool for the analysis, implementation and monitoring of national health plans and brought together and encouraged closer partnership between a large number of important national actors in the area of health and human rights.

    Moldova Case Study: Positive impact of Special Procedures on national dialogue

    The UN Country Team in Moldova has strengthened its human rights advocacy work through systematic and regular engagement with the human rights mechanisms, including Treaty Bodies, Special Procedures and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. The UNCT supported the mission by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, the core conclusions of which included that Moldova needed to strengthen celebration of diversity domestically, as well as act to transpose equality norms into the domestic legal order.

    Good cooperation between the Special Rapporteur and the UNCT, in preparing and conducting the visit was mutually beneficial in that it allowed the Special Rapporteur to have direct insight into the situation on the ground and to identify the best timing for the visit, linking it to processes such as the UPR and national developments, thus facilitating implementation and follow-up of the recommendations. Specifically, the visit occurred in the context of relevant human rights concerns having been raised by the UNCT, the Republic of Moldova reviewing its legislation regarding religious denominations and considering adopting a new law on anti-discrimination. Moreover, the Republic of Moldova was scheduled for the Universal Periodic Review in October 2011. It was therefore thought that a visit of the Special Rapporteur at that time would positively impact on these processes and related national debates. During the visit, the Special Rapporteur participated in discussions specifically dedicated to the review of the law on religious denominations which contributed to a lively national debate on crucial questions related to the place of religion in society and the issue of anti-discrimination. The visit also raised awareness about international standards in this regard. The Special Rapporteur provided expert opinion on these sensitive issues, facilitating the UNCTs intervention. UN Moldova has supported the adoption of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, to transpose Moldova’s international law obligations into the domestic legal order. In this regard, the UN has offered ongoing comment on draft texts of the law and has made regular and public interventions to assist the public in understanding the need for such a law.

    Case Study: Examples of UNCT’s playing a critical role in supporting governments to engage with and follow up on the recommendations of human rights mechanisms–Azerbaijan, Uruguay, Tanzania

    In Azerbaijan, advocacy efforts by the UNCT played an instrumental role in the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Following the ratification of the Convention, the UNCT developed joint programmes to support major legal and policy changes in the country, in order to enable people with disabilities to better exercise their rights.In Uruguay, following a visit of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the urgent need for penal reform was brought to national attention and the Government identified penal reform as a priority. The UN system, led by the RC initiated a common strategy and joint programme for supporting the Government address the issue and follow-up on the recommendations in the Special Rapporteur’s report. In Tanzania, the UNCT played an important role in supporting the Government and civil society to engage with the UPR process. It also utilized the process to raise the profile of human rights issues on the public agenda. Following the inter-governmental dialogue in Geneva, the UNCT developed a UPR follow-up assistance strategy to ensure that the recommendations inform national development policies and programmes, as well as the UNDAF (2011-2015).