“Special procedures” is the general name given to the mechanisms established by the Human Rights Council to address either specific country situations or thematic issues. The special procedures are a way for the Council to be constantly engaged on an issue of concern throughout the year.
Although they may be constituted in any manner, special procedures commonly are either an individual, called a special rapporteur or representative or an independent expert, or a group of individuals, called a working group. (See UN Fact sheet on Special Procedures.)
An individual who serves as a special rapporteur, representative, independent expert or member of a working group is appointed by the President of the Council together with the 47 members. It is a highly politicized process. For example, Arab states pressured the Council to appoint Richard Falk as the special rapporteur on "Israeli violations", even though he was widely recognized in the human rights community to be biased, and even though he publicly supports 9/11 conspiracy theories that question whether Al Qaeda terrorists carried out the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The special procedures are independent, are not paid and serve in a personal capacity for a maximum of 6 years. In 2006 there were over 30 special procedures mechanisms, but the Council's repressive regimes have gradually eliminated the most important country mandaates, including those on Belarus, Cuba, Congo (DRC), Liberia, and Darfur.
The Commission on Human Rights requests the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to provide these mechanisms with personnel and logistical assistance to aid them in the discharge of their mandates.
Although the mandates given to special procedure mechanisms vary, they usually are to examine, monitor, advise, and publicly report on human rights situations in specific countries or territories, known as country mandates, or on major phenomena of human rights violations worldwide, known as thematic mandates. Various activities can be undertaken by special procedures, including conducting studies, providing advice on technical cooperation, responding to individual complaints, and engaging in general promotional activities.
In carrying out their mandates, special rapporteurs and other mandate-holders undertake country visits (sometimes referred to as fact-finding missions) and report back to the Council. These missions take place at the request of the relevant special procedure or at the invitation of the country concerned. Many countries have extended standing invitations to all thematic special procedures of the Council.
The activities which can be undertaken, along wih the scope and length of the mandate of each special procedure, are set out in Council resolutions on the specific mandate. All special procedures are required to report on their activities annually to the Council.
Many of the independent experts are professionals who perform superb work in advancing human rights by holding states accountable to universal standards. For example, Manfred Nowak, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, recently visited China where he exposed major abuses to international attention.
Regrettably, however, there are also some experts who are political appointees with limited qualifications, and who have proved disappointing. For example, Jean Ziegler, the former expert on the right to food, was found to have abused his mandate to advance a radical political agenda at the expense of the world's 800 million hungry. In the summer of 2005, Mr. Ziegler was reprimanded by Secretary-General Kofi Annan and by High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour for his irresponsble and inflammatory.actions. Mr. Ziegler is the only expert to have been so censured by the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner. UN Watch led the campaign to expose the abuses of Mr. Ziegler, and hopes that his replacement will return the mandate as envisioned to a professional treatment of the hunger challenge confronted by the world today.
Greater organization and dlligence is required on the part of the UN human rights apparatus to ensure that mandate-holders are guided by expected norms of behaviour. Although the experts are independent, they need to be regulated by a code of conduct, similar to those applicable to indpendent members of the judiciary. In August 2005, the UN announced to diplomatic circles in Geneva the appointment of a new official who would oversee improvements in its Special Procedures division. The European Union, speaking at an informal session in September 2005, said "We welcome the appointment of the Head of the Special Procedures Branch who will contribute to the strengthening of the work of the Special Procedures." However, the UN has apparently declined to make any appointment.