Working Group on Arbitrary Detention


The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention is one of the thematic special procedures overseen by the United Nations Human Rights Council. It focuses on arbitrary detention, including instances in which States imprison or otherwise detain individuals in a manner not allowed by law or without respecting due process guarantees. Its work involves investigating individual cases of arbitrary detention, as well as situations where country conditions have prompted more widespread occurrences of arbitrary detention. The Working Group also deliberates on issues related to arbitrary detention in order to help States avoid making a practice of arbitrary detention. Communicating with governments through urgent appeals and communications allows the Working Group to address information received about individual cases of detention.


The Working Group is composed of five independent experts and holds three sessions per year, with each session lasting between five and eight working days. The mandate of the Working Group lasts for a period of three years.

The UN Commission on Human Rights established the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in 1991 with Resolution 1991/42. It extended and clarified the Working Group’s mandate in 1997 with Resolution 1997/50. In 2010 and 2013, the Human Rights Council extended the mandate with Resolutions 15/18 and 24/7, respectively.

In fulfilling its mandate, the Working Group may undertake country visits, decide individual complaints of arbitrary detention, investigate specific cases, submit urgent appeals to States, adopt “deliberations” providing guidance on the interpretation of international standards applicable to different detention scenarios, and prepare activity reports for the Human Rights Council.

Country Visits

The Working Group generally undertakes two to four visits to different countries each year, on the basis of an invitation from the State concerned. Past reports of the Working Group on its country visits can be viewed here.

The Working Group conducts country visits, for several purposes. First, they provide an opportunity to engage in direct dialogue with the government and civil society. This interchange is important because it helps the Working Group understand the prevailing conditions that might encourage the practice of arbitrary detentions in the country and, conversely, the best practices for preventing arbitrary detentions.

Second, country visits allow the Working Group to meet not only with government and other officials, but also with detainees.

Lastly, country visits enable the Working Group to consider the evolution, application, and implementation of national law in light of international human rights norms within the specific context of the country. The Working Group reports to the Human Rights Council on the results of its country visits.

More than 100 countries have extended standing invitations to country visits by all thematic special procedures. View the list of countries that have extended standing invitations here.

Individual Complaints

The Working Group is the only non-treaty-based UN human rights mechanism to investigate and decide individual complaints. The individual complaint system allows for information to be brought to the Working Group’s attention about potentially arbitrary deprivations of liberty. Fact Sheet No. 26 identifies specific criteria to help determine if a detention is arbitrary.

In response to information about alleged cases of arbitrary detention, the Working Group may take one of two actions. It might investigate the individual case and make a decision concerning the alleged violation, or it might submit an urgent appeal to the State.

Investigation of Individual Cases

Investigations of individual cases generally begin with the Working Group being contacted by the individual in detention, their family, their representatives, or a nongovernmental organization. A model questionnaire is available at the Working Group’s webpage for this purpose. After receiving a complaint, the Working Group then sends a communication to the government concerned inviting the government to respond to the allegations within 60 days. Next, the government’s reply gets transmitted to the source of the allegations for final comments or observations.

Following the information-collection stage, the Working Group adopts one of several measures depending on the information obtained. The Working Group might, for example, decide that the case is not one of arbitrary detention and issue a decision to that effect. It might, on the other hand, find that an arbitrary detention has occurred and render an opinion to that effect and make recommendation to the government. If the Working Group requires additional information before making a decision, it might keep the case pending until it receives that information.

The Working Group publishes its opinions in an addendum to its annual report to the Human Rights Council.

Urgent Appeals

The urgent appeals procedure is reserved for cases in which there are sufficiently reliable allegations that a person may be arbitrarily detained and that the situation is time-sensitive in terms of loss of life, life-threatening situations, or imminent or ongoing damage of a grave nature.

This procedure involves the Working Group sending an urgent appeal to the government through diplomatic means, asking the government to take appropriate measures to ensure that the detained person’s rights are respected. The Working Group is careful to communicate to the government that its decision to send an urgent appeal will not affect the Group’s assessment of whether or not an arbitrary detention actually took place, until the Group already determined that the detention was arbitrary.

Special procedures’ communications, including the Working Group’s urgent appeals, are compiled in periodic reports submitted to the UN Human Rights Council at each of its sessions.


Another function of the Working Group is to adopt deliberations on issues related to the arbitrary deprivation of liberty. These deliberations serve the purpose of setting standards for preventing the practice of arbitrary detention from forming. In particular, the Working Group identifies specific criteria for recognizing when detention becomes arbitrary. Past deliberations include the deprivation of freedom for purposes of rehabilitation through labor, the detention of immigrants and asylum-seekers, and psychiatric detention. Please visit the Working Group’s webpage to access its entire list of deliberations.

Reports to the Human Rights Council

The Working Group reports annually to the Human Rights Council on all of its activities relating to its mandate. These reports are available on the Working Group’s Annual Reports webpage.


To request the Working Group’s consideration of an individual case or to request that the Working Group launch an urgent appeal, send a communication by:

  • Mail:

Working Group on Arbitrary Detention
c/o Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
United Nations Office at Geneva
8-14, Avenue de la Paix
1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

  • Fax: +41 22 9179006

Communications concerning individual complaints should be accompanied by the Working Group’s model questionnaire, or include the information requested on that form.

Urgent appeal requests should be sent by fax or email for more timely receipt and consideration.