Assessing the Effectiveness of Human Rights Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) From the Birth of the United Nations to the 21st Century: Ten Attributes of Highly Successful Human Rights NGOs

Michigan State Journal of International Law, Vol. 18, pp. 165-227, 2009-2010

64 Pages Posted: 19 Jan 2011

See all articles by George E. Edwards

George E. Edwards

Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law

Date Written: March 9, 2009

Abstract

It is undisputed that human rights non-governmental organizations (“human rights NGOs”) have proliferated dramatically in the sixty years since the United Nations promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and that human rights NGOs play a critical role in promoting and protecting human rights in all corners of the globe. However, the human rights community cannot agree on what constitutes a “human rights NGO,” how tidily to categorize them, or even that “NGO” is an appropriate moniker for such groups.

Furthermore, despite the omnipresence of human rights NGOs, human rights community stakeholders cannot agree on a framework for vetting NGOs to help ensure their legitimacy. Definitional and other problems make it difficult for stakeholders easily to distinguish between human rights groups deserving support and human rights groups deserving disbandment. The United Nations, other inter-governmental organizations, and national governments need to now which groups are lawful, legitimate, and worthy of accrediting, licensing, granting tax benefits to, or supporting. Individuals seeking to join an NGO and recipients of NGO largesse need to know which NGOs to trust. Donors need to know which NGOs to fund, and NGOs need to know with which other NGOs they might collaborate to protect human rights.

While this Article does not purport to develop this much-needed, coherent framework, it advances the framework’s development by identifying and analyzing attributes shared by successful human rights NGOs. This Article posits that human rights community stakeholders may assess human rights NGOs in part by determining whether they possess these shared characteristics.

This Article proceeds in five parts. Part II briefly traces the history of the contemporary human rights NGO from anti-slavery and other social movement groups of the eighteenth century, through the participation of human rights NGOs in the creation of the United Nations, to the proliferation of human rights NGOs today.

Part III identifies and analyzes ten characteristics of successful human rights NGOs. These characteristics, which overlap and are not exhaustive, relate to the human rights NGO’s: (1) mission; (2) adherence to human rights principles; (3) legality; (4) independence; (5) funding; (6) non-profit status and commitment to service; (7) transparency and accountability; (8) adaptability and responsiveness; (9) cooperative and collaborative nature; and (10) competence and reliability.

Part IV builds upon the attributes identified in Part III and explores a selection of NGO Codes of Conduct from around the globe designed to promote NGO accountability and transparency and to help bolster NGO credibility. Though efficacy of these Codes may vary, they all contain criteria useful in assessing NGOs.

Part V concludes that although much has changed since the United Nations and modern human rights NGOs were born six decades ago, what has not changed is the disagreement over what constitutes a human rights NGO and how to categorize such groups. However, stakeholders in the international human rights law arena universally agree that human rights NGOs are meant to protect internationally recognized human rights at local, national, sub-regional, regional and global levels. Successful and effective human rights NGOs should possess basic attributes, as described herein, and self-regulate – possibly in part by following NGO Codes of Conduct – to overcome internal and external challenges. Concerted efforts of all relevant stakeholders are needed to ensure that human rights NGOs are able to fulfill their mandate to protect human rights.

Keywords: international human rights law, non-governmental organizations, ngos, code of conduct, human rights

Suggested Citation

Edwards, George E., Assessing the Effectiveness of Human Rights Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) From the Birth of the United Nations to the 21st Century: Ten Attributes of Highly Successful Human Rights NGOs (March 9, 2009). Michigan State Journal of International Law, Vol. 18, pp. 165-227, 2009-2010. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1371708

George E. Edwards (Contact Author)

Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law ( email )

530 West New York Street
Indianapolis, IN 46202
United States

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