Most Special Procedures provide for the relevant mandate-holders to receive information from different sources and to act on credible information by sending a communication to the relevant Government(s) in relation to any actual or anticipated human rights violations which fall within the scope of their mandate.

Communications may deal with cases concerning individuals, groups or communities, with general trends and patterns of human rights violations in a particular country or more generally, or with the content of existing or draft legislation considered to be a matter of concern.

Criteria for taking action

Communications submitted to the Special Procedures alleging violations should be in written, printed or electronic form and include full details of the sender’s identity and address, and full details of the relevant incident or situation. Anonymous communications are not considered.

Check the websites of individual mandate holders for guidance (incl. standard questionnaires) on how to submit a complaint under a specific mandate.

The following information should ideally be provided for all special procedures to properly assess the communication:Who is the alleged victim(s) (individual(s), community, group, etc.);

  • Who is the alleged victim(s) (individual(s), community, group, etc.);
  • Who is the alleged perpetrator(s) of the violation; Please provide substantiated information on all the actors involved, including non-state actors if relevant.
  • Identification of the person(s) or organization(s) submitting the communication (this information will be kept confidential); As a general rule, the identity of the source of information on the alleged violation is always kept confidential. When submitting information please indicate whether there is any of the submitted information, which you would like to remain confidential.
  • Date, place and detailed description of the circumstances of the incident(s) or the violation; The information submitted can refer to violations that are said to have already occurred, that are ongoing or about to occur. Information should include the legal remedies, if any, taken at the national level or regional level, and any other relevant information on the various aspects of the case.

Other details pertaining to the specific alleged violation may be required by the relevant thematic mandates (e.g. past and present places of detention of the victim; any medical certificate issued to the victim; identification of witnesses to the alleged violation; any measures undertaken to seek redress locally, etc.).

Mandate-holders are encouraged to send joint communications whenever this seems appropriate. OHCHR desk officers and relevant United Nations field offices should also be consulted, to the extent feasible, in the preparation of communications concerning the areas of their responsibility.

Where to submit the complaints

Complaints can either be submitted to individual mandates or to the Urgent Action desk at the OHCHR.

Contact details and formats for submitting a complaint to specific mandate holders (e.g. the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders) can be found on their websites of individual websites. If submitting a complaint to the OHCHR Urgent Action desk, visit the OHCHR website for information on contact details, etc.

The Quick Response Desk (QRD) of OHCHR coordinates the sending of communications by all mandates. Each communication must be expressly authorized by the relevant mandate-holder(s). Communications usually take the form of a letter transmitted by the OHCHR to the Permanent Representative of the country concerned to the Office of the United Nations in Geneva. In the absence of such representation the letter shall be transmitted to the relevant Permanent Representative at United Nations Headquarters in New York, or to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the country or countries concerned.

In communications sent to Governments, the source is normally kept confidential in order to protect against reprisals or retaliation.  An information source may, however, request that its identity be revealed.

In light of information received in response from the Government concerned, or of further information from other sources, the mandate-holder will determine how best to proceed.  This might include the initiation of further inquiries, the elaboration of recommendations or observations to be published in the relevant report, or other appropriate steps designed to achieve the objectives of the mandate.

All communications sent and responses received thereon are confidential until such time as they are published in the relevant report of the mandate-holder or the mandate-holder determines that the specific circumstances require action to be taken before that time. Periodic reports issued by the Special Procedures should reflect the communications sent by the mandate-holder and the governments’ responses thereto.

Communications do not imply any kind of value judgment on the part of the Special Procedure concerned and are thus not per se accusatory.  They are not intended as a substitute for judicial or other proceedings at the national level. Their purpose is to obtain clarification in response to allegations of violations and to promote measures designed to protect human rights.

Unlike the requirements of communication procedures established under human rights treaties, the exhaustion of domestic remedies is not a pre-requisite for the consideration of an allegation by the Special Procedures. The Special Procedures are not quasi-judicial mechanisms. Rather, they are premised upon the need for rapid action, designed to protect victims and potential victims, and do not preclude in any way the taking of appropriate judicial measures at the national level.

A number of Special Procedures have developed standard requirements/questionnaires to facilitate the collection of relevant information. See the model questionnaires

Letters of Allegation

Letters of allegation are used to communicate information about violations that are alleged to have already occurred and whose impact on the alleged victim can no longer be changed.

Letters of allegation generally follow a standard format consisting of four parts: (i) a reference to the resolution creating the mandates concerned; (ii) a summary of the available facts, and when applicable an indication of previous action taken on the same case; (iii) an indication of the specific concerns of the mandate-holder in light of the provisions of relevant international instruments and case law; and (iv) a request to the Government to provide information on: (a) the substance of the allegations; (b) measures taken to investigate and punish alleged perpetrators; (c) compensation, protection, or assistance provided to the alleged victims; (d) legislative, administrative and other steps taken to avoid the recurrence of such violations in the future; and (e) other relevant information. The content of the specific questions or requests addressed to the Government may vary considerably according to the substance of the allegations.

Governments are usually requested to provide a substantive response to communication letters within two months. Some mandate-holders forward the substance of the replies received to the source for its comments.

Urgent Appeals

Urgent appeals are used to communicate information about an alleged violation that is ongoing or imminent. The intention is to ensure that the appropriate State authorities are informed as quickly as possible of the circumstances so that they can intervene to end or prevent a human rights violation.

Urgent appeals are transmitted by appropriate means (including, for example, by fax) addressed directly to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the State concerned with a copy to the Permanent Mission.  Such appeals are sent on humanitarian grounds to ensure protection of the persons involved and do not prejudge any conclusions on the merits of the case.

Urgent appeals also generally follow a standard format consisting of four parts: (i) a reference to the resolution creating the mandates concerned; (ii) a summary of the available facts, and when applicable an indication of previous action taken on the same case; (iii) an indication of the specific concerns of the mandate-holder in light of the provisions of relevant international instruments and case law; and (iv) a request to the Government to provide information on the substance of the allegations and to take urgent measures to prevent or stop the alleged violations.

The content of the questions or requests addressed to the Government will vary significantly according to the situation in each case. Governments are generally requested to provide a substantive response within thirty days.  In appropriate cases mandate-holders may decide to make such urgent appeals public by issuing press releases or public statements.

Press Statements

In appropriate situations, including those of grave concern or in which a Government has repeatedly failed to provide a substantive response, a Special Procedure mandate-holder may issue a press statement or hold a press conference, either individually or jointly with other mandate-holders.

Press releases and statements are processed by the Communications section of the OHCHR and posted on the OHCHR’s web-site.

Follow-up to communications

Follow-up action is undertaken in several ways, including:(i) through reporting to the Human Rights Council and other appropriate bodies on communications sent and replies received, and on observations on the relevant information;(ii) through the analysis of general trends, including the documentation of positive developments; and(iii) by maintaining a systematic and constructive dialogue with Governments concerned, the sources of communications and other partners.

Summaries of communications and the essence of Governments’ replies to communications are compiled in reports submitted to the Council. In addition, although the approach varies from mandate to mandate, the general practice is for the mandate-holder to provide some response to, or evaluation of, the exchange.  The main principle is that of effectiveness, and this will often call for going beyond a straightforward exchange of correspondence.