Human Rights Activities and Role of NGOs

January 10, 2011 at 12:50 am

A Non-governmental organization (NGO) is any local, national, or international citizens' group (i.e. not part of a govt.) which does not work for profit. This simple definition also means that organization under the label of NGOs have an extreme broad range of functions. NGOs works in fields as diverse as law, refuge work, human rights and disarmament; their work can range from influencing policy or organizing communities around special issues to providing technical or medical assistance to conducting researches. Over the last two decades, the role of NGOs in local and international affairs has grown tremendously. Thousand of such new organizations have been set up in almost all countries, especially the developing countries. The amount of development assistance flowing through NGOs has increased manifold since 1980s. Most of this growth reflects a desire on the part of citizens to influence their own lives and environment. Because of their flexibility, NGOs provide a unique channel through which ordinary citizens can participate in decisions which they feel affect their lives-that could be anything from housing to arms control. In 1945 San Francisco meetings in which the United Nations Charter was drawn up and signed, 42 NGOs were invited to participate by the US government. They presented draft texts for the charter parts of which were eventually incorporated, including this passage from article 71.'' The Economic and Social Council may make suitable arrangements for consultation with Non-governmental organizations…." That laid the foundation for cooperation between the UN and NGOs. The Council granted consultative status to a limited number of NGOs, which meant that these NGOs could participate in some debates and, in some cases, place items on the agenda. Other NGOs, however, could cooperate in the field with the specialized agencies. It was probably in the field, more than anywhere else that the presence of NGOs began to be felt strongly. Specialized agencies and bodies such as the UN Development Programme and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees realized early on that NGOs offered them crucial resources and expertise. Many of these specialized agencies have their own relationships with NGOs; they can coordinate NGO efforts, provide funds from NGOs for their own programmes. The cooperation of NGOs has also furthered the goals of the UN in other areas such as disarmament, human rights, education, the environment and science. Beginning with the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, the broader participation of NGOs in addressing global issues became a fact. Over 1500 organizations were accredited to participate in the conference. In this and subsequent international conferences, such as the World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna), the International Conference on Population and Development (Copenhagen) and fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing), NGOs have shaped many of the points on the agendas, some of which have already become law. In short, NGOs participate in the UN system in four ways.

  • They raise issues, such as women's rights and the environment, which then get placed on the world's agenda.
  • They shape decisions taken by the UN, though it can be said that they are much less influential in politics than in the social and humanitarian fields.
  • They enter into partnership with the UN to help carry out its objectives and programmes in the field.
  • Finally, they serve as important watchdogs of the UN; observing, criticizing and reporting on its role.

The human rights movement in Asia has emerged in response to some intolerable trends and conditions prevailing in the particular countries and societies. In virtually every country in Asia, to greater or lesser extent, we witness today several alarming and intolerable trends:

  • The growing impoverishment, exploitation and powerlessness of a majority of the rural and urban population: the poor.
  • The growing incidence of malnutrition, hunger and starvation and growing permanent degradation of the physical environment for the production of food and the meeting of survival needs.
  • The worsening of already intolerable conditions of those subject to multiple oppression and exploitation such as women, children and religions or ethnic minorities.
  • Debasement of human beings leading to the devaluation of human life itself.
  • The increasing adoption, by the elites in such countries, of a life-style whose affluence can only be sustained by the pauperization and exploitation of others.
  • The growth of fundamentalist trends in religions revivalism making religion a divisive rather than a cohesive force.
  • The increasing incidence of ethnic violence and cultural genocide.
  • The growth of material and moral corruption among the bureaucracy and their virtually total lack of accountability.
  • The increasingly authoritarian nature of political institutions despite their virtually total lack of accountability.
  • The growing materialization of developing countries achieved through government expenditure on arms at the expense of programmes to alleviate poverty.
  • The imposition of hazards and harms upon powerless workers and communities through indiscriminate industrialization employing hazardous technologies.

In order to understand the growing human rights activism in the developing country like India, one needs to take a closer look at the people involved in human rights organizations. Three main categories have been involved: Intellectuals, Professionals and Activists. Prominent among the professionals have been members of the legal elite - leaders of the legal profession, former members of the judiciary and prominent legal academics. Their involvement has been of a more conventional type, helping provide legal services and legal representation to indigents, or to those whose civil and political rights have been violated or by way of "test cases" or "public interest litigation". Their approach has been mainly to work within the existing law, using existing legal processes to enforce human rights or to help bring about incremental development of the content of specific human rights. Also, an alternative breed of human rights activists emerge seeking to arouse public awareness of gross and widespread violations of human rights (especially, but not exclusively, economic, social and cultural rights), and seeking assertion of those rights through both legal and extra - legal methods, including protests and direct action. This category of activists is not content with working within the existing legal order but is intent on helping reform such order as part of process of securing social change and structural transformations. The influence of these human rights activists upon the professionals and intellectuals has led to their gradual reorientation and professional socialization.

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