Catalysts for Change: How the UN’s Independent Experts Promote Human Rights

By Ted Piccone Brookings Institution Press, 2012.

Reviewed by Ryan Kaminski* and A. Edward Elmendorf *

Ted Piccone’s Catalysts for Change: How the UN’s Independent Experts Promote Human Rights provides an introduction to and analysis of the impact the United Nations’ over forty country-specific and thematic human rights “special procedures.”1 According to the United Nations, “Special procedures are either an individual (called ‘Special Rapporteur’ or ‘Independent Expert’) or a working group usually composed of five members (one from each region). The mandates of the special procedures are established and defined by the resolution creating them.”2 Special procedures also basically work for free, receiving no salary for their work. In focusing on special procedures, Piccone sets out to accomplish two goals. First, he provides a comprehensive assessment of the impact of such mechanisms on the practical realization of human rights; second, he strives to aid “policymakers, legislators, and the general public to make more informed decisions concerning” the UN human rights regime.

Catalysts for Change provides an invaluable and long-overdue analysis not only of the ground-level efficacy of special procedures but also of the challenges these instruments face within and outside of the UN. Piccone’s pioneering work on a subject for which no previous methodologically rigorous study exists has important implications for a wide audience, from those seeking to understand an increasingly critical component of the UN human rights system to those on the frontlines advocating for responsible governmental engagement with the UN. Piccone demonstrates how these special procedures have progressively become the “bricks and the mortar” of the wider UN human rights system.

Piccone anchors his study with a broad and accessible history of the inception and growth of the UN special procedure system. Describing the establishment of what was the first special procedure in 1967, he lays out how the system gradually evolved over decades into the intricate and crosscutting architecture that former UN Secretary- General Kofi Annan has called the “crown-jewel” of the human rights system. For instance, Piccone identifies how the UN Human Rights Commission—replaced by the Human Rights Council in 2006—originally operated under UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) instructions and had “no power to take any action with regard to any complaints regarding human rights.” This changed in 1967 when the Commission was empowered by ECOSOC Resolution 1235 to “examine information relevant to gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Since that time, the UN special procedure system has expanded to encompass thematic mandates like the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances as well as country- specific mandates like the Special Rapporteur on North Korea, among many others.

These special procedure mandate holders maintain an extremely diverse array of responsibilities, normally without compensation from the UN, including: country visits; communication with persons alleging human rights violations; allegation letters and urgent appeals to states; summary reports submitted to the Human Rights Council or General Assembly; and joint or individual press statements and press conferences.

Given the breadth of these mandate holders’ jobs, one of the most critical contributions of Catalysts for Change is its groundbreaking, painstaking, and comprehensive analysis of country visits and written communications between mandate holders and governments. As a part of the study, Piccone and his co-researchers undertook fieldwork as well as written and oral interviews with “nearly 30 current and former mandate holders and over 200 Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) staff, governmental officials, NGO representatives, and independent experts.” The team also made use of a survey with “more than a dozen questions relating to special procedures’ activities.” Finally, Piccone and his team formulated a five-tiered system of categorizing state responses to more than five thousand communications from nineteen thematic special procedures mandate holders sent to over 140 countries from 2004 to 2008. This methodology involved labeling responses from governments as “violation rejected with substantiation,” “steps taken to address allegation,” “responsive but incomplete,” or “immaterial response.”

Among his many conclusions, Piccone observes that “in general, states have made modest but important progress toward implementing the recommendations special procedures mandate holders make after a country visit.” Furthermore, Piccone notes that “by most accounts, they [special procedures] have played a critical role in shaping the content of international human rights norms, shedding light on how states comply with such norms, and advancing measures to improve respect for them.”

While Piccone notes that it is incredibly difficult to establish an absolute causal relation- ship between a special rapporteur visit or communication and any subsequent human rights-related achievement, the examples presented in Catalysts for Change provide convincing evidence that special procedure country visits and written communications have had substantive results. In April 2008, for example, the Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Expression, Housing, and Human Rights Defenders disseminated a joint letter to Brazil’s government on behalf of a demonstrator who was attacked while pro- testing a dam project. Six months later, the government responded that the attacker had been indicted and that the protestor had received medical aid.

This and other examples—including communications with the governments of Bahrain, Egypt, and India—are supplemented by a wide-ranging annex documenting practical progress achieved as a result of the special procedure system. In another case in the annex, an appeal sent by the Special Rapporteur on Migrant Workers to the government of Panama urged the release from detention of nineteen migrant workers. Within three days, the workers were released. Moreover, in May 2008, five special procedures sent an urgent appeal to Saudi Arabia regarding a prominent human rights defender. In January 2009, the person was released after having spent more than six months in solitary confinement.

Through these examples, Catalysts for Change humanizes the work of special procedures mandate holders. This is a step toward deconstructing the critique widely held within U.S. policy circles that UN officials are nothing more than distant bureaucrats immersed in the opulence of New York City and Geneva. The picture Piccone provides details the work of individuals working essentially pro bono to advance and defend universal human rights where it is needed most: “Dramatically underresourced and faced with a host of external and at times self-imposed challenges, these dedicated independent experts nonetheless carry out the unheralded legwork that the system has come to depend on for credible reporting and advice.”

Piccone finds that since 2005, the UN’s special procedures mandate holders have conducted an average of over fifty country visits per year. Catalysts for Change also lists the rates at which states within each region respond to written communications from mandate holders, observing that, on average, governments take 124 days to respond. Piccone estimates that 58.6 percent of communications received no response from governments. He also provides evidence that despite the high volume of work, the process is relatively inexpensive. In 2010, the OHCHR reported that it spent only $13 million on special procedures, and the UN’s annual human rights activity consumes less than three percent of its budget.

Piccone is also refreshingly honest and upfront about shortcomings and obstacles in the special procedures system. One such challenge is uneven cooperation, particularly with developing countries acutely sensitive to external criticism such as Zimbabwe and Cuba. There is also an ongoing lack of resources from member states for special procedures to complete their work, a lack of baseline training for mandate holders and, perhaps most importantly, the absence of a formal follow-up system to supplement special procedure reports, observations, and recommendations. Organizational, procedural, and institutional challenges and difficulties related to the interplay of special procedures with the OHCHR are also presented in a clear and balanced manner.

Catalysts for Change would be even stronger if it contained a clear prioritization of recommendations for improving the special procedures system. While Piccone offers numerous common-sense recommendations for enhancing the system, a roadmap would elucidate the order in which reforms should happen. Piccone lays the ground- work for such a prioritization by noting that “at the top of the list [is] institutionalizing follow-up and implementation of their recommendations,”but a more in-depth prioritization of potential process improvements would be useful. In any case, his articulation of innovative reforms to improve and enhance the special procedures system could very well accomplish much in providing both policy makers and scholars options for reforming a mechanism that has become increasingly integral to the work of the UN.

Additionally, Piccone’s approach to labeling written communications would benefit from an analysis of how certain cultural or social norms may influence language appearing in governments’ responses to mandate holders. For example, some governments may be less likely to respond directly to rapporteur criticisms and may be more apt to employ indirect or understated language. While this should not excuse those governments which tend to submit “immaterial responses” or “responsive but incomplete” correspondence to special rapporteurs, this layer of additional analysis could potentially provide an unexpected nuance to Piccone’s conclusions.

Nevertheless, Piccone pointedly observes that not receiving an official response from a government does not necessarily mean that no governmental action was taken following a communication or that a special procedure’s country visit had no impact. In fact, Piccone shows that some governments have acted without officially declaring so to special procedures mandate holders.

The very existence of the special procedures system almost certainly can encourage activists and human rights defenders around the world, regardless of the outcome of individual interventions. Consequently, caution is needed in any endeavor to assign credit in a strictly linear fashion for the interventions of special procedures mandate holders.3

Catalysts for Change represents an important analytical contribution to the debate about the UN human rights system, particularly within the United States. Piccone achieves his stated objectives of making a grounded assessment of UN special procedures and providing useful information for policy makers and academics. According to Piccone, “the special procedures mechanism represents one of the most effective tools of the international human rights system and deserves further strengthening and support.” After reading his comprehensive, well-documented analysis, we agree.

*Ryan Kaminski is the 2012-2013 United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA- USA) Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow. Kaminski is also a former Fulbright teaching fellow and has worked as a research associate within the Council on Foreign Relations’ International Institutions and Global Governance program. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

*A. Edward Elmendorf has been actively involved in international organizations for more than forty years. As a U.S. Foreign Service officer, he participated in U.S. delegations to the UN on human rights issues, including the concluding negotiations and General Assembly adoption of the Human Rights Covenants. Since retiring from the World Bank, he has taught courses on health issues in developing countries at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced and International Studies in Washington, DC and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore. He has served in a number of voluntary and elected positions in UNA, including as President of the UNA National Capital Area Division (UNA- NCA), member of UNA-USA Board of Directors, and President and CEO of UNA-USA. 

View this book review as a PDF

– Jake Nelson served as Lead Editor for this book review. 

1  At the publication of Catalysts for Change there was a total of forty-five special procedures. The number, as of January 2013, has since increased to forty-eight: thirty-six thematic and twelve country specific.
2  “Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council.” United Nations Webpage. Accessed January 8, 2013. Available:
3  For additional analysis on linear investigations see: A. Edward Elmendorf, “The Human Rights Council Gets More Respect,” PassBlue, September 14, 2012. Available at: more-respect/ Last accessed November 1, 2012.

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