This article evaluates the role of United Nations special rapporteurs through a systematic study of the perspectives of mandate-holders. Qualitative interviews with current and former rapporteurs and their assistants reveal that three central tensions inherent in the rapporteur’s task give the rapporteur room for individual experimentation. First, the tension between UN affiliation and independent status allows the rapporteur to determine his/her orientation toward the UN. Secondly, the tension between competing obligations to treat sovereign states as partners and as adversaries forces the rapporteur to develop innovative strategies to address national sovereignty. Thirdly, the tension between the universal scope of thematic mandates and the impossibility of realising that scope enables the rapporteur to travel between specific contexts and international norms. The unparalleled autonomy afforded by the position enables rapporteurs to define rights in real time, responding to situations as they unfold rather than after the fact. For that reason, any reform of the special procedures system should preserve the role’s unique features. Rather than expend political will on ambitious structural changes, reform advocates should focus on increasing funding, resources, and pressure on states to cooperate.
Naples-Mitchell, Joanna. The International Journal of Human Rights. Vol. 15, No. 2, 232–248, February 2011.