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How Human Rights Organizations Work


Protecting Human Rights Organizations
A memorial in South Africa marks the death of schoolchildren who were gunned down during apartheid.
A memorial in South Africa marks the death of schoolchildren who were gunned down during apartheid.
B.Bahr/Contributor/Getty Images

When you think about human rights and the organizations that aim to protect them, it's important to remember three basic problems.

The first is lack of information. How do we know what conditions in North Korean work camps are like? How many slaves are still out there? How do we know if genocide is taking place if it happens somewhere the international community has no access? Information is key to mobilization, which is why most human rights organizations (HROs) are actively -- or even singly -- concerned with gathering data, publishing reports and drumming up public support through media awareness.

The second problem is that there must be a balance between the gravity of crimes against human rights and how realistic the possibility of change is. For instance, Chinese rule of Tibet is one of the highest profile issues in the world, but in spite of years of protests and political pressure, the problem has remained a brick wall for human rights advocates. On the other hand, Amnesty International reports several times a month on political prisoners everywhere from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe being pardoned or released due to the power of public awareness.

The third issue is the problem of action. The world is a messy, complicated place, and interfering overseas is tricky business. Direct action is difficult even when you live in a country where known human rights abuses are happening, so how can you know you're working effectively for change? It would be nice to have a dashing superagent who parachutes in, unseats a warlord, then passes out ballots and T-bone steaks, but there's a shortage of those people in the international community.

So if direct intervention is impossible, what else can be done? The first step is most often raising awareness of the frequency of human rights violations. Real change in human rights comes from public awareness, and public awareness comes from organizations that have the power to spur large groups of people into letter-writing campaigns, vigils, public demonstrations and donations. Though it often feels like a drop in the bucket, the power of public awareness cannot be understated. The fall of apartheid and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine both testify to the power of public involvement and awareness.

Feel like getting involved? Turn to the next page for lots more information on human rights and HROs all over the world.