Catalysts for Rights: The Unique Contribution of the UN’s Independent Experts on Human Rights

One of the great questions of international affairs is how to promote respect for universal principles of human rights in a world where sovereign states can be persuaded but rarely compelled to do the right thing. Over decades, the international community has constructed a house with a strong foundation of universal norms that place the individual’s right to human dignity at the center. To give meaning to this concept, states have adopted treaties that define the scope and content of a wide variety of political, civil, economic, social and group rights. They have agreed to regulate and limit the state’s power to infringe those rights. And they have forged a variety of tools to monitor how states implement their obligations, and to assist, cajole and demand protection of such rights in real time. Building this house was one of the great accomplishments of the second half of the 20th century.

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A critical human rights challenge of this century is to ensure that the house functions effectively to shelter those individuals who need protection from discrimination, abuse and violence. To do this, we need to ask and answer a seemingly simple question: What works when it comes to international promotion and protection of human rights at the national level? This report seeks to answer that question as it relates to one piece of the United Nations human rights system:  the independent experts mandated by governments to report on how states respect human rights in fact, otherwise known as the “Special Procedures.”

The report comes at a time when the main forum states have established to negotiate these questions, the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, continues to face intense scrutiny.  For a variety of reasons, most notably the high political sensitivity of human rights, the Human Rights Council has become a battleground for defending a state’s reputation at home and abroad.  This report does not seek to evaluate all the pros and cons surrounding the body as it comes upon its five-year evaluation. It does aim, however, to evaluate an important element of the Council’s work in the hopes it will contribute to a more objective and balanced assessment in the United States and around the world of what works when it comes to promoting human rights.


After months of research, interviews and field visits, and with the benefit of input from a group of expert advisors, the report draws a compelling portrait of this unique mechanism. Among its conclusions, the report finds:

  • The U.N.’s independent experts on human rights are

catalysts for rights, helping to convert abstract principles into meaningful change. Thanks to their status as independent experts mandated by the United Nations, most Special Procedures have played, and continue to play, a critical role in shaping the content of international human rights norms, shedding light on how states comply with such norms, and influencing how governments behave, to the benefit of millions of people. 

Lack of state cooperation with Special Procedures represents the chief obstacle to their work. Failure to accept requests to visit, to respond to allegations and to follow up on their recommendations as well as hostile attacks on their work are the most glaring and widespread areas needing attention.

The Special Procedures are also hobbled by a host of other challenges, including inadequate resources and training, insufficient understanding of the local context for their work, and the lack of a systematic process for following up their recommendations. 

Despite these obstacles, the Special Procedures mechanism represents one of the most effective tools of the international human rights system and deserves further strengthening and support from the international community.

Country visits were seen as the most effective tool for influence in the independent experts’ toolbox. The blue U.N. flag they carry on mission when combined with well-prepared and politically skillful judgments have a direct impact on elevating attention to important and sensitive human rights problems by government officials, nongovernmental organizations, the media and politicians.

Country visits are especially important for human rights defenders to help them mobilize advocacy, involve victims, call attention to problems and remedies, and influence state and international behavior on human rights.

Country visits have had the effect of influencing government behavior in a variety of positive ways:

     better treatment and release of political prisoners and journalists
    new laws and policies to protect migrants and internally displaced persons
    dismissals and prosecutions of military and police officials charged with abuses
    monitoring prisons to prevent torture
    expanding access to health education and services
    adopting legislation to address domestic violence against women and children including victim and witness protection measures, and
    protecting freedom of expression through decriminalizing defamation.

    The key factors that facilitate positive state action in response to a country visit are:

      The credibility and moral power of the United Nations
      The timing of the visit at it relates to a country’s political development
      The quality and specificity of the expert’s research and recommendations
      The willingness and capacity of the government to cooperate with the expert
      The ability of local NGOs to articulate their grievances in a timely and effective way and to do follow-up advocacy
      The freedom and capacity of the media to report on the visit and track results
      The ability of U.N. staff to support the independent experts through preparation and follow-up activities.

      • Written communications from Special Procedures transmitting allegations of human rights problems to governments have some limited impact on influencing state behavior but in general are ineffective.


      Based on these and related findings, and with the endorsement of the project’s Experts Advisory Group, the report makes the following recommendations for strengthening the Special Procedures mechanism:

        • The selection process for independent experts, while improved, would benefit from a wider variety of qualified candidates and less political interference from member states.
        • States should fulfill their obligations to cooperate with Special Procedures by issuing standing invitations, responding quickly to requests for visits, accepting the standard terms of reference for such visits and responding to all communications in a timely and substantive manner.
        • A public record of how states cooperate with the independent experts, including a database on all communications, should be produced on an ongoing basis.  States should rely on this record of cooperation when electing members to the Human Rights Council and in making decisions on resource allocation and technical assistance to states.
        • Special Procedures should improve their working methods by investing more time to preparation of country visits, more balanced presentation of their findings, more specific and actionable recommendations, and more careful selection of which states to visit. 
        • A number of follow-up steps are needed to strengthen the impact of the mechanism such as: regular submission of progress reports by states, better coordination among Special Procedures and their staffs, periodic follow-up visits, incorporation of recommendations in U.N. country team work plans, and greater monitoring and reporting by civil society and the media.
        • Given the quantity and quality of the Special Procedures’ work in translating universal norms into improved state practice, states and the U.N. system should increase resources for them, continue to reduce earmarking, and direct funding to support implementation of the experts’ recommendations.
        • To support further professionalization and greater effectiveness, new and improved training of Special Procedures is necessary, particularly training by former mandate holders and development of diplomatic and communication skills.
        • States must refrain from abusing the Special Procedures Code of Conduct to harass independent experts and criticize such behavior when it does occur.  Complaints of inappropriate conduct should be directed to the Special Procedures Coordination Committee which should keep the Council informed of steps taken to address allegations.
        • The U.N. system should do much more to integrate the work of the Special Procedures into their activities, programs and work plans and find ways to connect their recommendations to funding priorities
        • Analysis of nearly 9,000 communications sent over a five-year period by 17 mandates to 174 states shows that 58% received no or immaterial responses by governments. In 18% of responses, governments took steps to address the underlying allegation in some way, while 21% showed rejection of the allegation with no evidence of an investigation of the underlying claim.
        • On balance, states in Europe and the Americas had better scores on responding to allegations than states in Africa and Asia. Similarly, states considered democratic had a significantly higher positive response rate and a lower rate of non-replies than non-democracies.
        • The impact of country visits and communications is negatively affected by the lack of any institutionalized mechanism for following up on an independent expert’s recommendations.