Over time and in various international covenants and national constitutions, human rights have been defined as basic rights that all humans should be guaranteed of. Human rights are therefore rights that are guaranteed to a person for the simple fact that he is a human being. These rights should be enjoyed by everybody regardless of the circumstance of their birth, race, religion or political affiliations. In furtherance of this, most societies have put in place legal frameworks and structures to protect the human rights of its citizens. At the forefront of protecting the human rights of individuals around the world have been Non Governmental Organizations (NGO’s). A Non Governmental Organization (NGO) is a legally constituted non-commercial organization created by natural or legal persons with no participation or representation of any government. These NGO’s have played very critical roles in defending the human rights of people around the world by insisting that domestic and international legislations and provisions enacted to protect human rights are strictly enforced.
Article 1 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights provides that 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. The term non-governmental or non-profit is normally used to cover the range of organizations which go to make up civil society. Such organizations are characterized, in general, by having as the purpose of their existence something other than financial profit. However, this leaves a huge multitude of reasons for their existence and a wide variety of enterprises and activities. NGOs range from small pressure groups to, for example, specific environmental concerns or specific human rights violations, through educational charities, refugees, cultural associations, religious organizations, legal foundations, humanitarian assistance programmes etc; all the way to huge international organizations with hundreds or even thousands of branches or members in different parts of the world.
The contribution of NGOs is important not only in terms of the results that are achieved, and therefore for the confidence 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 all over the world. They are managed and co-ordinated – as many formal organizations are – by private individuals and they also draw a large part of their strength from other members of the community who offer voluntary support to their cause. This fact gives them great significance and therefore encourages those individuals who would like to contribute to the improvement of human rights in the world.
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. In this regard, they protect human rights by the following:
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 claim for the enforcement of fundamental human rights where such has been breached.
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 expose 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 use these information or data to attempt to put pressure on public officials or governments where they renege on their constitutional or international obligations.
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 of doing this 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, this 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 has now assumed a very 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 government/public officials. Sometimes the mere threat of bringing something to the public eye may be enough to change a policy or practice. Whilst this used to be mobilized at one time through tapes, posters and faxes, it is now mobilised through email campaigns and petitions, internet sites, blogs and electronic social networks.
The role of NGO’s in the realization of human rights is fraught with many problems and challenges. For instance a major problem that poses a threat to the existence and thriving of NGO’s especially in less developed/developing economies, is that of lack of funds and low funds where available. Another major challenge is also that of government interference especially in undemocratic states/countries. There is also the problem of the security and safety of their personnel. We have seen situations where staff of NGO’s have been threatened and attacked where their activities are seen as a threat to perpetrators of human rights violations. Another problem they face is the misappropriation of funds by local staff and this affects the confidence of donors.
The importance of the role of NGO’s in articulating and protecting human rights cannot be over emphasized. One wonders what the world would have been like without the contributions of organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. We have seen these NGO’s play a tremendous role in protecting and projecting issues of human rights violations around the world. It is therefore important to state that all men and women of good will should not only encourage but also contribute actively to the growth and development of all NGO’s that seek to protect the human rights of all persons around the world.