The Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council include various functions originally set up by the Human Rights Commission. These Special Procedures exist to either examine a Human Rights situation in a specific country, or promote specific Human Rights or related-themes.

The mandates are generally entrusted to individual, independent and unpaid experts, who are assisted in their work by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights 1 . Different titles may be given to the mandates (i.e. Special Rapporteur, Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Representative of the Secretary-General, Independent expert, etc.). However, in certain cases, working groups are created, usually composed of five independent experts.

Thematic Procedures and Country Procedures

The experts appointed under Thematic Special Procedures are mandated to investigate and report on the issue covered by their mandate. Their activities may apply to all regions of the world irrespective of whether or not the state under review is a party to any of the relevant Human Rights treaties.

The mandate-holders of Country mandates examine the situation as a whole with regard to respect for and protection of Human Rights in a given country. This review may examine civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

Main Missions

The functions of Special Procedures mandate-holders are numerous:

  • Analyse the relevant thematic issue or country situation on behalf of the United Nations.
  • Assist the governments concerned and other relevant actors by advising them on the measures which should be taken.
  • Alert United Nations organs and the international community on the need to address specific situations and issues, thereby playing the role of an “early warning” mechanism and encourage formation and adoption of preventive measures.
  • Advocate on the behalf of the victims of violations, such as requesting urgent action by relevant states and calling upon governments to respond to specific allegations of Human Rights violations and provide redress.
  • Activate and mobilise the international community and national communities to address particular Human Rights issues, and to encourage cooperation among governments, civil society and intergovernmental organisations.
  • Follow-up on recommendations.

Working Methods

Special Procedures mandate-holders are called upon to consult, to the best extent possible, various sources of information. When determining whether action should be taken the mandate-holder generally takes the following criteria into account: the reliability of the source, the internal coherence of the information received, the factual details provided, and the relevance of the issue as regards the scope of the mandate. He may also seek additional information from any appropriate source.

The mandate-holders must give government representatives the opportunity to comment on allegations made against them and, for those alleging violations, to comment on these government responses. However, they are not required to inform those who provide information about any subsequent measures they have taken.

Moreover, they must take all feasible precautions to ensure that providers of information are not subjected to retaliation. Where the persons who have provided the mandate-holder with information have suffered from reprisals or retaliation, the mandate-holder must be informed promptly so that appropriate follow-up action can be taken. Special Procedures contribute to the interpretation of international law provisions and the elaboration of principles for states and businesses. (See summary table with examples of reports and documents issued by the Special Procedures in relation to business and Human Rights.)

Special Rapporteur on the right to health – Human Rights responsibilities of pharmaceutical companies in relation to access to medicines

In August 2008, Paul Hunt, then Special Rapporteur on the right to health, published a report including guidelines for pharmaceutical companies. This report followed numerous public consultations, including with some pharmaceutical companies who agreed to take part in the process. The guidelines contain nearly 50 recommendations aimed at identifying and clarifying the Human Rights responsibilities of pharmaceutical companies, especially relating to their role in individuals’ access to medicine.

Highlighting the fact that pharmaceutical companies have a deep impact – both positive and negative – on governments’ capacity to guarantee the right to health and access medicines for their citizens, the recommendations cover the full range of activities of pharmaceutical companies – from patents and advocacy activities, through to public-private partnerships and donations. The recommendations follow a rights-based approach by emphasising the importance for pharmaceutical companies to integrating Human Rights, especially the right to health, into all their spheres of activity, including their policies and strategies. 11

Depending on their mandate Special Procedures may undertake various types of activity including:

  • Receive individual complaints.
  • Send communications to states ( urgent appeals or letters ).
  • Alert international public opinion ( press releases ).
  • Advise states, especially through the publication of reports.
  • Undertake country visits.

Communications to states

Mandate-holders may send a communication to a government in relation to any actual or anticipated Human Rights violation(s) which fall within the scope of their mandate. Communications may be of two kinds: urgent appeals or letters of allegation.

Communications detail issues concerning individuals, groups or communities. They can focus on general trends and patterns of Human Rights violations in a particular country or across various countries. An existing or draft legislation can also be a matter of concern. Their purpose is to obtain clarification by the state concerned and to promote measures designed to protect Human Rights on its territory. In light of the government’s response, the mandate-holder determines how best to proceed. This might include the initiation of enquiries, the elaboration of recommendations or other appropriate steps.

Communications and governments’ responses are confidential until they are published in the mandate-holder’s periodic report, or the latter determines that the specific circumstances require action to be taken before that time. The names of alleged victims are reflected in the periodic reports, except for children and other victims of violence in relation to whom publication of names would be problematic.

Mandate-holders are encouraged to send joint communications whenever this seems appropriate.

Special Rapporteur on the Right to food – communications to Austria, Germany and Switzerland

On 8 October 2008, the Austrian, German and Swiss governments announced that they would withdraw from a project to build the Ilisu Dam and hydro-electric power plant project on the river Tigris if the Turkish authorities did not solve, within 60 days, the social and environmental problems that such a dam would entail.

All governments concerned had received a communication from the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food in October 2006, which warned that the building of the Ilisu Dam in Turkey would displace and impoverish more than 50,000 Kurdish people and inundate the 10,000-year-old town of Hasankeyf. 12

Urgent appeals

Urgent appeals are used by mandate-holders to communicate information in cases where the alleged violations are ongoing or imminent, and risk causing possible irreparable damage to the victim(s). This procedure is used when the letters of allegation procedure would not prove a rapid enough response to a serious Human Rights situation (see below).

The object of these appeals is to rapidly inform the competent state authorities of the circumstances so that they can intervene to end or prevent the violations in question. They generally consist of four parts :

  • A reference to the UN resolution creating the mandates concerned.
  • A summary of the available facts and, when applicable, indicate previous action taken on the same case.
  • An indication of the specific concerns of the mandate-holder, in light of the provisions of relevant international instruments and case law.
  • A request to the government concerned to provide information on the substance of the allegations and to take urgent measures to prevent the alleged violations.

Urgent appeals are transmitted directly to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the state concerned, with a copy to the Permanent Representative of the United Nations in the country concerned. These appeals are based on humanitarian grounds in order to guarantee the protection of the persons concerned, and do not imply any kind of judgment as regards the merits. The content of the questions or requests addressed to the government varies significantly, according to the situation in each case. Governments are generally requested to provide a substantive response within 30 days.

In certain cases, mandate-holders may decide to make urgent appeals public by issuing press releases or statements.

Letters of allegation

Letters of allegation are the second type of communication which may be issued by Special Procedures mandate-holders. These letters are used to communicate information about violations that are alleged to have already occurred, when it is no longer possible to use urgent appeals, and to request the state to provide information on the substance of the allegations and measures taken.

Governments are usually requested to provide a substantive response to a letter within two months. Some mandate-holders forward the Government replies they receive to the alleged victim for their comments.

Who can submit information?

Information submitted to the mandate-holders may be sent by a person or a group of persons who claim to be the victim(s) of Human Rights violations. Non governmental organisation, acting in good faith, and free of political motivations that are contrary to the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations, may submit information, provided they have direct and reliable knowledge of the alleged violations. 13 It is left to the discretion of a mandate-holder to decide whether to act on a given situation.

Under what conditions?

In order to be admissible, communications must fulfil the following criteria :

  • Communications must not be exclusively based on reports disseminated by mass media.
  • Anonymous petitions are not admissible. However, in communications to the governments the mandate-holders normally preserve the confidentiality of their information source, except where the source requests that its identity be revealed.
  • Exhaustion of domestic remedies is not a precondition to the examination of an allegation by Special Procedures. They do not preclude in any way the taking of appropriate judicial measures at the national level.
UN Rapporteurs call on the state to provide reparation for the community of Piquiá de Baixo in Açailândia, Brazil

In the municipality of Açailândia in the Brazilian state of Maranhão, the activities of the pig iron and coal-burning industries have caused serious environmental pollution. Two hundred and sixty-eight families in the rural settlement of California and more than 300 families in the Piquiá de Baixo community have been affected by this pollution. Accidents (related to the proximity of waste products and pig iron production) and serious health issues caused by the coal-burning and pig iron pollution have been reported, including respiratory and vision problems, and even death in some cases. 14

Special Rapporteurs, together with the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, sent a joint communication to the government of Brazil on 9 January 2014 with regard to this situation: they specifically asked questions in relation to prevention and remediation measures taken by the government to address the situation. The government responded.

FIDH, its member organisation Justiça Global and Justiça nos Trilhos are calling upon Brazil to implement prevention and reparation measures, including the immediate and integral resettlement of the community of Piquiá de Baixo.

Press statements

In appropriate situations, especially those of grave concern or in which a government has repeatedly failed to provide a substantive response, the Special Procedure mandate-holder may issue a press statement or hold a press conference either individually or jointly with other mandate-holders.

Special Procedures in action in corporate-related Human Rights abuses
Special Rapporteur on toxic waste 15 demands measures to counter the damaging effects of chemical substances in cleaning and food products – Press release

“The large number of people whose Human Rights to life, health and food, among others, have been adversely affected by toxic and hazardous chemicals, and the gravity of the suffering of some of the worst-hit individuals and communities, make exposure to hazardous chemicals contained in household and food products one of the major Human Rights issues facing the international community. They also make the adequate regulation of hazardous chemicals most urgent. […] There is a proliferation of products and foods containing toxic chemicals. In a globalized world, such products are traded internationally or produced locally by subsidiaries of trans-national companies, thereby affecting the enjoyment of Human Rights of individuals and communities in all parts of the world.

Many of the individual cases brought to the attention of the Special Rapporteur relating to hazardous chemicals deal with allegations of irresponsible or illegal corporate behaviour which has direct adverse effects on the enjoyment of Human Rights by individuals and communities. Such behaviour is too often met with impunity. International Human Rights law compels states to take effective steps to regulate corporate behaviour in relation to hazardous chemicals and holds private companies accountable for any actions taken in breach of such regulations.” 16

Special Rapporteur on adequate housing denounces forced evictions in Cambodia - Press release

“More than 130 families were forcibly evicted during the night of 23 and 24 January 2009 from Dey Krahorm, in central Phnom Penh to make way for a private company to redevelop the site. […] In Cambodia, a consistent pattern of violation of rights has been observed in connection with forced evictions: systematic lack of due process and procedural protections; inadequate compensation; lack of effective remedies for communities facing eviction; excessive use of force; and harassment, intimidation and criminalization of NGOs and lawyers working on this issue.

Forced evictions constitute a grave breach of Human Rights. They can be carried out only in exceptional circumstances and with the full respect of international standards. Given the disastrous humanitarian situation faced by the victims of forced evictions, I urge the Cambodian authorities to establish a national moratorium on evictions until their policies and actions in this regard have been brought into full conformity with international Human Rights obligations.” 17

Country visits

Finally, Special Procedures mandate-holders may also undertake visits to countries in order to investigate the Human Rights situation at the national level. These visits are an essential means to obtain direct and first-hand information necessary to evaluate the situation.

During these visits, experts may meet with:

  • National and local authorities, including members of the judiciary and parliament
  • Members of national Human Rights institutions
  • Non-governmental organisations and other representatives of civil society
  • Victims of Human Rights violations
  • United Nations organisations and other intergovernmental organisations
  • The press Mandate-holders must request an invitation from the state they wish to visit.

However, a government may take the initiative to invite mandate-holders.

After their visit, mandate-holders prepare a mission report containing their conclusions and recommendations. 18

Meeting with non-state actors

As the revised draft Manual of Operations of the Special Procedures highlights, it is essential that during their visits mandate-holders meet – and enter into dialogue with – non-state actors, including private business enterprises. Such meetings are particularly relevant where these actors bear responsibility for the alleged Human Rights violations or where they exercise de facto control over part of the territory. 20

Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes visits Piquiá de Baixo

In December 2019, Baskut Tuncak, then Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, visited the state of Maranhão in Brazil to witness the severe consequences of environmental and noise pollution from the mining and steel industry on the health of the population of Piquiá de Baixo. 21

In his preliminary findings, the expert highlighted that this community “ha[d] been poisoned for decades” 22 and that governmental obstacles [were] immortalizing human rights violations by Vale, Viena Siderúrgica, and Gusa Nordeste.” The current Rapporteur, Marcos Orellana, presented the final report subsequent to the visit to Brazil before the Human Rights Council in September 2020, demanding that the necessary measures be taken to resettle this community, urging both the government and the companies involved to make an official apology to the community and requesting that reparations be granted to the rights holders. 23