How Human Rights Organizations Work

Cheering crowd celebrating with raised hands.
Humans have the right to assemble and form peaceful associations with one another.
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In the United States, we're guaranteed certain rights by the Constitution, but what rights do we have just by being virtue of being human? Before we understand human rights organizations (HROs), we have to understand human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, created after World War II as a framework for developing international human rights guidelines, is based on the idea that all people are born with the capacity for conscience and therefore deserve to be treated with dignity. We have the right to live and work where we choose, to marry and have families, to hold our own opinions and to be free from arbitrary attacks and arrests. We also have the right to our own religion and opinions, as well as the right to assemble and form peaceful associations with our fellow humans.

Maybe these rights sound obvious, but it's a big deal to have a documented and widely accepted accord on just what it means to be a human. We might think that by now the atrocities of the past are no longer a danger, but events of the last century have revealed just how important a codified set of rules protecting human rights is. The Holocaust comes to mind, of course, but even after the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights there have been countless cruelties waged by humans against humans. There are the killing fields of Cambodia, the prison at Abu Ghraib, forced disappearances in Argentina, ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, apartheid and areas of endemic child labor to name a few. Slavery was only finally criminalized in Mauritania in 2007.


It's true that there are dark corners of oppression all over the world, but there is also a light. We'll take a look at the operations of some of the organizations working to protect human rights, what they do, and some of the problems they face.

United States Human Rights Organizations

Human rights advocacy groups fall under two headings -- government and independent. Based on the way they're organized, both have strengths and weaknesses, but rely on one another to get things done.

The United States has several human rights organizations (HROs) operating within its borders -- some are independent, and others are affiliated with the government. Multinational government groups make good HROs because they can act as a legal authority. Any human rights group needs a powerful legal framework to try crimes against humanity and to regulate human rights law. By setting up treaties and courts, governments can pass laws, create treaties, hold trials, fund aid, and investigate human rights violations. They are the muscle of the human rights community.


That is, if everything doesn't devolve into squabbling. Even in the United States, where citizens' human rights are written into our governing document, government human rights organizations' have limited power. Governments the world over have their own agendas that can politicize where and when help is distributed. Say a country has the opportunity to send a peacekeeping force to a war-torn area rich in natural resources. Can a government-run HRO maintain neutrality? Can other countries trust it not to take advantage of its position? Government HROs are accountable to governments, which means they can run into difficulties if there's a conflict of interest.

Consider the United Nations (UN), of which the United States is a member nation. The UN is like the grandmother of multinational organizations. An administrative body, it was created after World War II to replace the defunct League of Nations. The UN is a council of international representatives dedicated to world peace, economic development and human rights. Funding comes from member nations based on their gross national product (GNP), but countries also often donate money for specific United Nations programs like UNIFEM, a women's advocacy group, and UNICEF, a children's rights program.

Another example of a government HRO is the International Criminal Court (ICC), a treaty-based international court set up to try those accused of crimes against humanity. Currently, it's investigating cases in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Uganda and Darfur on issues such as genocide, sexual slavery, and the use of child soldiers. Though an independent body, the ICC works closely with the UN and is financed by member nations.

Government HROs can do a lot of good for human rights, but they don't have as much freedom as independent organizations. We'll look at a couple of those on the next page as we examine international human rights organizations.


International Human Rights Organizations

Amnesty International vigil
In New York City, Amnesty International holds a vigil for Iran protestors.
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Only governmental human rights organizations (HROs) have the power to enforce laws, but independent HROs can still effect a lot of change -- both directly and indirectly. Being independent, they can pick and choose where their funding comes from, which bolsters their ability to remain neutral. However, without the budget and legal authority of government HROs, the most powerful weapon at the disposal of independent HROs is public outrage. To that end, their goal is to raise awareness of human rights violations in order to draw enough attention for governments to take action. Unlike government organizations, independent HROs tend to be a small nucleus of administrators and researchers backed by a large decentralized network of members, contacts, and NGOs. These are just a few examples of international independent HROs operating today:

  • Amnesty International -- Amnesty International (AI) got its start in 1961 when a British lawyer named Peter Benenson created the Appeal for Amnesty, a group dedicated to protecting the rights of political prisoners. Today, AI is one of the most powerful human rights think tanks on the planet, mobilizing enormous campaigns for the rights of refugees and impoverished people, helping defend women against violence and freeing prisoners of conscience. These campaigns are entirely independent -- accepting no government funds -- and their finances come from such diverse single sources as the MacArthur Foundation, Norwegian Public Television pledge drives and Nicolas Cage.
  • Human Rights Watch -- Another of the heavy-hitters in the human rights world is Human Rights Watch (HRW), a group dedicated to researching and disseminating information on human rights abuses. By partnering with journalists and victims, the organization publishes reports that advise governments and the public on areas of dire need. Because of its meticulous research and insider information, HRW can often shine a light on human rights violations that would have otherwise escaped international attention. Like Amnesty International, HRW accepts absolutely no government funds, working off only foundation and individual donations.
  • Free the Slaves -- Slavery is still a real problem, and human trafficking happens even in the United States. Free the Slaves takes a hands-on approach to the problem, rescuing slaves all over the world and helping them create new, safer lives. The organization also conducts and publishes research on slavery in order to recommend ways to fight human trafficking.

Research and people power is all well and good, but what do these organizations actually accomplish? And how do they protect themselves?


Protecting Human Rights Organizations

apartheid memorial
A memorial in South Africa marks the death of schoolchildren who were gunned down during apartheid.
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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.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

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  • Amnesty International. "The History of Amnesty International." 2009. (June 12, 2009).
  • Amnesty International. "Report and financial statements for the year ended 31 March 2007." 2007. (June 18, 2009).
  • Amnesty International. "Who We Are." 2009. (June 12, 2009).
  • Anti-Slavery. "Today's Fight for Tomorrow's Freedom." 2009. (June 16, 2009).
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  • UNIFEM. "The Gender Equality Fund At a Glance." 2009. (June 17, 2009).
  • United Nations. "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights." 2009. (June 16, 2009).
  • The United Nations. "The United Nations at a Glance." 2009. (June 14, 2009).
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