NGOs and the Human Rights Movement
last updated August 31, 2003


The term "nongovernmental organization," or "NGO," was first formalized within the United Nations system in 1945 with its inclusion in Article 71 of the United Nations Charter. Article 71 provides the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations with the power to "make suitable arrangements for consultation with non-governmental organizations which are concerned with matters within its competence." The relationship between ECOSOC and NGOs was further formalized in ECOSOC Resolution 1296 and ECOSOC Resolution 1996, which outline criteria for NGO consultative status with ECOSOC. Adapted from William Korey, NGOs and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 2 (1998); Arrangements and Practices for the Interaction of Non-Governmental Organizations in All Activities of the United Nations System: Report of the Secretary-General, A/53/170 (10 July 1998).

While NGOs were instrumental in achieving the inclusion of human rights standards in the United Nations Charter in 1945, they were few in number and influence at that time. Only forty-one NGOs held consultative status with ECOSOC in 1948 and fewer yet focused exclusively on human rights issues. Since the 1960s, however, the number of NGOs and their influence both nationally and internationally has grown exponentially. Approximately 500 NGOs held consultative status with ECOSOC in 1968; this number had increased to over 1000 by 1992. Adapted from William Korey, NGOs and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 2 (1998). As the World Bank has noted, total development aid disbursed by international NGOs increased ten-fold between 1970 and 1985. The World Bank estimates that the number of national NGOs in developing countries is between 6,000 and 30,000.

Human rights NGOs have also grown in influence, both nationally and internationally. As Korey explains, NGOs "played a decisive role in transforming the phrase ['human rights'] from but a Charter provision or a Declaration article into a critical element of foreign policy discussions in and out of governmental or intergovernmental circles." From William Korey, NGOs and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 3 (1998).

NGOs work to advance international human rights around the world principally by setting standards, documenting violations and lobbying for effective enforcement. First, NGOs have been instrumental in setting international human rights standards. "Standard-setting" is "the establishment of international norms by which the conduct of states can be measured or judged." From William Korey, NGOs and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 3 (1998). For example, NGOs were instrumental in achieving the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In addition, NGOs have pressured their national governments to sign and ratify the treaties that embody human rights norms and have worked to increase use of the complaint mechanisms of these treaties. NGOs also had a significant impact at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. The conference was attended by over 800 NGOs, two-thirds of which were grass-roots organizations. As the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights explains, the search for "common ground" on the agenda issues at the Vienna Conference "was characterized by intense dialogue among governments and dozens of United Nations bodies, specialized agencies and other intergovernmental organizations and thousands of human rights and development NGOs from around the world." From OHCHR, World Conference on Human Rights. Women's NGOs were a particularly prominent force at this conference and in pushing for the inclusion of groundbreaking language in the conference document. NGOs have continued to play critical roles in advancing the agenda at subsequent United Nations conferences. Adapted from James A. Paul, NGOs and Global Policy-Making (2000); William Korey, NGOs and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 3 (1998).

Second, NGOs work to document violations of human rights standards. Investigation and documentation by NGOs has been vitally important in bringing human rights abuses to the attention of the United Nations, the international community and the public at large. Dorothy Thomas explains this process as follow:

Human rights practice is a method of reporting facts to promote change. The influence of nongovernmental organizations is intimately tied to the rigor of their research methodology. One typical method of reporting human rights violations in specific countries is to investigate individual cases of human rights violations through interviews with victims and witnesses, supported by information about the abuse from other credible sources.

From Dorothy Q. Thomas & Michele E. Beasley, Domestic Violence as a Human Rights Violation, in Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 15, 36, 57 (1993). Negative media exposure generated through the publishing of such human rights reports can serve as a useful "shame sanction" in working to increase a government's compliance with international human rights norms. Adapted from William Korey, NGOs and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 5 (1998).

Third, NGOs work to create and support enforcement mechanisms. As international human rights standards gained prominence, NGOs began "spurring the creation of special UN mechanisms" to enforce these standards while also "providing those [UN] instruments with the assembled documentation to make their investigations productive." Some of the UN mechanisms that have been created in part because of NGO lobbying include the thematic and country mandates under the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. These include Working Groups on issues such as disappearance and detention; Special Rapporteurs on topics such as torture, arbitrary and extrajudicial killing, violence against women, and racism; Special Rapportueurs on particular countries, such as Cuba, Sudan, Burma (Myanmar), Burundi and Rwanda; and Special Rapportueurs or Representatives on groups of countries, such as the UN Special Rapporteur for Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (later the Special Representative of the Commission on Human Rights on the Situation of Human Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia). NGOs were also the impetus behind the creation of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Adapted from William Korey, NGOs and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 9-11 (1998).

The role of NGOs within the United Nations system will continue to evolve. In a 2002 report to the United Nations, the Secretary General emphasized the importance of the role played by NGOs in the United Nations system, noting that the "formal deliberations and decisions of many such meetings [of intergovernmental organizations] are now often enriched by the debates carried out in non-governmental forums and events held in parallel with the official conferences." The report discussed developments in the relationship between NGOs and the United Nations, such as new procedures that allow NGOs to give testimony to Security Council members on certain issues, and efforts by NGOs to present collective views. Finally, the Secretary General noted the need for reforms, such as the need for clarification of the NGO accreditation process, and created a panel to review these issues. Adapted from Strengthening of the United Nations: An Agenda for Further Change, U.N. Doc. A/57/387; Global Policy Forum, NGOs and the United Nations: Comments for the Report of the Secretary General (1999).