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Voices for Social Justice: The UN Special Procedures


A dialogue with Magdalena Sepúlveda, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights and Olivier de Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

On 22 October 2013, CESR and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute hosted a conversation with Dr. Magdalena Sepúlveda, Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, and Professor Olivier de Schutter, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.  With most of the current mandate holders focusing on economic, social and cultural rights due to complete their terms in 2014, the discussion was a timely opportunity for civil society organizations, practitioners, academics and students to share views on how these unique mechanisms can better achieve their goals. 

The special procedures of the UN Human Rights Council are independent experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective. Though somewhat concealed by the bland title, the special rapporteurs play a dynamic role, pushing boundaries—in normative, political, methodological and relational terms—especially in the area of economic and social rights. 

First, special rapporteurs occupy a unique position of political influence. As Prof. de Schutter said, they negotiate relationships with civil society organizations, policy makers, and researchers. The role involves engaging with all three sides of the triangle, but primarily he said it required “acting as a diplomat” to influence governments.  Prof. de Schutter proposed that, while it is tempting to ‘name and shame’, a more effective strategy is to understand the motivations of governments and demonstrate how fulfilling human rights obligations is in their interest.

Secondly, both rapporteurs emphasized that to become trusted independent experts rigorous research and analysis is vital.  Their success depends on establishing a reputation for producing reliable, independent reports that states will use and civil society will propagate.  Prof. de Schutter pointed to the OPERA framework, developed by CESR, as a recognized methodology for assessing whether states are meeting economic and social rights obligations.  Dr. Sepúlveda added that a consultative approach has been essential to her methodology.

Thirdly, both rapporteurs have gained strength from building a symbiotic relationship with civil society.  Dr. Sepúlveda pointed out that the scale of her impact depends on civil society, who she relies on to amplify and broadcast her messages to a wider audience.  Prof. de Schutter pointed out that it is important not to be seen as a “spokesperson for social movements”, in order to maintain legitimacy as ‘independent experts’ in the eyes of states, however.  At the same time, their autonomy means that special rapporteurs can speak in a less restrained manner than other UN agencies.

Finally, while the special rapporteurs’ functions are defined in the Human Rights Council resolutions that establish their mandates, both Dr. Sepúlveda and Prof. de Schutter succeeded in bringing controversial issues closer to the mainstream.  Both rapporteurs have been strategic in deploying the language of human rights to achieve change. For example, they worked together to push forward social protection as a matter of global priority.

Looking to the future, the normative influence of the special rapporteurs is apparent in the changing nature of the discourse.  Dr. Sepúlveda pointed out that human rights, at least in rhetoric, now occupies a central place in the discussions on what will replace the Millennium Development Goals after their expiry in 2015.  Special rapporteurs’ reports and other contributions to ‘soft law’ on human rights have contributed to that shift.