How Human Rights Organizations Work

International Human Rights Organizations

In New York City, Amnesty International holds a vigil for Iran protestors.
In New York City, Amnesty International holds a vigil for Iran protestors.
Mario Tama/Staff/Getty Images

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?