What is a Special Rapporteur?
Special Rapporteurs (“SRs”) are independent experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council with the mandate to monitor, investigate and report on human rights situations in specific areas of human rights worldwide (thematic mandates), and in specific countries (country mandates).
The thematic mandates cover a wide range of issues relating to civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights, including the human rights of migrants, violence against women, the rights of internally-displaced persons, freedom of religion, and arbitrary detention, among many others, while Special Rapporteur’s that focus on specific countries focus on all aspects of human rights in that country.
Mandate-holders serve in their personal capacity and are not UN staff, and do not receive salaries or any other financial compensation for their work. The independent status of the mandate-holders is crucial in order to be able to fulfill their functions with full impartiality.
How are they appointed?
Candidates can be nominated by a) governments; (b) regional groups operating within the United Nations human rights system; (c) international organizations or their offices (e.g. the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights); (d) non-governmental organizations; (e) other human rights bodies; and (f) individual nominations. These nominees possess diverse backgrounds, and include academics, lawyers, economists, and former and current members of NGOs, and come from all regions of the world.
The list of nominees is considered by a Consultative Group that considers the list of nominees with the highest qualifications and makes recommendations to the president of the Human Rights Council. The President of the Council identifies an appropriate candidate for each vacancy, and presents a list of candidates to member states and observers for the Human Rights Council to consider for appointments.
The individual mandate-holders are selected on the basis of their expertise, experience, independence, impartiality, integrity, and objectivity. Mandate-holders are not allowed to hold government positions while serving in their capacity, as it gives rise to conflicts of interest with their mandate.
What do they do?
Often called the “eyes and ears of the Human Rights Council,” Special Rapporteurs are responsible for preparing reports that alert the Human Rights Council and other UN bodies to specific human rights situations and issues. These reports can contain critical analysis of human rights situations and recommendations for consideration by the member state concerned, and by other relevant stakeholders. Although these reports can be very detailed, all reports of the United Nations are limited to 10,700 words. Therefore, Special Rapporteurs must be able to convey a large amount of information with brevity, and can not report all cases that have been vetted.
Special Rapporteurs also advocate for victims of human rights violations through procedures requesting urgent action by relevant states and calling upon governments to respond to specific allegations of human rights violations and provide redress.
They work with international and national actors, as well as the Human Rights Council and other UN organs to address particular human rights issues and to encourage cooperation among governments, civil society, and inter-governmental organizations.
How long can Special Rapporteurs serve in their capacity?
The tenure of a mandate-holder, whether it is a thematic or country mandate, is limited to six years (two terms of three years for thematic mandate-holders).
How do they perform their work?
Special Rapporteurs can interact with a wide range of actors in the international community and within a specific country in order to gather information. This includes information emanating from governments, inter-governmental organizations, international and national non-governmental organizations, national human rights institutions, the academic community, the victims of alleged human rights abuses, relatives of victims, and witnesses. Mandate-holders endeavor to consult and meet with such sources wherever feasible and appropriate, and they endeavor to cross-check information received to the best extent possible.
Because of the sensitivity of many of the issues that arise mandate-holders should be guided in their information-gathering activities by the principles of discretion, transparency, impartiality, and even-handedness. They should rely on objective and dependable facts based on evidentiary standards that are appropriate to the non-judicial character of the reports and conclusions they are called upon to draw up. Appropriate opportunities should be provided for government representatives to comment on allegations made against them and for those alleging violations to comment on governmental responses in turn.
Mandate-holders may acknowledge receipt of information from individuals and organizations and provide an indication of outcomes or follow-up. Mandate-holders are not required to inform those who provide information about any subsequent measures they have taken. They may,however, choose to provide some information, but this would normally not involve disclosure of the specific contents of communications with governments, unless an issue has been definitively dealt with by the government in question.
How can the Special Rapporteur perform his work if they aren’t allowed to visit the country?
Country visits are an essential means to obtain direct and first-hand information on human rights violations. They allow for direct observation of the human rights situation and facilitate an intensive dialogue with all relevant state authorities, including those in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. They also allow for contact with and information-gathering from victims, relatives of victims, witnesses, national human rights institutions, international and local NGOs and other members of civil society, the academic community, and officials of international agencies present in the country concerned.
A government may take the initiative to invite a mandate-holder to visit the country, or a mandate-holder can request an invitation by communicating with the government concerned, through discussions with diplomats of the country concerned, including especially the Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office in Geneva or at UN Headquarters. The General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, or the High Commissioner for Human Rights can also suggest or request that a country consider an invitation.
In the absence of a country visit, however, the Special Rapporteur will engage governments, inter-governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations in and outside the country, the academic community, victims of alleged human rights abuses, relatives of victims, and witnesses to violations in the country that have since left the country. The Special Rapporteur will also communicate with entities within the country when possible.