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- Can civil society engage with the work of Special Procedures?
- Are there any Special Rapporteurs whose work is related to violence against women?
- Are there any working groups that work on issues related to violence against women?
The Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council (HRC) are independent human rights experts responsible for reporting and advising on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective. These Special Procedures are considered a central element of the United Nations human rights framework and cover all areas of human rights: civil, cultural, economic, political, and social. Special procedures can operate individually (called “Special Rapporteur” or “Independent Expert”) or together in a working group. Working groups consist of five members, one from each of the five United Nations regional groupings: Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and the Western group.
All Special Procedures are appointed by the HRC to serve for a maximum of six years. During the appointment process, the HRC evaluates each candidate according to specific criteria: expertise; experience in the field of the mandate; independent; impartiality; personal integrity; objectivity. To ensure the independent status and impartiality of the experts, Special Procedures are not considered to be official UN staff members and do not receive payment for their work. They report annually to the Human Rights Council and a majority of the mandates also report directly to the General Assembly.
With support from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Special Procedures are able to:
- Undertake fact-finding visits to states (“country visits”) and issue reports and recommendations following the visit
- Take action on individual cases or wider concerns related to their mandate by sending appeals directly to states
- Conduct thematic studies and convene expert consultations, contributing to the development of international human rights standards and practical implementation of those standards
- Engage in advocacy and raise public awareness
- Provide advice for technical cooperation
- Read about the Human Rights Council’s Special Procedures
- Take a look through the OHCHR NGO handbook on Special Procedures
Can civil society engage with the work of Special Procedures?
Yes. There are three primary ways this can take place: country visits, communications (urgent appeals and individual complaints), and expert seminars and consultations.
1. Country visits
At the invitation of member states, Special Procedures may carry out country visits to analyse the status of human rights at a national level. During this process, there are 4 entry points for engagement with the country visit.
- Prior to a country visit request.
Civil society actors can encourage states to issue standing invitations or alert Special Procedures to the issues in a state. Information on human rights violations may lead to a Special Procedure’s request to conduct a country visit, as some base these requests on the amount of information (individual complaints/cases) they receive.
- When a country visit has been confirmed.
Civil society actors may raise public awareness of the visit, submit relevant information to and raise matters of concern with the Special Procedure prior to a country visit. This may enable the mandate-holder to raise specific issues with the authorities ahead of time and, if needed, make arrangements to include it in the official programme of the visit.
- During the country visit.
Civil society actors may ask to meet with mandate-holders by contacting the mandate-holder, or relevant OHCHR staff in Geneva or in the field, by fax, post or e-mail.
- After a country visit.
Civil society actors may engage in the follow-up to the conclusions and recommendations resulting from a country visit by:
- Disseminating recommendations to their communities
- Publicising the work of Special Procedures and raising awareness of their work
- Developing plans of action and activities to continue the work initiated by the country visit
- Working with States to implement recommendations
- Contributing inputs to specific follow-up reports issued by some mandate-holders
- Monitoring the steps States have taken to meet the recommendations, and informing the relevant Special Procedures on this progress
Some member states have issued “standing invitations” to all thematic special procedures. This means they have extended an open invitation to every thematic special procedure and will always accept visit requests from each. As of 1 January 2015, 109 member states and one non-member observer state have extended standing invitations to the thematic Special Procedures.
2. Urgent appeals and individual complaints
Special procedures may receive urgent appeals and individual complaints from civil society actors or other stakeholders. When information is received that falls within the mandate of the Special Procedures and there is substantial evidence that a human rights violation has occurred, is ongoing, or which has a high risk of occurring, Special Procedures may exercise their discretion to take action to intervene directly with member states. This intervention involves sending a letter to the concerned state identifying the facts of the allegation with regard to international human rights norms and standards, expressing concerns and questions on the information received, and a request for follow-up action.
The decision to intervene will rely on each Special Procedures’ evaluation of the given situation and on the criteria established under their respective mandates, as well as the criteria laid out in the Code of Conduct. This criteria generally relates to:
- Reliability of the source and the credibility of information received
- Details provided
- Scope of the Special Procedures’ mandate
Communications sent individually by Special Procedures or jointly with other Special Procedures whose mandate includes the issue concerned. These communications may deal with individual cases, general patterns and trends of human rights violations, cases affecting a particular group or community, or the content of draft or existing legislation, policy or practice. Many complaints relating to VAW span the mandates of multiple Special Procedures, who work together to issue joint appeals.
- Learn about the work of Special Procedures and how to submit communications
- Many Special Procedures provide standard questionnaires for submitting communications (see more)
Case study: Joint appeal from Special Procedures to Lebanon
In March 2012, communication was sent to multiple Special Procedures regarding Alem Dechasa, “a 33-year-old Ethiopian migrant domestic worker [who] was repeatedly physically and sexually abused by her employer.” Ms. Dechasa had escaped only to be caught by her traffickers outside the Ethiopian Consulate and placed into detention by Lebanese police. Her attackers were not arrested. Tragically, Ms. Dechasa later committed suicide when she was transferred from the detention centre to a psychiatric hospital. On 2 April 2012, 6 thematic special procedures drafted a detailed appeal to Lebanon:
- Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences
- Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice
- Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
- Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children
- Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants
- Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery
Within the letter, the Special Procedures expressed concern for the information received regarding Ms. Dechasa’s situation and called attention to Lebanon’s obligations under international human rights law. These obligations included:
- Exercise due diligence in preventing, investigating and punishing acts of VAW; and developing penal, civil, labour and administrative sanctions in domestic legislation to punish and redress the wrongs caused to women who are subjected to violence (Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women)
- Integration of a gender perspective in the analysis of the position of female migrant workers; development of policies that counter discrimination, exploitation and abuse; protection and fulfilment of migrant workers’ right to equality and non-discrimination (General recommendation No. 26 + No. 28, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women)
- Protect and fulfil every individual’s right to freedom from torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment – which includes acts of gender-based violence, such as rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, and trafficking (Article 7, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; General Comment No. 20, Human Rights Committee; General Comment No. 2, Committee against Torture)
Prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons (Protocol to the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime) + reviewing and modifying policies that may compel people to resort to irregular and vulnerable labour migration (OHCHR, Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human rights and Trafficking)
Concluding their letter, the Special Procedures requested the details and results of any investigations relating to the case, any prosecutions due, and any reparations they intended to make to the victim’s family. They also informed the Lebanese government of their intention to publicise Ms. Deschasa’s case and requested a response within 60 days.
On 30 May 2012, Lebanon sent the first of three replies to the Special Procedures with detailed information about the case. In their final communication on 26 September 2012, they stated:
“On 10 May 2012 an ordinary law complaint from the appeals prosecution office in Beirut reached the office of the first instance criminal judge in Beirut charging the defendant Ali Mahfouz with the offence in article 564 of the Criminal Code (causing the death of a person through negligence or lack of care). On 19 September 2012, the case referred to was instituted before the first instance criminal judge in Beirut considering the ordinary law allegations.”
3. Expert seminars and consultations
Special Procedures may organise seminars or consultations on topics related to their mandate, to which civil society representatives may be invited or called upon to submit information. For example, in September 2007 the Special Rapporteur on torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, on strengthening the protection of women from torture (with support from the OHCHR) held an expert seminar on women and torture for United Nations and civil society representatives. The goal of the expert seminar was aimed at receiving input for an upcoming thematic report on ensuring the torture protection framework is applied in a gender-inclusive manner.
These meetings and consultations are listed on each Special Procedures webpage with specific instructions on civil society participation, how to submit information for consideration and deadlines for submission.
- Read the full 2008 report from the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Manfred Nowak
- Browse through some examples of seminars and consultations on the OHCHR webpage
Are there any Special Rapporteurs whose work is related to violence against women?
Yes. It is requested that all Special Rapporteurs “regularly and systematically to include in their reports available information on human rights violations against women” (see Commission on Human Rights, Resolution 1994/45). In addition to this, there are both thematic and country-specific Special Rapporteurs who specifically target VAW in their work. The Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences (SR-VAW), for example, has a thematic mandate specific to VAW (see our page on the SR-VAW’s work). Other Special Rapporteurs have VAW-related issues as part of their overall mandate or have incorporated VAW into the body of their work. We’ve listed some examples below: but the work of Special Procedures is now so extensive that it is always worthwhile to look at specific issues that you are dealing with to see how the gender perspective has been incorporated into some of the lesser-known mandates.
The Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (SR-Torture) frequently works with the SR-VAW. This position is mandated to transmit urgent appeals to states with regard to individuals reported to be at risk of torture, as well as communications on past alleged cases of torture, and undertake fact-finding country visits, which includes certain acts of VAW.
The SR-Torture has, together with the HRC, adopted the view that in many cases violence against women and girls constitutes torture. In addition to women and girls, the SR-Torture has also analysed the experiences of LGBTI persons, as all face discrimination related to their gender identity and/or sexual orientation which facilitates the practice of torture and ill-treatment. In 2016, the SR-Torture presented a report on this topic to the General Assembly, assessing:
“[5.]… the applicability of the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in international law to the unique experiences of women, girls, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and intersex persons. Historically, the torture and ill-treatment framework evolved largely in response to practices and situations that disproportionately affected men. The analysis has thus largely failed to have a gendered and intersectional lens, or to account adequately for the impact of entrenched discrimination, patriarchal, heteronormative and discriminatory power structures and socialized gender stereotypes. He highlights in the report how the torture and ill-treatment framework can be more effectively applied to qualify human rights violations committed against persons who transgress sexual and gender norms; identify gaps in prevention, protection, access to justice and remedies; and provide guidance to States on their obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of all persons to be free from torture and ill-treatment.”
To begin the analysis, the report opens with the inclusion of women, girls and LGBTI persons’ experiences into the torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment legal framework, and the state obligations that result from doing so:
9. Gender-based discrimination includes violence directed against or disproportionately affecting women (A/47/38). Prohibited conduct is often accepted by communities due to entrenched discriminatory perceptions while victims’ marginalized status tends to render them less able to seek accountability from perpetrators, thereby fostering impunity. Gender stereotypes play a role in downplaying the pain and suffering that certain practices inflict on women, girls, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. Furthermore, gender intersects with other factors and identities, including sexual orientation, disability and age, that may render a person more vulnerable to being subjected to torture and ill-treatment (general comment No. 2). Intersectional identities can result in experiencing torture and ill-treatment in distinct ways. The torture protection framework must be interpreted against the background of the human rights norms that have developed to combat discrimination and violence against women.
11. States must exercise due diligence to prohibit, prevent and redress torture and ill-treatment whenever there are reasonable grounds to believe that such acts are being committed by private actors. This includes an obligation to prevent, investigate and punish acts of violence against women (A/47/38). 2 Indifference or inaction by the State provides a form of encouragement and/or de facto permission (general comment No. 2). This principle applies to States’ failure to prevent and eradicate gender-based violence. States’ failure to protect against prohibited conduct and effectively investigate and prosecute violations suggests consent, acquiescence and, at times, even justification of violence. When States are aware of a pattern of violence or the targeting of specific groups by non-State actors, their due diligence obligations are likewise engaged and they are required actively to monitor and review data, apprise themselves of trends and respond appropriately.
12. In Opuz v. Turkey, the European Court of Human Rights found that discriminatory judicial passivity and unresponsiveness to domestic violence gave rise to impunity and a climate that was conducive to such gender-based violence, leading to a violation of the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment. Furthermore, when a State knows or should have known that a woman is in danger, it must take positive steps to ensure her safety, even when she hesitates in pursuing legal action (A/47/38). Women’s rights to life and physical and mental integrity cannot be superseded by other rights, such as those to property and privacy. States have a heightened obligation to protect vulnerable and marginalized individuals from torture.”
The report also focuses on the experiences of women, girls and LGBTI persons in detention, including shackling of women in labour and invasive body searches. The experiences of girls, and those detained because of their migration status, is highlighted. The report also looks at crimes which are often committed by non-state actors, such as trafficking, domestic violence, rape and harmful practices, including “honour” based violence, female genital mutilation, child and forced marriage. Even though they are committed by non-state actors, the state’s failure to prevent, investigate and prosecute such crimes makes each of these offenses a violation of the right not to be tortured.
Within the report there also is an important section on torture and ill-treatment in health-care settings:
- denial of access to abortion and related care
- forced and coerced sterilisation, and,
- for LGBT persons: “[denial] of medical treatment” and “[being] subjected to verbal abuse and public humiliation, psychiatric evaluations, forced procedures such as sterilization, ‘conversion’ therapy, hormone therapy and genital-normalizing surgeries under the guise of ‘reparative therapies’”
The Special Rapporteur notes that “[t]hese procedures are rarely, if ever, medically necessary, lead to severe and life-long physical and mental pain and suffering and can amount to torture and ill-treatment.” [para 48]
The report concludes with important comments on access to justice and reparation and detailed and progressive recommendations to states:
“65. Victims of gender-based violence face significant hurdles in accessing justice and reparations, including absence of or shortcomings in domestic legal frameworks to hold perpetrators accountable, and practical obstacles such as the significant expense involved in accessing courts. Stigma can be a factor associated with gender-based crimes, and victims may fear rejection by families and communities and encounter personnel who are not properly trained to respond to their needs. All victims must be granted access to effective judicial and administrative remedies. This entails the dismantling of discriminatory barriers and the provision of support to victims at all stages of the legal process.
66. Reparations must be premised on a full understanding of the gendered nature and consequences of the harm suffered and take existing gender inequalities into account to ensure that they are not themselves discriminatory (see A/HRC/14/22, para. 32). They must address the context of structural discrimination in which violations occurred and aim to provide both restitution and rectification.41 Reparations must have a transformative impact, addressing the underlying causes and consequences of violations, and offer continued protection for and respectful engagement with victims (A/HRC/14/22). As stipulated in the Nairobi Declaration on Women’s and Girls’ Right to a Remedy and Reparation, victims must be empowered to help determine what forms of reparation are best suited to their situation.”
Want more? Read the full 2016 report
In his earlier 2008 annual report, the SR-Torture, Manfred Nowak, also acknowledged that certain forms of VAW constitute torture and called for the legal framework to be applied in a gender-inclusive manner. In this report, he stated (emphasis added):
“The Special Rapporteur concluded that torture and ill-treatment can occur in different private contexts. He pointed to the striking parallels between “official” and “private” torture in terms of strategies, process and resulting trauma, and showed that State acquiescence can occur at different levels. In order to ensure a gender-inclusive approach to torture, the Special Rapporteur underlined the need to perceive it as a process. Mental trauma does not happen at one point in time, but needs to be put in context. With regard to sexual violence, stigma is a crucial element at all stages, starting from its humiliating intention as well as its impact which, apart from the often devastating physical and mental consequences, often entails exclusion from the family and/or community and can lead to outright destitution.”
Want more? Read the full 2008 report
In addition to general reports, the SR-Torture also investigates and issues recommendations on VAW during country visits. In a report issued following a country visit to Denmark, the SR-Torture noted:
“In light of the Special Rapporteur’s report to the Human Rights Council on using the anti-torture framework to strengthen the global campaign to end violence against women, he is pleased to note that the attention to domestic violence by the Government of Denmark has begun to show positive effects as the number of cases reported seems to have decreased.
…Finally, the Special Rapporteur recommends, as a priority for the Greenland Home Rule Government, that it develop and implement an adequately resourced plan of action against domestic violence in Greenland in cooperation with actors with relevant experience, such as the Ministry of Welfare and Gender Equality.
The Special Rapporteur acknowledges that Denmark’s particular practice of allowing male and female detainees to associate freely, based on the principle of normalization, is widely accepted in Danish society, including by female detainees. However, in light of international standards which advocate a segregation of the sexes and the risks of the practice of non-separation of men and women, he points to the need to rigorously ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place and that female detainees can freely decide whether or not they want to mix with men.”
The Special Rapporteur on the human rights aspects of the victims of trafficking in persons, especially women and children frequently works in cooperation with the SR-VAW and the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women. This mandate specifically calls for the “identification of gender- and age-specific vulnerabilities in relation to the issue of trafficking in persons”. This identification of gender-specific vulnerabilities covers all aspects of VAW that relate to trafficking. For example, in her 2007 report, the Special Rapporteur, Sigma Huda recommended that:
“…States amend their immigration legislation so that victims of forced marriages are not dependent upon their spouses for legal immigration status but can obtain residence permits independently of their continued relation to their husbands. Governments should recognize forced marriage, especially in the context of trafficking in persons, as a condition giving rise to a claim of asylum based on gender-related violence and other forms of human rights violations, and ensure that the women and girls concerned are not deported; “
The mandate for the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants specifically calls for special attention to be given “…to the occurrence of multiple forms of discrimination and violence against migrant women” in its work and reports.
Impunity for violations and abuses against women human rights defenders persists in every part of the world, due to inadequate reporting, lack of investigation, access to justice and social barriers. In 2010, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders focused on the risks and violations that women human rights defenders and those publicly working on women’s rights or gender issues face, as well as the perpetrators involved. In her annual report to the General Assembly, the Special Rapporteur makes many recommendations concerning violence against women human rights defenders, including that member states “Protect women defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues from violations perpetrated by state and non-state actors by acknowledging such violations and by offering effective security measures”.
The work of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders may be particularly important for users of this website, who have been threatened or are otherwise at risk for their actions to promote the rights of women and girls: particularly those who work on politically sensitive issues such as sexual or reproductive rights, or women’s right to equality irrespective of the claims of culture or religion.
“20. Approaching the criminal justice system from a gender perspective involves an analysis of its impact upon women and men and ensuring that women’s rights, perspectives and needs, as well as those of men, are systematically considered. Historically and globally, women have been underrepresented as actors in the criminal justice system, even if they constitute a large proportion of the victims of crimes and human rights violations and are disproportionately affected by gender-based violence and discrimination…”
In 2011 the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, submitted a report to the General Assembly on “Gender in the criminal justice system: the role of judges and lawyers”. This report addresses major obstacles to women’s access to justice, including the feminisation of poverty as well as laws, policies and practices that discriminate against women, and elaborates on the conditions required for the effective realisation of women’s rights to access to justice. Within the thematic cluster on gender and the judiciary, the report focuses on the conditions for developing a gender-sensitive judiciary, and the role of the judiciary in advancing women’s human rights.
In 2012, the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights submitted an annual report thematically focused on women. In it, she proposed a shift away from paradigms that suggest culture is an obstacle to women’s rights to one that seeks to remove the barriers that prevent women’s equal enjoyment of cultural rights. The report also referenced the work of the SR-VAW and recognised the isolation women face due to “fear of sexual harassment or violence and by social or religious ‘moral policing’”. In this regard, the Special Rapporteur recommended that states:
“Abolish or modify laws and regulations, policies and programmes that are based on, apply or sustain negative or harmful gender stereotypes, including through legislative measures and social policies and information and educational programmes”
In 2013, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Chaloka Beyani, delivered a thematic report to the General Assembly on the situation of internally displaced women. In this report, it was recommended that all member states:
“Ensure meaningful participation of Internally Displaced women and girls in the development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of laws, policies, programmes and activities that affect their lives at all stages of displacement, through ongoing and direct engagement in identifying priorities and devising and implementing responses to them”
Country-specific Rapporteurs also can address issues concerning VAW. In 2007 the SR-Myanmar worked with civil society to produce a report that called attention to Myanmar’s inadequate exercise of due diligence with regard to acts of VAW:
“In 2006, the Special Rapporteur received information about 30 cases of rape of Chin women. …. The Special Rapporteur is not aware of any initiatives by the Government of Myanmar to look into these serious human rights abuses with a view to identifying the perpetrators and bringing them to justice. The failure to investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for rape and sexual violence has contributed to an environment conducive to the perpetuation of violence against women and girls in Myanmar.”
Interested in submitting information to one of the Special Procedures? You can access a list of country-specific Special Rapporteurs, their mandates, and contact details online.
Are there any working groups that work on issues related to violence against women?
Yes, the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice (WG-Women) is mandated to:
- Develop a dialogue with states, the relevant United Nations entities, national human rights institutions, experts on different legal systems, and civil society organisations to identify, promote and exchange views on best practices related to the elimination of laws that discriminate against women or are discriminatory to women in terms of implementation or impact and, in that regard, to prepare a compendium of best practices
- Undertake a study, in cooperation with and reflecting the views of states and relevant United Nations entities, national human rights institutions and civil society organisations, on the ways and means in which the working group can cooperate with states to fulfil their commitments to eliminate discrimination against women in law and in practice
- Make recommendations on the improvement of legislation and the implementation of the law, to contribute to the realisation of the Millennium Development Goals, in particular goal 3 on the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women
In 2015, as per this mandate, the WG-Women published the best practices for states in all areas of removal of discrimination against women in against women in law and in practice. With regard to acts of VAW, the WG-Women recommended all states:
- Prohibit and punish domestic violence, including incest and marital rape, and provide measures to protect women and girls who are victims of such violence, such as protection orders and shelters;
- Respect, protect, fulfil and promote the right to gender equality in the family in the various types of legal system – secular family law systems, state-enforced religious family law systems and plural legal systems. The adoption of a family code or personal status laws free of any reference to culture or religion is encouraged;
- In countries where several legal systems coexist, establish and implement national mechanisms to ensure the effective implementation of guarantees of equality and non-discrimination between men and women in all areas and at all levels, offering women, especially rural and indigenous women, the possibility of removing themselves from the arbitral authority and jurisdiction of customary institutions. Bring parallel customary, religious and indigenous law systems into line with international human rights law, particularly in respect of gender equality, while acknowledging the importance of the wealth and diversity of culture and traditions. Grant women the right to appeal, in state courts, decisions of religious, customary or indigenous authorities, whether formal or informal, that have violated their right to equality;
- Make the formal state legal system accessible to all women, regardless of their social status, and address the shortcomings of the formal system. Formal justice should be preferred to informal justice for the settlement of all family matters, including those relating to sexual violence and domestic violence;
- Set up gender-awareness training for all state civil servants involved in education, health, social services, law enforcement and judicial decision-making. Include women, on an equal basis, in all bodies that interpret and apply family law.
Interested in submitting information to the WG-Women?