UN special procedures refer to independent human rights experts mandated by the Human Rights Council, or its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, to advise and report on thematic issues related to human rights or on specific countries facing particularly concerning human rights situations. Special procedures can be individuals, such as Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts, or five-person Working Groups comprising independent experts from each of the UN regional groups.
A special procedure is generally created by a Human Rights Council resolution establishing a mandate, which outlines its thematic or country focus and responsibilities. The activities of a special procedure may include country visits, communications to member states bringing alleged human rights violations to their attention, issuing reports and conducting thematic studies, as well as consultations. Candidates for special procedures are nominated by a broad range of actors including states, non-governmental organizations, and individuals. A Consultative Group within the Human Rights Council then evaluates the nominees and recommends candidates to the Council president based on factors such as expertise, experience, independence, impartiality, and personal integrity.
Since the creation of the first special procedures—the Ad Hoc Working Group of Experts on South Africa and the Special Rapporteur on Apartheid, in 1967—the number and functions of special procedures have been steadily growing. In 1980, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances was created, introducing the first thematic, rather than country-specific, mandate. It was quickly followed by more thematic mandates, including the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions in 1982, and Special Rapporteur on torture, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in 1985. As of March 27, 2015 there are 41 thematic mandates covering a wide range of issues pertaining to civil and political rights, as well as economic, social, and cultural rights, and 14 country-specific mandates.