FAQs: United Nations Special Rapporteurs

Document Date: April 29, 2007

What are U.N. Special Rapporteurs?
Special Rapporteurs (“SRs”) are independent experts appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council (formerly the U.N. Commission on Human Rights) with the mandate to monitor, advise and publicly report on human rights situations in specific countries (country mandates) and on human rights violations worldwide (thematic mandates). The thematic mandates cover a wide range of issues relating to civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, including the human rights of migrants, violence against women, the rights of internally displaced persons, freedom of religion and arbitrary detention, among many others.

What do Special Rapporteurs do?
The functions of Special Rapporteurs include responding to individual complaints, conducting studies, providing advice on technical cooperation and undertaking country visits to assess specific human rights situations. Most Special Rapporteurs also receive information on specific allegations of human rights violations and send urgent appeals or letters of allegation to governments asking for clarification and concrete measures to end rights violations.

In what sense are Special Rapporteurs ‘independent’? What is their relationship to the United Nations?
While the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations provides the Special Rapporteurs with the personnel and logistical assistance necessary for them to carry out their mandates, Special Rapporteurs nonetheless serve in their personal capacity, and do not receive salaries or any other financial retribution for their work. The SRs are expected to fulfill tasks that are outlined in specific U.N. resolutions, but their independent status is crucial for them to be able to fulfill their functions in all impartiality. Special Rapporteurs are prominent human rights experts from various walks of life. They include academics, lawyers, economists, and former and current members of NGOs and come from all regions of the world.

What can be achieved through country visits by Special Rapporteurs?
Amongst their activities, SRs carry out country visits at their request and at the invitation of the country concerned. Country visits are considered a particularly important means by which to highlight human rights violations in a particular country and in placing pressure on the government to remedy the situation. They enable the SR to familiarize him or herself with all aspects of the situation on the ground, and are an excellent way of analyzing and understanding a situation in the light of every possible circumstance. A country visit usually lasts about 2–3 weeks, during which SRs interact with both governmental and non-governmental actors, including human rights and civil liberties organizations, victims of human rights violations, affected communities, the concerned government officials and agencies at both the national and local level. These visits usually require freedom of inquiry, including access to relevant facilities, such as prisons and detention centers. The SRs then submit a report of their visit to the Human Rights Council, presenting their findings, conclusions and recommendations.

What is the specific mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants?
The mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants was created in 1999 by the Commission on Human Rights (replaced last year by the U.N. Human Rights Council) to “examine ways and means to overcome the obstacles existing to the full and effective protection of the human rights of migrants, including obstacles and difficulties for the return of migrants who are undocumented or in an irregular situation.” The SR’s broad mandate includes the human rights of both documented and undocumented migrants, including issues of ‘irregular migration,’ such as smuggling, trafficking, and asylum seekers.

What are the main functions of the SR on the Human Rights of Migrants?
The main functions of the SR on the Human Rights of Migrants include requesting and receiving information from all relevant sources, including migrants, regarding violations of the human rights of migrants and their families; formulating recommendations to prevent and remedy such violations; promoting the application of international human rights norms and standards; and recommending actions and measures at the national, regional and international levels. The SR must also take into account a gender perspective when analyzing human rights violations of migrants, including the occurrence of double discrimination and violence against migrant women.

Who is the current Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants?
Since 2005, the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants has been Mr. Jorge Bustamante, a Mexican national. Mr. Bustamante is a Professor of sociology teaching international migration and human rights at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana and was the Chairman/Rapporteur for the group of experts on the U.N. world study on International Migration and Human Rights from 1996 to 1999. Mr. Bustamante replaced Gabriela Rodríguez Pizarro of Costa Rica, who had held the mandate since 1999. His biography can be found at

Why is the ACLU involved in the SR’s visit to the U.S.? I thought the ACLU was a domestic civil liberties organization.
The ACLU is the nation’s largest civil liberties organization, and is committed to defending and preserving the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution, laws and treaties of the United States, including those of immigrants and migrants. It is important for the ACLU to participate in the visit of the S.R. to the U.S. to hold the government accountable for human rights violations and to send a message to the rest of the world that abuses against migrants within the United States will not be tolerated.

Furthermore, the ACLU, through its Human Rights Program, has been working to incorporate international human rights strategies into various aspects of its work. The ACLU has been successful, together with other NGOs, in highlighting human rights violations taking place in the U.S. by using various U.N. human rights mechanisms. For further information, visit the Human Rights Program webpage at /

Are migrants and immigrants the same thing or is there a difference?
While the term immigrant is often used to describe persons who abandon their native country and immigrate to another place with the intention to settle and become an integral part of the new country through permanent residency or citizenship, the term migrant is used more broadly to describe persons who move to a new country, usually seeking job opportunities, regardless of their intent to become residents or citizens of that country.

Why does the ACLU work on behalf of migrants?
Since its founding in 1920 the ACLU has worked to protect the constitutional rights of immigrants, recognizing that the lack of citizenship makes immigrants among the most vulnerable members of our society.

The Constitution’s guarantees of “due process” and “equal protection” under the law apply to all “persons,” in contrast with other constitutional guarantees that apply only to “citizens.” As the Supreme Court has recognized, the deliberately broad term “person” encompasses everyone in the U.S., including immigrants without legal status. Furthermore, the Constitution protects foreigners from discrimination based on race, national origin and from arbitrary treatment by the government regardless of immigration status. The U.S. must also abide by internationally recognized norms for the treatment of migrants.

What are the main areas of concern for the ACLU when it comes to conditions of migrants?
The ACLU is particularly concerned about due process for immigrants and migrants at the federal, state and local levels; detention of immigrants awaiting deportation; local and state policies that are preempted by federal law and target immigrants because of what they look or sound like; racial profiling; violations of labor and employment laws that take advantage of immigrants based on their immigration status; violations of the Fourth Amendment regarding illegal searches during the course of immigration enforcement and other related human rights violations that occur on the US-Mexico border.

How has the ACLU been involved in the visit to the U.S. of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants?
Together with other human-rights NGOs and grassroots-level organizations, the ACLU has provided the SR with a proposed list of issues to be addressed during his visit and will organize public hearings and meetings for the SR with affected communities, victims of human rights violations, and governmental authorities at the state and local level. NGOs will also provide briefing papers and materials to the SR on issues ranging from detention and deportation, workers’ rights and racial profiling to raids and trafficking of women and children.

What sort of impact can such a visit have on the situation of migrants in the United States?
The visit of the SR is a good opportunity for NGOs, including the ACLU, to raise national awareness and to shine international spotlight on the human rights violations of migrants in the United States. The SR visit to the U.S. is also an opportunity to offer good solutions, share good human rights practices and policies which would significantly improve the conditions of migrants. While the SR report and recommendations on his visit to the U.S. are not legally binding, they still carry moral authority and obligation in terms of the U.S. commitment to universal human rights standards, very often asserted by the U.S. in its foreign relations with other nations. In the conclusions and recommendations provided by the Special Rapporteur, pressure may be applied on the U.S. government to rectify the situation and meet universally recognized standards of fairness, due process and minimum respect to the human rights of migrants.

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