The Role of NGOs

September 17, 2009

The system of protection and promotion of human rights has since its beginnings been inconceivable without the work of NGOs. These organizations are a vital aspect of the global human rights struggle. Due to their nature of being decentralized and following their own set of priorities and agendas, they have proven to be capable of more effectively and speedily spreading the human rights message than most international organizations, which are associated with more bureaucratic and political constraints.[1] Through obtaining information and drafting reports, NGOs have been able to exert a huge amount of pressure on governments to change their policies which result in violations of human rights. However, the work of NGOs does not always necessarily create positive results solely within the bounds of the state. Through pressuring their own governments, some NGOs have brought about the creation of foreign economic policies that bear in mind the possibilities of violations of human rights in other states.[2]

The success of NGOs and INGOs in promoting and spreading human rights awareness throughout the world is very clear, especially in the post-Cold War period. The work of INGOs, such as Amnesty International, encompasses a range of activities based on preparing reports either on specific countries or on phenomena which affect many countries. INGOs “distribute these reports, provide the information in them to the media, and use the information to engage in lobbying or other forms of advocacy before national executive officials or legislatures and international organizations.”[3] They provide a critique of international and governmental agencies and take part in the drafting of international standards. However, their activities also include human rights education and the promotion of human rights awareness through various means.

There are NGOs and INGOs which deal with matters concerning economic, social and cultural rights. However, most NGOs and INGOs, including the most prominent ones, operate within the field of civil and political rights. It is the case that NGOs from developing countries tend to emphasize the relevance of economic, social and cultural rights more than NGOs in industrialized countries. Philip Alston, for example, criticizes Amnesty International for having spread a partial view of human rights that does not lie in conformity with the aspirations of the Universal Declaration.[4] He holds that although this has not been done intentionally, it is the result of the organisation’s determination to pursue what it sees as its main objectives. This may further lead to the view that Amnesty International pursues a distorted vision of the human rights ideal, one that may be even equated with cultural imperialism. Alston recognizes that NGOs have the right to focus on specific issues in the human rights field and that other NGOs can cover the economic, social and cultural rights issues that the main organizations tend to neglect.

Amnesty International has itself recognized this criticism and specifically addressed it in its 1998 Annual Report. In summarizing the achievements over the last fifty years, the report stresses that “for most people the rights in the UDHR are little more than a paper promise. A promise that has not been fulfilled for the 1.3 billion people who struggle to survive on less than US $1 a day…”[5]

It is very encouraging that Amnesty has recognised the need to raise awareness regarding economic, social and cultural rights. It has emphasized that the awareness of the imbalance between human rights is becoming more and more necessary with the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor. Moreover, it has denied the view that economic development necessarily implies the development of all individuals and brings a society closer to a just one by pointing out the negative aspects of unrestrained economic progress. Amnesty International is not alone in this, as many other NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch, have also expanded their scope of interest to include protection and promotion of economic, social and cultural rights.[6]

By lobbying for the equal treatment of all human rights, NGOs have the potentiality to greatly advance the realization of social justice. Apart from the possibility of educating the general public about the indivisibility of human rights, NGOs can exert great influence on the functioning of intergovernmental organizations. Their efforts for lobbying for economic, social and cultural rights have already been initiated in their appearances before such bodies as the Commission on Human Rights. In identifying debt as one of the sources of violations of economic, social and cultural rights, NGOs have urged the Commission to work for the cancellation of debt for the most indebted countries.[7]

The final report of the Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, The Realisation of Economic Social and Cultural Rights, of 1992, acknowledges that in light of new world developments, promotion of economic, social and cultural rights has become a great necessity. The report also makes recommendations to NGOs to strengthen their methods in raising the general awareness of the public concerning economic, social and cultural rights.[8] This would also imply promoting the active participation in the creation of policies which have impact on these rights. By promoting a vision of human rights that encompasses all rights equally, NGOs and civil society can achieve a shift in the way human rights violations are perceived. This shift in perception has already occurred to some extent and “has opened the door to holding other actors accountable and human rights are now regularly manifest in campaigns against corporations and multilateral banks.”[9]

[1] Steiner and Alston (eds.) International Human Rights in Context, 938.
[2] Ibid., 940.
[3] Ibid., 947.
[4] Philip Alston, ‘The Fortieth Anniversary of the Universal Declaration’, in Steiner and Alston (eds.), International Human Rights in Context, 970.
[5] Amnesty International, Annual Report (1998), [online]
[6] Philippe Demenet, ‘Economic Rights: the Big Comeback’, UNESCO Courier (November 2001), [online]
[7] United Nations Press Release, ‘Commission on Human Rights Hears Pleas for Debt Relief’, [online]
[8] Danilo Turk, Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, ‘The Realization of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Final Report’, UN Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1992/16.
[9] Chris Jochnick, ‘The Human Rights Challenge to Global Poverty’ (1999), [online]

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