United Nations Special Procedures: key features

The UN Human Rights Council's Special Procedures are independent human rights experts who examine issues globally, or focus on specific places, or on particular groups such as human rights defenders or migrants.

The Special Procedures are at the core of the UN human rights machinery. As independent and objective experts who are able to monitor and rapidly respond to allegations of violations occurring anywhere in the world, they play a critical and often unique role in promoting and protecting human rights. They are among the most innovative, responsive and flexible tools of the human rights machinery.

Global reach

Drawing their authority from the UN Charter, the Special Procedures can respond to allegations of violations occurring anywhere in the world.

"During my last [mission] as Special Rapporteur, a large number of human rights defenders were      detained. I went to visit them at the Makala Prison in Kinshasa, but the army officers did not allow me to see them.

"They heard our discussions and for the first time realised that someone was concerned about them. They started to knock at the doors and bars and shout out their names. Finally, I was able to interview one of them, Golden Misabiko, and another one that I knew had suffered severe torture.

"Four months later, I attended an international meeting of human rights defenders in Dublin. Golden was there and he could not hold his tears when he saw me. He told me he had been released a few days after that interview and, according to him, that visit saved his life. I couldn't hold my tears either."
severe torture.

Roberto Garretón, former Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo

"The Special Procedures played an important role amongst other things in the release of my brother from an uncertain fate. …[They] weighed heavily on the decision making process that ultimately resulted in the President … sparing an innocent life."

Amjad Hussain, brother of Mirza Tahir Hussain, who was imprisoned for 18 years in Pakistan following an unfair trial and faced the death penalty


Special Procedure mandate-holders come from all regions of the world and serve in an independent capacity. Their ability to work without interference from governments is critical.

"In an environment of intense politicisation, the Special Rapporteurs are able to rise above this; to level criticism where it is due, whatever the country in question, and to commend positive developments wherever they occur. In a world ravaged by grave human rights violations, it is of the utmost importance that independent experts are able to challenge the powerful as well as the weak."

Gemma Mortensen, journalist

Fast and flexible

Special Procedures can respond fast; they make hundreds of urgent interventions each year on behalf of thousands of individuals at risk.

"The immediate intervention of the Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders after my arrest … reminded the authorities that their practices were under close scrutiny and certainly deterred them from going too far in their persecution.

"It is very important for human rights defenders like me to know that the Special Representative is here to protect and support us and also to feel that we will not be alone if we come under threat. It gives us more confidence and empowers us … It works like a protection shield, a guardian-angel for us."

Samira Trad, Director of Frontiers-Ruwad Center, who was harassed and detained in 2003 due to her work on migrant issues, Lebanon.

"This mechanism can become an alarm and a way to prevent revenge attacks against our work, which we have experienced several times."

Usman Hamid, Commission for Disappeared Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), Indonesia 

International spotlight

Special Procedures bring human rights violations, including emerging crises, to the attention of the international community.

"For human rights defenders in Guatemala, the UN Rapporteurs are a vital mechanism to support our work and protect our lives. In particular their actions on our behalf not only provide us with solidarity and protection but also elicit action from our government that we could not obtain alone.

"The Rapporteurs… creat[e] an important space for victims, thereby empowering them and amplifying their voices on an international scale."

Ruth del Valle, former Executive Director, National Movement for Human Rights in Guatemala


Special Procedures provide expert advice to assist governments in meeting their human rights obligations.

"A number of civil society organizations … drew the [Police Service] Commission's attention to the findings of the Special Rapporteur regarding the weakness of the Commission in fighting police abuse. The Police Service Commission has resolved now to strengthen its oversight over police misconduct, and to undertake direct investigation of police misconduct."

Joseph Chu'ma Otteh, Executive Director, Access to Justice, Nigeria

"The Special Rapporteur [...] brought the weight and influence of an international mandate to bear on our case. The Special Rapporteur added an extra dimension [...] because he emphasized the relevance and applicability of international standards to our call for a public inquiry."

Michael Finucane on behalf of the Finucane family, UK

More information

The "job" of a UN Special Procedures mandate holder

BBC series on Special Rapporteurs

How you can help