Please note that all PDF documents are marked as such and will open in a new browser window.

Printable Version

Promotion and protection of human rights:
the role of special procedures of the Human Rights Council

Asma Jangahir, in a visit to Afghanistan in October
2002 during her previous mandate as Special
Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and
arbitrary executions. Photo: OHCHR

Year in and year out, special rapporteurs and other independent human rights experts monitor, examine, advise and publicly report on certain types of human rights violations or violations in a specific country.  Acting in their personal capacity, much of their work is conducted behind the scenes, and does not always receive wide attention. Some would say they are the unsung heroes of the UN human rights monitoring system.

The Story

The nuts and bolts of human rights monitoring is not necessarily what grabs headlines – but it was a core function that evolved under the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (CHR), replaced in 2006 by the Human Rights Council (HRC). Some would say the unsung heroes of human rights are those who are responsible for carrying out what is known as the “special procedures” system. Special procedures are special rapporteurs, representatives, independent experts and working groups that monitor, examine, advise and publicly report on a thematic issue (thematic mandates) or on a human rights situation in a specific country (country mandates).  Special rapporteurs often conduct fact-finding missions to countries to investigate allegations of human rights violations. They also receive, assess and verify complaints from alleged victims of human rights violations – and follow up with the Government concerned.

Their reports are made public, as are their recommendations. They cover a broad range of human rights themes such as trafficking, child prostitution and pornography, indigenous people, internally displaced persons, migrants – they also promote freedom of religion or belief, freedom of opinion and expression, adequate food and housing as well as the independence of judges and lawyers.

On occasion, their work makes the headlines – such as with Myanmar or Sudan, or on arbitrary executions or torture – with Governments complaining they are being intrusive. The work of special procedures is critical in identifying, assessing, and addressing gaps in the implementation of human rights at the country level, and ensuring increased compliance with human rights standards. Special procedures’ dialogue with Governments and with other relevant stakeholders is a concrete means to engage with countries on human rights, and has real impact on the ground.

Now a review of these mechanisms, the special procedures, is under way at the HRC. All stakeholders, including Governments and civil society actors at the national and international level, agree that the special procedures system is a valuable legacy of the CHR, and recognize its positive contribution to making a difference on the ground so that human rights and fundamental freedoms can be tracked and promoted.

The Context


Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR):
Rupert Colville, OHCHR Spokesperson, Tel: +41 22 917 9767
Send an email


Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council

UN Special Procedures: Facts and Figures 2007 (pdf)

Human Rights Treaty Bodies

Complaint Procedures

UN News Service



1. ^ A new thematic mandate was created by the HRC in September 2007: on contemporary forms of slavery.

2. ^ Two country mandates were discontinued by the HRC in June 2007: Belarus and Cuba.