Social Movements and NGOs
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Social Movements and NGOs

Processes of globalization-from-below has spurred the growth of another type of human rights actor in the international scene in the form of a guarantor not envisioned at the time of the UDHR — large grass-roots social movements. These movements continue to gain increasing power to demand more human policies and practices from states and transnational corporations. In 1987, Richard Falk identified at least five types of social movements that are by all accounts becoming ever more evident:

“(1) resistance movements for the causes of ecology, environmental protection, peace, and disarmament;

(2) permanent, al-though unofficial, international tribunals conducting inquiries and issuing decisions about cases of state oppression;

(3) movements by NGOs to pressure states to punish perpetrators of egregious human rights violations and to recover victims’ property wrongfully appropriated;

(4) consumer-based movements to hold governments and corporations accountable for technological disasters and policies adversely affecting human welfare; and

(5) counterconferences held in tandem with official state and international conferences and consultations, delegitimating the latter and evoking more relevant grass-roots agendas” (1987: 190-94).

The significant success of these social movements can be attributed in part to the rising force and legitimacy of NGOs since the adoption of the UDHR. Indeed, one of the most significant areas in which the continuing elaboration and widening scope of human rights has intersected with increasing levels of globalization is the realm of global civil society. Non-governmental organizations perform important work in a variety of fields, but monitoring and advocacy of human rights protection is one of the more important functions they performs.

For a sense of the scope of this field, see this list compiled by the University of Minnesota’s Human Rights Library:

These organizations are not affiliated with any government, but they often deal with the same public policy issues that governments do, only from a different angle. In one sense, they help to bridge the gap between individuals and the larger political, economic and social forces to which they are subject.

For more on non-governmental organizations, see the “Non-Governmental Organizations.

Three Global Human Rights NGOs in Focus
Three of the oldest, largest, and most effective human rights NGOs are the following:

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

The International Committee of the Red Cross has been operation since 1863, and its own history is intertwined with that of humanitarian law from its earliest conception. A young banker from Geneva named Henry Dunant was on his way to meet Emperor Napoleon III of France when he passed through the town of Solferino in northern Italy and observed the deplorable conditions in which wounded soldiers from the ongoing War of Italian Unification were suffering. He came up with the idea that there should be “some international principle, sanctioned by a convention and inviolate in character, which, once agreed upon and ratified, might constitute the basis for societies for the relief of the wounded in the different European countries”(From the Battle of Solferino, 2004)(Henry Dunant, 1998).

Dunant founded the ICRC, and his writings spurred a flurry of international activity that eventually produced the first Geneva Convention, which is essentially the first document of international humanitarian law. Subsequent Geneva Conventions—there are four in total—would create an internationally accepted framework for the treatment of soldiers in war, whether as active in the field, as enemy prisoners, or as wounded (see “The Geneva Conventions”). These were the first treaties to recognize universal rights that applied to all individuals regardless of nationality (From the Battle of Solferino, 2004)(What are the origins, 2002).

The mission of the ICRC is to monitor the enforcement of the Geneva Conventions, by “visiting prisoners, organizing relief operations, re-uniting separated families and similar humanitarian conflicts.” While the Geneva Conventions only apply to international conflicts, the ICRC performs similar services in areas of internal conflict as well, in a manner consistent with the spirit of the Conventions (ICRC’s Mandate and Mission, n.d.).

It has been active in nearly every major conflict of the twentieth century, including both World Wars. The ICRC plays a unique and vital role in international affairs as a respected and objective mediator. It operates in ways and in places where national governments would be unwelcome or ineffective. In 2007, for example, the ICRC has interceded on behalf of prisoners of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) of and secured their release (Colombia, n.d.).

It also spawned a sister organization, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, in 1919 to promote humanitarian values on national level. National Red Cross societies advance these values by helping with disaster preparation and providing emergency relief assistance, and by working to improve health and community care.

Today, the Federation is active in 185 countries, including many parts of the Muslim world through its Red Crescent societies (Who We Are, n.d.).

Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW)

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are two of the best known and well-regarded NGOs dealing with human rights. Both organizations perform a variety of activities focused on documenting and publicizing human rights violations around the world, as well as helping to coordinate grassroots community activism.

Amnesty International, founded in 1961, devotes much of its work to the protection of the freedoms of conscience and expression and freedom from discrimination. It has also has given major attention to prisoners of conscience, torture and the death penalty. It sends experts into the field in more than 80 countries to “talk with victims, observe trials and interview local officials and human rights activists.”

In addition, its staff monitors local media reports, conduct research, issue findings in a variety of forms, and organize advocacy campaigns through letter-writing campaigns, public demonstrations, and government lobbying to end human rights abuses (About AI, n.d.).

Amnesty International is also a recipient of the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize.

Since 1978, Human Rights Watch, the largest human rights organization based in the U.S., has been striving to fulfill a similar mission. HRW conducts investigations into alleged human rights violations, publishes its findings to “embarrass abusive governments in the eyes of their citizens and the world…then meets with government officials to urge changes in policy and practice.” Although HRW’s staff, comprises of 150 professionals, academics, and experts, its strength lies in its partnerships with local human rights groups, further extending its reach to the ground level and across the globe (About HRW, n.d.).

In recent years, it has waged campaigns to eliminate the use of child soldiers in countries such as Burma, Burundi, Lebanon, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Uganda; to ban the use of landmines around the world (151 countries are party to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty; in recent activity since 2005, Algeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea-Bissau, and Nigeria have decommissioned their entire arsenals of antipersonnel mines); and to bring former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to justice, among many others (“States Parties” International Campaign to Ban Landmines, n.d.).

In addition to the major international NGOs, there are many thousands of local NGOs dedicated to serving the needs of particular communities. Taken together, this massive network of individuals, who have empowered themselves to ensure the protection of the human rights of all mankind, constitute a new layer of global civil society that largely didn’t exist even forty years ago. The story of this civil society is increasingly becoming the human face of globalization in the twenty-first century.


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