How Human Rights Organizations Work

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.