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Mobilization of the Conscience of Mankind:
Conditions of Effectiveness of Human Rights NGOs

Peter R. Baehr
Professor and Director
Netherlands Institute of Human Rights (SIM)
Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands

NGOs: The People's Voice in International Governance?

Leon Gordenker
Professor Emeritus
Princeton University
Princeton, NJ, USA

Presentations Made at a UNU Public Forum
on Human Rights and NGOs
on 18 September 1996
UNU, Tokyo, Japan

Mobilization of the Conscience of Mankind:
Conditions of Effectiveness of Human Rights NGOs

Peter R. Baehr


The standard answer to the often-asked question about the precise impact of the activities of the human rights organisation Amnesty International is: "We don't know." The number of its activities and of its publications, both of which have grown enormously over the years, is no indication of its impact. Expansion of these activities neither proves that the number of human rights violations covered by the Amnesty mandate has grown, nor that its effectiveness has increased or decreased. It only shows that the information which is made available has grown. All other inferences are a matter of speculation. What is true of Amnesty International is also true of other human rights organizations.1

Human rights organisations are part of the phenomenon known as "non-governmental organisations", or NGOs. Curiously enough, these NGOs are defined by what they are not. They emphasize their distance and independence from governments, yet at the same time it is mostly the actions and activities of national governments that are the very cause and purpose of their existence. Without governments there would be no non-governmental organizations.2 A valid description of present-day international relations should, in addition to taking note of the continued role of nation-states and of intergovernmental organisations, pay due attention to the role and function of non-governmental organisations. Human rights NGOs exist in great numbers and develop a great number of activities. However, little is known about their effectiveness or impact, except for the fact that they tend to rely on what is commonly known as the "mobilization of shame". Yet, it is hard to put a finger on what exactly constitutes such mobilization. In this paper, an effort is made to analyse conditions of effectiveness of internationally operating human rights NGOs. The following subjects are dealt with: reliability, the problem of access versus independence, representativeness, mutual cooperation, media attention and timing. The paper ends with a number of tentative conclusions.


Providing reliable information (to governments, intergovernmental organisations, politicians, the news media, academics as well as the general public) is the most important precondition to be fulfilled for any NGO to have an impact. It is probably much more important than the views and comments that are being expressed, as these are often already known anyway. Information that is trustworthy is eagerly sought by all concerned.

Members of UN supervisory committees increasingly make use of information supplied to them by NGOs for the purpose of the examination of state reports. In the early years, the use of such "unofficial information" was frowned upon. For instance, especially Eastern European members of the Human Rights Committee felt that the Committee could not use such information.3 Members of the Committee would surreptitiously glance at documents submitted to them by NGOs, hiding them under their desks. Nowadays, however, as Boerefijn has reported, the use of this type of information is no longer subject to debate within the Committee. Indeed, Gaer has indicated that members of this as well as other UN expert committees eagerly look for NGO materials before a country examination, "because it helps make their questioning more precise, factual and less abstract".4 The thematic mechanisms of the United Nations rely almost exclusively upon NGO information. No less than 74 per cent of the cases taken up by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions in 1994 were brought by international NGOs, another 23 per cent came from national NGOs and 3 per cent from families.5

It is in the area of the collection of sound, reliable information that the need for a professional expert staff is most clearly felt. NGOs that command such a staff can more easily provide such information than organisations that have to rely mostly on the activities of volunteers. Volunteers may also possess the necessary expertise, but often lack the collective memory of the past. A body of information is usually built on previous knowledge as well as personal acquaintances. Volunteers come and go and, though mostly highly motivated, they may lack experience. Therefore, the existence of a professional staff may greatly add to the information-gathering role of the NGO. Amnesty International, with a professional staff of almost 300 individuals in its International Secretariat in London - which is larger than the entire staff of the United Nations Centre for Human Rights in Geneva - is an example of such an organisation.

Reliability is closely linked to credibility. A government that is the target of such information will do its utmost to discredit such an organisation by questioning its motives (e.g. "political"), its financial resources ("CIA-supported", "communist umbrella organisation", etc.) and also its methods of work. In case such efforts are successful and the credibility of the organisation's work has been successfully challenged, its impact may suffer for many years to come.

Access versus Independence

For an NGO it is important to have access to the government. This means that it should be able to approach government officials to make them aware of its views. "Access" may mean one of many things. It may mean that the organisation can call an official on the telephone to make him or her aware of new information which may then be put to him/her in written form. It may mean having the ability to engage the official in a formal or informal conversation with representatives of the NGO, in order to raise the matter at the ministerial or cabinet level or at intergovernmental meetings. The degree of such access may differ according to the role human rights plays on the domestic political scene of the country in question. In politically open societies, such as the Netherlands or Norway, access is easier and more effective than in China or in Indonesia, where it may not exist at all.

In certain countries, former NGO executives hold positions in national governments and NGO representatives are routinely included in official delegations to sessions of the General Assembly of the United Nations and special conferences. We should, however, pause here for a moment and reflect on the possible repercussions for the independent position of NGOs. Maximum access may be gained at the expense of risking one's independence. When, for example, the Netherlands government invited two NGO members to participate in its official delegation to the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, these two persons were given maximum access. At the same time, they were expected to share some of the workload of the other members of the delegation, such as writing the daily reports to the ministry in The Hague, which for all practical purposes was hard for them to refuse. Yet, an outside observer may wonder whether when doing this they were not in danger of losing their independent position and becoming more or less "ordinary" members of the delegation. Australia provides another vivid example. There, members of parliament, including members of the government, serve on a committee, "Parliamentarians for Amnesty International". Without questioning the motives and good intentions of these individuals, one may wonder about the wisdom of this practice. The distinction between what is the government and what is an NGO may thus be blurred. Yet, that distinction remains important, because the government can never go as far as an NGO in embracing human rights. It has by definition other concerns to consider. Therefore, there should always remain a clear distinction between what is government and what is non-government. If an NGO succeeds in penetrating into the innermost chambers of governmental deliberations, it may end up by having to share some of the government's political responsibilities as well.

Some governments make a considerable effort to maintain periodic contacts with NGOs in the field of human rights. For example, the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs organises once a year a two-day consultation with NGOs. These meetings precede the principal meetings of the UN Commission on Human Rights. The meetings, which may include as many as 60 to 80 participants, are addressed by the foreign minister or his deputy. This "forum" is a useful meeting, though it has also been described as "a dialogue of the deaf".6 This procedure provides the NGOs with at least access to the responsible ministry officials, although it does not of course guarantee them that their views will be adopted. NGO representatives sometimes tend to forget that access is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for success. Apparently, the invitations to these meetings are widely distributed and no NGOs have so far been refused access to these meetings.

Of a more incidental nature were the meetings which the Irish Foreign Ministry organized with NGO representatives in the course of the major policy review which took place in 1995. A series of seven public seminars dealing with various aspects of Ireland's foreign policy was held in universities around the country between November 1994 and March 1995. The topic of human rights was one of seven that were covered.7 Participation in the seminars, which were advertised in the national press, was open to all. Attendance at each of the seminars numbered between 200 and 250 persons. The seminars brought members of the public, representatives of NGOs, public representatives and members of the diplomatic corps into direct dialogue with ministers and civil servants on issues of foreign policy. The meetings were termed by the Foreign Ministry as "a useful and stimulating innovation".8

It should be clear then that access to the government is of extremely great importance to NGOs. Without access, no impact; though access is no guarantee for success. NGOs should at the same time be aware of the dangers too easy access may entail. They may be hedged in by the government and its permanent officials, thus running the risk of being seen by the public as an extension of the government. For a government, it is of great importance to maintain close relations with NGOs it considers reliable. Seen from the government's perspective, there is little to be lost and much to be gained by such close relations. It is rather the NGOs that have to maintain a certain degree of caution in these relations.


NGOs are often referred to as "grass-roots organisations", which suggests that they are closer to ordinary people than, for instance, government officials. The extent to which that picture is correct depends on the question whether an NGO has a membership and how the structure of the group is organized. Non-membership organisations such as the Human Rights Watch organisations and the International Commission of Jurists may on the whole be able to react more quickly and be more flexible in their approaches to governments than membership organisations. Yet, the impact of a membership organisation may be greater, because governments are aware that the views expressed by such an NGO are not only those of a small group of experts, but may also reflect those of a larger constitution. If the membership is relatively large, politicians may pay extra attention to the NGO's views, because of possible electoral consequences. Another advantage of membership organisations is that the leadership is accountable to the rank and file, which means that the membership may exert some kind of control over the actions of the leadership.

The Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, in its 1996 session, had on its agenda a proposal for "Arrangements for Consultation with Non-Governmental Organizations".9 One of the principles to be applied in establishing consultative relations with NGOs was that the organisation should have "...a representative structure and possess appropriate mechanisms of accountability to its members, who shall exercise effective control over its policies and actions through the exercise of voting rights or other appropriate democratic and transparent decision-making processes".10 Criteria for judging such representativeness were, however, not spelled out.

Some of the problems that may arise when organising an international membership NGO on a democratic basis are well illustrated by the example of Amnesty International. This organisation is based on a world-wide voluntary membership, which consists of sections, affiliated groups and individual members.11 The authority for the conduct of affairs is vested in the International Council, which meets once every two years. Only representatives of national sections have the right to vote. All national sections hold at least one vote in the International Council. However, sections receive additional votes in proportion to the number of Amnesty groups or individual members they hold. Thus the larger sections, which also hold the purse strings within the organisation, such as those of the United States, Great Britain, Sweden, France, Germany and the Netherlands, are entitled to additional representatives which may add up to as many as six votes per national delegation. The result is that in the International Council the Netherlands, for example, rates as a major power - a striking experience for those Amnesty representatives that are familiar with similar meetings at the governmental level. Smaller sections have repeatedly tried to change this system of weighted voting into one on a "one-section-one-vote" basis; so far, however, without any success. Whether the existing system should be seen as democratic is a matter of debate. A system wherein each national delegation is accorded one vote, as in the General Assembly of the United Nations, is not necessarily more democratic than a system of weighted voting. In the latter, the individual members or groups are more strongly represented. A side effect is that, within the Amnesty International Council, the larger as well as wealthier sections of the "North" can easily outvote the sections of the "South". This was, for instance, crucial in the 1991 decision of the Council that Amnesty International should work on behalf of imprisoned homosexuals - an issue which was strongly opposed by Asian and African sections.12

The issue of whom precisely NGOs represent remains unsolved for the time being. In this respect, NGOs resemble notions such as "peoples" or "indigenous peoples", who are also hard to define and to whom it is also difficult to apply formal rules of representativeness. In view of all of these difficulties, one may well come to the conclusion that the issues the NGOs take up are more important than their own democratic representativeness. But in the absence of more formal criteria for such representativeness, the claim of many of them of being grass-roots movements should be taken with a grain of salt.

Cooperation among NGOs

NGOs are notorious for their wish for independence. Coordinating NGOs is, just like coordinating states, "like herding cats" according to one UN official.13 Among these, Amnesty International has traditionally stood out for its aloofness and unwillingness to associate itself with other human rights NGOs for fear of endangering its cherished limited mandate. On the other hand, NGOs are aware of the need to work together to realize common aims. Paradoxically, international conferences organized by governments to discuss pressing international problems serve as a catalyst for bringing together NGOs. Recent examples are the world conferences on environment and development (Rio de Janeiro 1992), human rights (Vienna 1993), population and development (Cairo 1994), women's issues (Beijing 1995) and housing problems (Istanbul 1996), all of which saw the phenomenon of "parallel" conferences of NGOs.14 These NGOs might never have met if the occasion of the governmental meetings had not brought them together. Ritchie even claims that the success of the intergovernmental meeting itself depends to a great extent on the activities of the NGOs: "World conferences and summits need the full-scale input and presence of NGOs and their coalitions to have any hope of achieving their goals".15

The World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 in Vienna witnessed an impressive gathering of more than 1,500 NGOs, whose meetings "downstairs" in the Austria Centre were far more colourful and more informative than the somewhat dull meetings of government representatives 'upstairs".16 Prior to the World Conference, from 10 to 12 June, human rights NGOs met in order to discuss the accomplishments and shortcomings of the UN human rights programme and to formulate common recommendations to be considered by the governments at the official conference. The NGO forum was addressed by a number of well-known keynote speakers. Many of the organisations represented in Vienna, such as representatives of Kurdish, Palestinian, Basque, Sendero Luminoso and other armed opposition groups, all of whom clearly aim for political power, are not human rights NGOs. That was also true of the representatives of the Christian Democratic and Liberal International groups, both of which have close ties with political parties of the same name. Clearly, not very strict rules for admission had been applied. In view of the diverse nature of the various NGOs attending the conference, it is hardly surprising that "...clashes ensued between the new, national NGOs and traditional international NGOs".17

After the Vienna Conference, cooperation among human rights NGOs was expected henceforth to be coordinated by an NGO Liaison Committee (NLC), which was elected on the last day of the NGO forum. The intention was to give this NLC a permanent character. However, this did not work out and the committee was formally disbanded in 1995. The reason was that the regional networks - in Asia, Africa and Latin America - felt that it was more important to work at the regional level than to try and work internationally.

There exists considerable pressure, both from the outside and the inside, on human rights NGOs to coordinate their efforts. From the outside, certain governments try to limit the number of NGO interventions in intergovernmental meetings, using the argument that it is too time consuming to have to listen to the statements of so many NGOs which basically have the same message to convey. (These same governments have no qualms about similar endless interventions by diplomatic delegates exercising their "right of reply" etc.) The NGOs should show more self-discipline by grouping their statements.18 The draft Principles for Consultation with Non-Governmental Organisations, now before the ECOSOC, contain a similar suggestion: "Where there exist a number of organisations with similar objectives, interests and basic views in a given field, they may, for the purposes of consultation with the Council, form a joint committee or other body authorized to carry on such consultation for the group as a whole".19

In principle, the NGOs themselves also see the need for closer cooperation and coordination of their activities in order to mobilize scarce resources and avoid duplication of efforts. However, in view of the diverse nature of the various NGOs, with regard to aims to be achieved, their size, financial resources, cultural background, it has so far proved extremely difficult to bring about such cooperation. The independent International Service for Human Rights, a shoestring operation in Geneva, is doing its best to supply information – e.g. on procedures at the United Nations, schedules of meetings, nature of the issues under discussion, etc. - to all human rights organisations. This type of effort clearly deserves to be expanded. As soon as the provision of facilities in conference centres and the right to take the floor at intergovernmental gatherings, let alone the provision of financial aid, are at stake, NGOs ostensibly working for similar aims may become fierce competitors. In this respect, they resemble competing governments that also are reluctant to give up their sovereign rights for the sake of mutual cooperation. One thing is clear, however: it should be left to the NGOs themselves to find the proper channels for cooperation. It is the NGOs that should themselves find the ways to organize their own international cooperation.

Media Attention

Human rights NGOs would be hard put to have any impact if the media would not pay attention to their activities. The voluminous yearbooks of Amnesty International and other human rights organizations may be reliable and trustworthy, but they are rarely read by government officials or the general public in their entirety. Their message is normally conveyed by accounts in the newspapers, on radio and television. According to Nowak and Schwarz, NGO activities at the Vienna World Conference were given more space in the media than the official conference.20

The need for publicity may lead NGOs to what Ritchie has called "dramatic postures" for the sake of gaining publicity.21 Such stunts may include pop music performances by well-known entertainers, television shows, on occasion sponsored by commercial firms, or imitations of human rights violations such as torture or isolated imprisonment. The limits of what is acceptable in this sphere and the ethics of accepting company money for such purposes are often hotly debated within the organizations.

The "mobilisation of shame" is greatly dependent on media exposure. Politicians in general and governments in particular are more likely to be persuaded to act on behalf of human rights in the face of media attention or the threat of it. Even if human rights NGOs make use of "silent diplomacy" when approaching governments, for instance to bring about the release of a particular political prisoner or to end cases of torture, around the corner there is always the threat of media exposure. What remains in the last resort is publicity in order to try to change a government's attitude and behaviour by public pressure. Chances of success are greater if the country concerned traditionally pays attention to expressions of public opinion, but there are no governments - ranging from full-fledged democracies to dictatorships - that can afford to ignore fully their public relations. In addition, public exposure may also lead to the exertion of external pressure by other governments or intergovernmental organisations.


Timing is essential for impact. An action that comes too early may be as ineffective as one that comes too late. Therefore it is of crucial importance that an NGO be well informed about the precise nature and the stages of the decision-making process, as far as both governmental and intergovernmental agencies are concerned. Agendas may be set or changed at the last moment. Informal consultations may take place that are crucial to the decision-making process. International meetings are always short of time, which may lead to last minute decisions. At international conferences, the preparatory process may be as important as, or even more important than, the actual conference itself, which may last only for one or two weeks.22 Representatives of human rights NGOs must always be well aware of such factors and be prepared to strike while the iron is hot.

National governments may also be engaged in the manipulation of time. Faced with a dilemma-type of situation where all available choices have negative repercussions, a government may opt for postponing the decision, hoping for a change of circumstances. Gaining time may be akin to victory. The government may also suggest that nothing has been decided yet, leaving open when exactly a definitive decision will be taken.

For the purpose of being well aware of the timing process, it is helpful to have permanent representations in national capitals and at the headquarters of intergovernmental organisations. Amnesty International, for example, maintains permanent missions at the United Nations in New York and Geneva and with the European Union in Brussels.


Human rights NGOs play a role of some significance in international relations. That in itself remains a remarkable feat that calls for explanation. They criticize governments for violating human rights or for allowing or condoning such acts. Why should national governments pay attention at all to what human rights NGOs have to say? The NGOs have no power; they rely on a relatively limited membership, if at all. They pose no economic or military threat. Yet, they are given the floor in meetings of intergovernmental organizations and in international conferences. Their representatives are received in national capitals and their views are paid at least lip service. Governments even go as far as setting up or sponsoring fake NGOs to counter the activities of the real ones. Why?

The only answer to this question, which is the same that is offered by the NGOs themselves, is the often-cited "mobilization of shame". This refers to the circumstance that all governments like to be known as civilised and as observing the international human rights standards which they themselves have helped to devise. No government will easily admit that it allows violations of those standards to take place. Yet, most governments in the world at some time or other violate them. This discrepancy between norm and practice creates the space in which human rights NGOs can operate. Starting from the point of agreement as to how governments ought to behave, they draw attention to violations of these standards. Basically, governments have two ways of reacting to such allegations: admittance or denial. In view of their above-cited adherence to international human rights standards, admittance of violations of such standards logically means that something will be done about them. In such cases, one can say that an NGO's activities have been successful.

If, as often happens, the government in question denies the allegation, the reputation of the NGO for reliability is at stake. In the absence of other elements of power, reliability is the only source of strength human rights NGOs can depend on. By continuous truthful reporting an organisation can build up a reputation of reliability, which must be jealously guarded. It can be threatened from two sides. First, of course, by an offending government, which may try to discredit the human rights NGO either by questioning its motives or methods of work, or by disseminating disinformation. But there is also a danger from the opposite direction. Political opponents of the government in question may try to use human rights NGOs for purposes of their own by feeding the NGOs news about alleged atrocities on the part of the government which may actually never have taken place.

Conditions for reliable reporting are a well-trained professional staff, access to information and of course the necessary financial resources. The latter are needed for paying the staff, building up a database, financing on-site inspections and paying for the publications of the organization.

Reliability is a precondition, but not a guarantee of success. That depends also on the degree of access to government officials and the help of the media. As has been pointed out in this paper, access to government officials is tremendously important to human rights NGOs, yet should not be gained at the risk of losing independence. Access is a two way process. It allows human rights NGOs to put their views to government officials, but these officials in turn will of course also use the opportunity to try to influence the NGOs. There is admittedly a thin line between having access and guarding the independent position of an NGO in order to show that it is not working to advance a particular government's interests. By their nature, NGOs can afford to be more single-minded in pressing human rights issues than governments. A government has other matters of concern as well. That is why it is to be recommended that there always remain some distance between the two.

Again, access alone is no guarantee of success either. A human rights NGO that commands a membership can use that membership for various purposes, such as letter writing to cabinet ministers, government officials and members of parliament, of its own or of foreign countries. The membership – if sufficiently large – may also serve as an electoral threat. It comes close to what may be seen as an element of public opinion in the field of human rights. However that may be, the issue of representativeness of human rights NGOs remains in the end an unsolved matter. There is no way of setting rules in this regard. In the end, it is left to the NGOs themselves to decide on their own representativeness.

Coordination at least, and mutual cooperation if possible, are helpful for human rights NGOs. They may decide to channel their efforts and thus be more effective. Yet, such coordination and cooperation must not be the result only of government prodding. Governments may find NGOs troublesome and try to limit their activities by calling for "restraint" and "self-discipline", however reluctant they may be to display such restraint and self-discipline themselves. NGOs should opt for coordination and cooperation only if they find that helpful to carry out their activities. Such cooperation may be found in the realm of exchange of information and pooling of efforts. On the other hand, the existence of some form of healthy competition among NGOs is not necessarily a bad thing. It may actually be helpful to the cause of human rights and to the plight of victims of human rights violations.

Little has to be added to what has already been said in this paper about the importance of media attention. It is a crucial condition for impact by human rights NGOs. Without media attention there is no impact. Indeed, the mobilization of shame can only be realized if the communication media pay attention to what the NGOs have to say. Publicity is needed in order to seek public pressure to affect governments' attitudes and behaviour. However, NGOs should be careful with pulling stunts just for the sake of media attention. Such stunts are counter-productive if they become an end in themselves. Repeating the same message over and over again may not be in accordance with standard practices for getting media attention. Yet, in the realm of the violation of human rights, "new" things seem always to occur. Before the 1970s, most people would have thought that torture was a matter of the past. Human rights NGOs made clear that it wasn't. Later, it was the matter of involuntary disappearances that was called attention to. Now, in the ’90s, the world has seen the phenomenon of "ethnic purges", which nobody had heard of before. The hearings before the UN International Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia provide daily evidence of what human beings can do to each other. Reports on Rwanda, Burundi and other places in the world provide sufficient material to keep human rights NGOs as well as the communication media occupied. Furthermore, by offering new insights or new perspectives, human rights NGOs may draw renewed public attention to what are in fact old problems.

Finally, human rights NGOs must keep the time factor in mind. Information about the nature of the decision-making process is important to choose the right time for action. Correct timing can be a decisive factor for achieving maximum impact. Experience with the way governments and intergovernmental agencies operate can be helpful in this regard. Here, human rights NGOs may help each other by exchanging information. Also, former or present government officials may be willing to share their experience and expertise in this field.

All the factors discussed in this paper contribute to the effectiveness of human rights NGOs. All are necessary, yet none on its own will be sufficient. In the end it all depends on the "conscience of mankind" that was mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The mobilisation of this conscience - in addition to shaming governments into respecting human rights - is the only and most effective weapon of non-governmental organizations working in the field of human rights.

1. Many examples in this paper are taken from the experience of Amnesty International, the organization with which this author happens to be most familiar. However, the findings of the paper are meant to be valid for other human rights organizations as well.
2. Cf. Peter R. Baehr, "Human Rights Organizations and the UN: A Tale of Two Worlds", in Dimitris Bourantonis and Jarrod Wiener (eds.), The United Nations in the New World Order (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1995), p. 171; Leon Gordenker and Thomas G. Weiss, "Pluralizing Global Governance: Analytical Approaches and Dimensions", in Thomas G. Weiss and Leon Gordenker (eds.), NGOs, the UN and Global Governance (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1996), pp. 18–21; Dianne Otto, "Nongovernmental Organizations in the United Nations System: The Emerging Role of International Civil Society", Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 1 (1996), pp. 100-13.
3. See Ineke Boerefijn, "Towards a Strong System of Supervision: The Human Rights Committee's Role in Reforming the Reporting Procedure under Article 40 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights", Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 17, no. 4 (1995), p. 784.
4. Felice D. Gaer, "Reality Check: Human Rights NGOs Confront Governments at the UN", in Weiss and Gordenker, supra n. 2, p. 56. 5. Ibid., p. 55.
6. Victoria Berry and Allan McChesney, "Human Rights and Foreign Policy-Making", in Robert O. Matthews and Cranford Pratt (eds.), Human Rights in Canadian Foreign Policy (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1988), p. 60; John W. Foster, "The UN Commission on Human Rights" , in ibid., pp. 94-97.
7. The other topics were: development cooperation, the European Union, trade and international economic cooperation, the common foreign and security policy of the European Union, the foreign service and the United Nations.
8. Challenges and Opportunities Abroad: White Paper on Foreign Policy (Dublin: Department of Foreign Affairs, 1996), pp. 2-3.
9. E/1996/58. In February 1993, the ECOSOC established an open-ended working group to update, if necessary, its arrangements for consultation with NGOs and to introduce coherent rules to regulate the participation of NGOs in international conferences organized by the UN.
10. Ibid., par. 7.
11. Statute of Amnesty International, as amended by the 22nd International Council, meeting in Ljubljana, Slovenia, 12-20 August 1995, article 3.
12. Cf. Peter R. Baehr, "Amnesty International and Its Self-imposed Limited Mandate, Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights, vol. 12, no. 1 (1994), pp. 18-19.
13. Weiss and Gordenker, supra n. 2, p. 28.
14. Cf. Peter Uvin, "Scaling up the Grassroots and Scaling down the Summit: The Relations between Third World NGOs and the UN", in Weiss and Gordenker, supra n. 2, p. 166. Falk has called such meetings “counter-conferences”: Richard Falk, "The Global Promise of Social Movements: Explorations at the Edge of Time", Alternatives, vol. 12, no. 173 (1987), p. 187, as quoted by Otto, supra n. 2, p. 120.
15. Ibid., p. 183.
16. Cf. Gaer, supra n. 4, p. 59.
17. Ibid., p. 58.
18. Ibid., p. 64.
19. Supra n. 9, par. 4.
20. Manfred Nowak and Ingeborg Schwarz, "The Contribution of Non-Governmental Organizations", in Manfred Nowak (ed.), World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna: Manz'sche Verlags- und Universitštsbuchhandlung, 1994), p. 11.
21. Cyril Ritchie, "Coordinate? Cooperate? Harmonise? NGO Policy and Operational Coalitions", in Weiss and Gordenker, supra n. 2, p. 186.
22. Cf. Martha Alter Chen, "Engendering World Conferences: The International Women's Movement and the UN", in Weiss and Gordenker, supra n. 2, p. 143.

NGOs: The People's Voice in International Governance?

Leon Gordenker

I. Human Rights, States and Global Governance

The very notion of human rights - that based on their own existence people have claims on and protection from excesses by society - runs radically across the central organising principle of the sovereign state in our world. The territory of our globe is actually and legally divided into discrete parcels of land and people administered by governments. The people living in each of these parcels, according to the organising principle of the state, come under control of the government of the land and none other. Governments relate to each other and not to the people subject to another government. When they decide to do so, governments acting in the name of states create organisations, such as the United Nations. States fall under no authority, except their own, unless they agree to some limits.1 Yet this notion of sovereignty, so dear to the contemporary crop of nationalists, does not in fact describe anything except a principle.

On a global basis, governments agree to promote human rights through such organisations as the United Nations. Their agreement suggests an implicit contradiction. How can individuals have rights protected by international surveillance if governments pretend to act autonomously, even when they agree among themselves, as most have done, to respect those rights? Why did they sign up in the first place?2

A glib answer to these questions would hold that governments respond to the wishes of their subjects. The UN treaties of our time assert the human rights of participating in social decisions and provide for the protection of association and expression necessary to such participation. Yet the daily pictures of bloody heads under truncheons of so-called security agents bear witness to the superficiality of such a view. So does the elaborate rhetoric that government spokesmen use to explain away refusal to do anything about such denials of rights in other states.

Is the whole panoply of human rights instruments that the overwhelming majority of governments have pledged to apply nothing more than a cynical fraud or a utopian illusion? It would be hardly more than that if the principle of sovereignty described actuality. It would be hardly more than an illusion if governments could always act in an untrammeled way. The international organisations that deal with human rights issues - the United Nations and its human rights establishment, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Children's Fund, the International Labour Organisation, the Council of Europe and some other regional bodies - all stand for the hope of enlisting the cooperation of governments. To some extent they succeed, at least rhetorically and at most in terms of bringing national practice in conformity with international norms. Indeed no government now denies the general validity of international human rights norms or proudly admits violating them. Rather they usually try to refute any criticism that crops up - it does regularly - in the international organs. Such criticism depends, however, on the willingness of governments to instruct their representatives to voice opposition. It also depends on the ingenuity and integrity of international civil servants.

This approach to human rights results in fragmentary treatment, uneven application of standards, difficulty for individuals to get what they are promised and plenty of evasion. No general government exercises authority over stages of application. Yet somehow rules, and above all expectations, have been created about the permissible behaviour and duties of governments. The existence of these rules and expectations suggests that, even without a hierarchical command, human rights are promoted and protected - not perfectly, not necessarily brilliantly but more than ever before. These functions without overarching authority and without coercion may be called governance.3

Governance in relation to global issues is driven by interdependence of economies and societies and supported by increasingly easy communication among individual people and their organisations. It may be encouraged by the widespread acceptance of privatization of functions that governments monopolized. What we have come to call the civic society - that is relationships among people and organizations outside of formal governmental arrangements - is closely related to governance. Human rights is a striking example of a global issue where governance, not merely

government, applies. Yet this fragmentary, fluid approach to global issues excludes formal popular participation. No world legislature exists. Nor do governments hasten to develop a means by which representatives of the people or the people themselves take part in making decisions on human rights. Is there then no popular voice?

II. NGOs as Participants in Global Human Rights Governance

If a popular voice requires detachment from government, then indeed in governance concerned with global human rights, there is a popular voice. It emanates from non-governmental organizations.4 The character of that voice, however, is far from self-evident and demands sophisticated examination.

NGOs steadily participate in the global organization, with all its fractures and irregularities, for promoting and protecting human rights. NGOs have been omnipresent in the human rights activity that has surged since the end of the Second World War. That they have a role in the deliberations among governments in the UN framework has been especially striking.5 It comprises three approaches, all part and parcel of governance.

The first of these has to do with setting agendas for international cooperation and also for national policies. NGOs that deal specifically with human rights, and others whose work touches on human rights, try to bring violations of standards and shortcomings in national practice into the light of publicity. They inform their members and supporters of such instances. They submit information and recommendations to international organs, such as the UN Commission on Human Rights or the Council of Europe. Where possible, they lobby and advocate specific policies for national governments. Some NGOs dealing with human rights do not work across national boundaries; they direct attention exclusively to the governments of their countries. They carry information from the transnational NGOs and those that work at the international level to their home polities. Such activity helps to set the agendas for international cooperation and national action.

A second mode of participation brings NGOs into the process of formation of human rights policies in both the international and national realms. NGOs have become an integral part of intergovernmental deliberations on human rights and have had an equally prominent role in some national legislatures and bureaucracies.

A third mode of action relates to the administration of accepted policies. NGOs have contracted with international agencies to offer technical assistance on human rights to governments that request it. They have also rendered such assistance on their own. They have taken part in officially sponsored surveys and investigations of human rights applications, including some cases of severe violation. They have trained human rights observers and analysts who work in other organizations or in national realms.

In all of this activity, which contributes to global governance, NGOs have none of the formal authority of government. If they apply internationally sponsored and recognized rules, they do so out of conviction and out of the experience of helping to form them. They are based primarily in the civic society and accordingly their attention necessarily goes to it as well as to official agencies. NGOs are of course constrained by national laws and rules but typically operate at the edges of government authority and find their way around various constraints. In contrast to governments, they find most support - financial, moral, intellectual - without exercising authority. They usually emphasize their contrast with government.

III. NGOs as the Voice of the People

It is tempting to stamp the title "The Voice of the People" on the NGOs that have affected international governance, such as it is, on human rights. They have worked with growing skill, penetration and insight in the development of the agenda, in deliberations of transnational bodies and on the execution of adopted policies. The most active have never relented in their criticism of violations of rights and have applauded advances. They have also acted positively to form new rules, such as those on the rights of children. In a world of governments, and the conviction among many governors that sovereignty has priority over global rules, NGOs have produced impressive results since 1945. These have no historical parallel. Yet precisely whom NGOs represent remains a tantalizing question.6 Furthermore, comprehensive data are embarrassingly absent, forcing an observer to rely on impressions.

NGOs differ from governments by definition and in actuality. But some NGOs directly get some or most of their financial support from governments. These are perhaps relatively few in the human rights field; still, the NGOs working in refugee relief, where human rights are part of the agenda, get substantial or even most of their money from governments and their international organizations. Similarly, some disaster relief organizations, whose work has to do with persons deprived, frequently as a result of malevolent government, of the right to food, shelter and education, are largely government financed.

Some, but certainly not nearly most, NGOs offer membership to anyone who wishes to join. In other cases, the NGO forms around leaders, raises funds and interests contributors who then receive information and other services. The creation of some NGOs is stimulated by governments or intergovernmental agencies. Such an NGO does not of course have the characteristic of a membership organization.

Furthermore, NGOs vary greatly in how their priorities, policies and programs are put together. In some apparently rare cases, the membership participates directly in such decisions. More frequently, but by no means commonly, the membership is polled on policy issues. A far more usual arrangement leaves such decisions in the hands of a professional core staff. Depending on local laws, NGOs have boards of trustees or similarly supervisory organs, but the degree of their involvement in decisions varies enormously.

A related question has to do with the leadership of NGOs. As usual with NGOs, the visible practices vary enormously. Some NGOs even claim not to have any leaders or other hierarchical organization. Others obviously respond to a single figure, sometimes a charismatic sort, sometimes a skillful bureaucratic manager. Whatever the case, few well-based generalizations are possible.

The geographic extent of political engagement raises further questions about representation.7 Some NGOs that relate to human rights operate almost exclusively at the level of intergovernmental relations, typically around the United Nations and other international organizations. Others have national bases but extend their actions beyond the boundaries of their countries. Still others work only in the national realm. Some show a strong interest in promoting and working with grass-roots organizations, while others have no such association. NGOs sometimes form interorganizational alliances only for particular issues, while others belong to groupings with a more general outlook, such as the International Council of Voluntary Agencies or the American group, INTERACTION. From time to time, such groupings make pronouncements on human rights, counsel their members and represent their common views in the meeting halls of intergovernmental agencies. Yet NGOs usually make their own decisions about the scope of their operations, however much their names or programs might lead an observer to asssume patterns of behavior.

Finally, NGOs that have agendas centering on or impinging on human rights issues vary enormously in their abilities to persuade. Some of this variation derives from the degree to which the governments they contact are open to persuasion. Some of it depends on the issue itself. Moreover, the skill of officials and the integrity and plausability of their output differ among organizations. So no matter whom they represent, NGOs as a category tend towards unpredictable results ranging from highly successful in their terms to little impact.

The variety and variability of NGOs can hardly sustain the argument that they represent the people of the world as a legislature in a democracy does its constituents. Yet NGOs do serve one of the functions for which legislatures are designed. A set of voices beyond that of officialdom sounds through the NGOs in the human rights field. In some instances, the NGO voices emanate vertically through societies and administrative units from bottom to top of the official hierarchies. In the human rights field, NGOs can concentrate on transnational policy, rather than limiting themselves by territorial and institutional boundaries.

At their best, NGOs have the ability to poke holes in shoddy defenses of low human rights standards. On occasion, they can even offer some protection to individuals and groups who are threatened or disadvantaged.8 The rising level of professional proficiency in NGO outputs over the years produces voices that cannot be shut down with easy gestures from authority. Their skills and scope of concern mean that human rights NGOs, taken together, contribute to long-term creation and application of standards whether or not there is well-defined popular demand behind them.

IV. Conclusion

NGOs clearly fall short of representing all of the peoples of the world. They do provide a voice from people who want a voice for all people. This activity is consistent with democratization and liberalization as well as some social movements of the civic society. Some governments and some other social organizations still make serious efforts to still the NGO voice. They do so at the national level with secrecy, repression and hostility. At the local level, some nationalistic, religious or ethnic groups promote violations of human rights and resent NGOs that call attention to their deeds. NGOs promoting the rights of women become a particular target at this level. At the international level, opponents use among other things procedural maneuver and definitions, e.g. group rights, to deflect NGO activity.

Whatever the vagaries and opposition, the NGO voice will endure. It has gained wide acceptance as a moral and ethical influence. New organizations are forming where they had earlier never been seen or permitted. The NGO voice has proved to be practical in reining in repression and violation of human rights. In advancing beneficial global governance, it has a claim to be heard as the primitive expression of the people's voice.

1. Splendid examples are briefly cited by Philip Alston, "The Fortieth Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Time More for Reflection than for Celebration," in Jan Berting et al.(eds.), Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Westport, CT, Meckler Corp., 1990), pp. 2–3. See also AsbjŲrn Eide, "The Universal Declaration in Space and Time," in ibid., pp. 17–19, 27-28.
2. Cf. David P. Forsythe, The Internationalization of Human Rights (Lexington, MA, Lexington Books, 1991), chap. 7.
3. See extended discussion in James N. Rosenau, "Governance in the Twenty-first Century," Global Governance, vol. 1, no. 1 (Winter 1995), pp. 2-43.
4. See Thomas G. Weiss and Leon Gordenker, NGOs, the UN and Global Governance (Boulder, CO, Lynne Rienner, 1996), pp. 212-13 and passim.
5. Felice D. Gaer, "Reality Check: Human Rights NGOs Confront Governments at the UN," in Weiss and Gordenker, op. cit., pp. 51-66. See also Kathryn Sikkink, "Human Rights Issue-Networks in Latin America," International Organization, vol. 47 (1993), pp. 411-42.
6. Leon Gordenker and Thomas G. Weiss, "NGO Participation in the International Policy Process," in Weiss and Gordenker, op. cit., p. 219.
7. See Peter R. Baehr, The Role of Human Rights in Foreign Policy (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Macmillan Press, 1994), passim for discussions of how human rights policy is formed and applied.
8. Gaer, op. cit., pp. 55-6.

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