NGOs and Human Rights: Sources of Justice and Democracy

By van Tuijl, Peter | Journal of International Affairs, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

NGOs and Human Rights: Sources of Justice and Democracy


van Tuijl, Peter, Journal of International Affairs


The United Nations-based system of universal human rights is one of the major achievements of this century Codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it provides a normative framework as well as a source of inspiration for achieving justice and protecting the weak and vulnerable. In this article, I define justice as treating people and populations fairly and allowing individuals to participate in society according to their abilities.

Globalization increases the sources of injustice that are beyond the scope of national systems of justice. Today, forces that are geographically and institutionally distant from the scene of the action may influence individuals and communities. Multinational corporations and the Bretton Woods institutions--the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund--have a major impact on the lives of millions, but there are few local or decentralized institutional opportunities for recourse against their actions. The political space for governments is equally affected by international forces, which may have an impact on how governments behave domestically.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have begun to fill some of these widening institutional and geographical gaps for people or communities who want to exercise their guaranteed rights. Particularly during the last 25 years, NGOs have contributed to international and national discourse on issues of global scope, such as the eradication of poverty and the promotion of gender equality, peace, sustainable development and human rights. Most NGOs no longer work alone, but rather in networks that transfer information and other resources across borders. In this article, I explore the extent to which the gradually increasing density of NGO networks and intensifying degree of NGO advocacy can be seen as a nascent organizational articulation of a global human rights enforcement mechanism. Such a response would answer the traditional critique that the U.N. human rights principles lack sufficient organized enforcement mechanisms. The question is whether this anticipates a more institutionalized role for NGOs in emerging systems of global governance.

The study of NGOs and how their networks might be organized to enforce human rights leads to a qualitative discussion of the relationships among these organizations. This article explores the distinctive relationships among NGOs--as well as the relationship between NGOs and nation-states. It examines how effective they are in promoting human rights and to what level of accountability they are subject. I argue that if they wish to aspire to a more institutionalized position within the human rights system, NGOs need to further develop the quality of their networks to become innovative sources of democracy as well as legitimate and effective sources of universal human rights and international justice.

NGOs AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE GLOBAL REALM

Nongovernmental organizations have grown remarkably in variety and number in the past 25 years. Though estimations differ, the NGOs listed in such resources as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Directory of NGOs, the United Nation Development Programme's (UNDP) Human Development Report and research based on the Yearbook of International Associations all indicate a significant expansion of the NGO sector. The UNDP report of 1993 cites 50,000 NGOs worldwide. Between 1980 and 1990, the OECD reported an increase from 1,600 to 2,500 organizations in its 24 member countries.(1) It is safe to assume that tens of thousands of NGOs worldwide are currently covering a multitude of concerns and working either at or across the local, national or international levels. However, the distribution of these groups throughout the world is not equal.

When writing about NGOs and human rights in the global realm, one should recognize that conceptual or analytical shortcuts are sometimes needed. Conceptual difficulties emerge when one accounts for the academic and political debate surrounding terms like "NGOs" and "NGO advocacy" "civil society," "globalization" and "global governance. …

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