Human Rights Activism and the Role of NGOs
"Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels."
Article 1, UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders]
The term non-governmental or non-profit is normally used to cover the range of organisations which go to make up civil society. Such organisations are characterised, in general, by having as the purpose of their existence something other than financial profit. However, this leaves a huge multitude of reasons for existence and a wide variety of enterprises and activities. NGOs range from small pressure groups on, for example, specific environmental concerns or specific human rights violations, through educational charities, women's refuges, cultural associations, religious organisations, legal foundations, humanitarian assistance programmes – and the list could continue – all the way to the huge international organisations with hundreds or even thousands of branches or members in different parts of the world.
In this section, we look briefly at the significant role that such organisations have had, and continue to have, in the protection of human rights throughout the world. At nearly every level of the different attempts to preserve the dignity of individual citizens when this is threatened by the power of the state, NGOs play a crucial role in:
- fighting individual violations of human rights either directly or by supporting particular ‘test cases' through relevant courts
- offering direct assistance to those whose rights have been violated
- lobbying for changes to national, regional or international law
- helping to develop the substance of those laws
- promoting knowledge of, and respect for, human rights among the population.
The contribution of NGOs is important not only in terms of the results that are achieved, and therefore for the optimism that people may feel about the defence of human rights in the world, but also because NGOs are, in a very direct sense, tools that are available to be used by individuals and groups throughout the world. They are managed and co-ordinated – as many organisations are – by private individuals, but they also draw a large part of their strength from other members of the community offering voluntary support to their cause. This fact gives them great significance for those individuals who would like to contribute to the improvement of human rights in the world.
The 1993 UN World Conference on Human Rights – known as the Vienna Conference – was attended by 841 NGOs from throughout the world, all of which described themselves as working with a human rights mission. Though an impressive figure in itself, this actually represented only a tiny fraction of the total number of human rights NGOs active in the world.
Most self-professed "human rights organisations" tend to be engaged in the protection of civil and political rights. The best known of such organisations, at least on the international stage, include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Federation for Human Rights, Human Rights First and Interights. However, as we have seen, civil and political rights are just one category of the many different human rights recognised by the international community, and new rights are continuing to emerge, even today. When we take this into account and consider the NGOs active in countering poverty, violence, racism, health problems, homelessness and environmental concerns, to name just a few, the actual number of NGOs engaged in human rights protection, in one form or another, runs into the hundreds of thousands throughout the world.
Question: Do you know of any NGOs fighting for human rights in your country?
NGOs may attempt to engage in the protection of human rights at various different stages or levels, and the strategies they employ will vary according to the nature of their objectives – their specificity or generality; their long-term or short-term nature; their local, national, regional or international scope, and so on.
a. Direct assistance
It is particularly common for NGOs working on social and economic rights to offer some form of direct service to those who have been victims of human rights violations. Such services may include forms of humanitarian assistance, protection or training to develop new skills. Alternatively, where the right is protected by law, they may include legal advocacy or advice on how to present claims.
In many cases, however, direct assistance to the victim of a violation or a human rights defender is either not possible or does not represent the best use of an organisation's resources. On such occasions, and this probably represents the majority of cases, NGOs need to take a longer term view and to think of other ways either of rectifying the violation or of preventing similar occurrences from happening in the future.
b. Collecting accurate information
If there is a fundamental strategy lying at the base of the different forms of NGO activism, it is perhaps the idea of attempting to "show up" the perpetrators of injustice. Governments are very often able to shirk their obligations under the international treaties, or other rights standards, that they have signed up to because the impact of their policies is simply not known to the general public. Collecting such information and using it to promote transparency in the human rights record of governments is essential in holding them to account and is frequently used by NGOs.
They attempt to put pressure on people or governments by identifying an issue that will appeal to people's sense of injustice and then making it public.
Two of the best known examples of organisations that are reputed for their accurate monitoring and reporting are Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Both of these organisations possess authority not only among the general public but also at the level of the UN, where their reports are taken into account as part of the official process of monitoring governments that have agreed to be bound by the terms of international treaties.
c. Campaigning and lobbying
International actors often engage in campaigning and advocacy in order to bring about a policy change. Again, there are numerous forms, and an NGO will try to adopt the most appropriate one, given the objectives it has in mind, the nature of its "target", and of course, its own available resources. Some common practices are outlined below.
- Letter-writing campaigns are a method that has been used to great effect by Amnesty International and other NGOs. People and organisations "bombard" government officials with letters from thousands of its members all over the world.
- Street actions or demonstrations, with the media coverage that these normally attract, may be used when organisations want to enlist the support of the public or to bring something to the public eye in order to 'name and shame' a government.
- The media will frequently play an important part in lobbying practices, and social media and the Internet are now assuming an increasingly significant role.
- Shadow reports are submitted to UN human rights monitoring bodies to give an NGO perspective of the real situation regarding the enjoyment of human rights in a particular country.
In addition to demonstrations of support or public outrage, NGOs may also engage in private meetings or briefings with officials. Sometimes the mere threat of bringing something to the public eye may be enough to change a policy or practice, as in the story below. Whilst this used to be mobilised, at one time, through tapes, posters and faxes, it is now mobilised through email campaigns and petitions, internet sites, blogs and electronic social networks.
In general, the greater the backing from the public or from other influential actors (for example, other governments), the more likely is it that a campaign will achieve its objectives. Even if they do not always use this support directly, NGOs can ensure that their message is heard simply by indicating that a large popular movement could be mobilised against a government or many governments.
Question: Have there been any high profile campaigns in your country? What was the outcome?
d. Human rights education and awareness
Many human rights NGOs also include, at least as part of their activities, some type of public awareness or educational work. Realising that the essence of their support lies with the general public, NGOs will often try to bring greater knowledge of human rights issues to members of the public. A greater knowledge of these issues and of the methods of defending them is likely to engender a greater respect and this, in turn, will increase the likelihood of being able to mobilise support in particular instances of human rights violations. It is that support, or potential support, that lies at the base of the success of the NGO community in improving the human rights environment.
Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE)
This human rights organisation was established in 1994 in order to work for the protection of housing rights and the prevention of forced evictions around the world. COHRE utilises the international human rights law understanding of "housing" as implying more than a roof over one's head. COHRE emphasises that "roughly half of the world's population does not currently have access to adequate housing that is guaranteed to them under international human rights law". In ensuring the protection of adequate housing rights, COHRE and its partners around the world provide analysis, advocacy, public education, training and litigation work in relation to:
- forced evictions
- security of tenure
- access to land
- water and sanitation
- women and housing rights
- litigation and legal advocacy
- restitution and return
- the impact of mega events on housing rights.
In a recent landmark decision in November 2010, in COHRE v. Italy, the Council of Europe's Committee of Social Rights (supervising the Revised European Social Charter) found Italy to have violated the rights of its Roma population due to the destruction of Roma camps and the eviction and expelling of Roma from Italy. These mass expulsions of non-Italian Roma who are citizens of other EU states had increased dramatically after 2008. Violations were found in relation to: discrimination and violations of the rights of Roma people to adequate housing; social, legal and economic protection; protection against poverty and social exclusion; and the right of migrant Roma families to protection and assistance. Italy's policies and practices, which leave Roma residents living in segregated and grossly inadequate housing conditions, were also criticised.
Article 31 – The right to housing
With a view to ensuring the effective exercise of the right to housing, the Parties undertake to take measures designed:
- to promote access to housing of an adequate standard
- to prevent and reduce homelessness with a view to its gradual elimination
- to make the price of housing accessible to those without adequate resources. Eu European Social Charter (revised), 1996]
Environmental concerns in Switzerland
Between 1961 and 1976, several large chemical giants dumped more than 114,000 tons of toxic industrial chemical waste in the former clay pit of Bonfol in Switzerland. Although it would be illegal to dump the waste today, in 1961, when the landfill site was started, the law did not prohibit such landfills. The toxic waste remained at the site and continued to contaminate surrounding communities and the environment with a mixture of organic and inorganic pollutants.
On May 14 2000, around 100 Greenpeace activists occupied the Bonfol chemical landfill site, near Basel, Switzerland, demanding that the chemical companies that dumped toxic waste at the site take full responsibility for cleaning it up. The activists declared that they would occupy the site until the chemical companies committed themselves to cleaning it up in a manner that would not pose any further risk to human health or the environment.
Occupation of the landfill forced the chemical industry to meet with community representatives and with Greenpeace and, as a result, the chemical industry finally signed an agreement to complete a clean-up study by February 2001 and to start the clean-up process in 2001. The industry also agreed to involve the local communities and environmental organisations fully in the clean-up and to inform the local communities about the ground water and drinking water pollution resulting from the dump. On July 7th 2001, Greenpeace ended their occupation of the chemical dumpsite.
Countering Discrimination – The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC)
ERRC works to ensure that the human rights issues facing Romani communities are firmly on the political agenda in Europe and beyond. The ERRC's meticulous research has provided ongoing detailed information about the human rights situation of the Roma, particularly the violence they face, structural forms of discrimination against them and denial of access to economic and social rights to Roma. The ERRC seeks to contribute to the human rights situation of Romani communities through awareness raising, policy development and strategic litigation. Campaigns have exposed violence and hate speech against the Roma, segregation in schooling, forced evictions and coercive sterilisation against them.
Through its human rights education work, the ERRC aims primarily to empower Romani activists to fight for their equality. This is done through internships, research fellowships, workshops and the publication of manuals such as Knowing Your Rights and Fighting for Them: A guide for Romani activists
"ERRC research in Bulgaria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania during early 2010 with police, NGOs and anti-trafficking experts found that Roma are perceived to represent 50-80% of victims [of trafficking in human beings] in Bulgaria, 40-80% in Hungary, 70% in Slovakia and up to 70% in parts of the Czech Republic." Roma Rights Factsheet, EHRR
The diamond wars
Global Witness is an NGO campaigning against natural resource-related conflict and corruption and the environmental and human rights abuses that flow from that. It works to expose the brutality this leads to and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
One of its campaigns has addressed blood diamonds or conflict diamonds – that is, gems originating in areas controlled by forces or factions opposed to legitimate and internationally recognised governments, and used to fund military action against those governments, or against decisions of the UN Security Council. Evidence exposed by Global Witness confirmed that such resources have been used to fund conflicts in Africa that have led to the death and displacement of millions of people. Diamonds have also been used by terrorist groups such as al-Qaida to finance their activities and for money-laundering purposes. They collaborated with other NGOs and lobbied ceaselessly until a global campaign capable of taking on a global industry emerged.
In May 2000 the major diamond trading and producing countries, representatives of the diamond industry, and NGOs including Global Witness met in Kimberley, South Africa, and established an international diamond certification scheme, in 2003, known as the Kimberley Process. Under the scheme all diamonds traded by member countries are certified so that buyers can be sure they are conflict-free. Global Witness is an official observer of this scheme and continues to campaign for the strengthening and effective implementation of its rules to help ensure that diamonds can never again fuel conflict and can instead become a positive force for development.
Global Witness was co-nominated for the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for its work combating conflict diamonds.
Wheelchair ramps in Tuzla
In 1996, a disability NGO in Tuzla, Boznia Herzegovina, decided to run a campaign for traffic awareness. Lotos, the organisation, aimed to raise awareness about disabled people and traffic issues, and identified several concrete objectives, including special parking spaces for disabled people, better access on public transport, and accessible pavements and roads. They held events over the course of a week, just before the election campaign began. At the end of that time, public awareness had been increased and all pavements in Tuzla were rebuilt with ramps!
- Chapter 1 - Human Rights Education and Compass: an introduction
- Chapter 2 - Practical Activities and Methods for Human Rights Education
- Chapter 3 - Taking Action for Human Rights
- Chapter 4 - Understanding Human Rights
- Chapter 5 - Background Information on Global Human Rights Themes