The modern human rights movement was born in the 1960s, though the roots of some contemporary organizations extend further back in time. Human rights groups have always seen themselves as advocates, but only in the largest sense did they commence their work with a focus on policy issues. As early as 1927 the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) proposed an international declaration of human rights, and in the 1930s it advocated a bill of social rights. These efforts –and the FIDH itself — were eclipsed by the events of World War II, however. When human rights advocates resumed their work in the 1950s, the inclination was to focus energies on particular situations and particular individuals. (During this period the FIDH as well as the newly founded International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) pioneered the work of international trial observations and investigative human rights missions.)
Amnesty International (AI) grew out of this context. According to the oft-recounted story of Amnesty’s origins, British attorney Peter Benenson was inspired to launch an international campaign for the release of political prisoners worldwide after reading a news item about two Portuguese students arrested for “toasting freedom.” Benenson and his colleagues hoped to wake up the world to violations of the fundamental right to free speech and opinion, and their main and innovative tactic was to focus on the persecution of “prisoners of conscience.” Amnesty International’s prisoner-focused work eventually led to broad policy concerns about the death penalty, prison conditions, torture, and fair trials.
As the human rights movement expanded in the 1970s, new organizations cast themselves as watchdogs, with particular and explicit attention to policy concerns. Human Rights First (HRF, and originally known as the Lawyers’ Committee for International Human Rights) was founded in 1978 with the intention of pressing the US government to integrate itself into the international human rights system. Among its first efforts was a program to provide legal support to refugees claiming asylum in the US. In the same year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) was founded as a public “committee” to monitor the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which promised to bring human rights reforms to the Warsaw Pact countries. When civil war spread across Central America in the 1980s, another committee was formed to monitor human rights abuse in the Americas, including the US role in providing military and political support to abusive regimes. By the late 1980s, HRW’s coverage had become global, and for more than a decade, HRW and HRF collaborated to produce an annual critique of the US government’s own report of human rights practices in other countries.
Since the 1960s the international human rights movement has expanded exponentially. Today it is a loose coalition of international organizations, national organizations, and international networks that includes literally thousands of domestic and international groups. The common hallmark of these groups is their independence from governments, an element that is generally regarded as an essential component of their credibility and effectiveness.
Human Rights Organizations and the International Policy Process
In one form or another, human rights organizations have been engaged in every human rights policy issue, from those that focus squarely on a core issue (such as torture or disappearances) to concerns that seem more obliquely related to human rights (such as landmines or the Millennium Development Goals). Human rights organizations are regularly involved in all aspects of the policy process. They have lobbied for attention to new issues; they have helped craft policy solutions; and they have pushed for implementation and accountability after decisions have been made and policy instruments adopted. They have also been instrumental in building up the international institutions through which human rights policies have been articulated and pursued.
Human rights organizations use a range of campaigning techniques to advance their concerns. “Naming and shaming” is arguably the best recognized of their tactics, but as Keck and Sikkink have observed, human rights organizations actually rely on a much wider array of lobbying tools, including symbolic politics, and leverage politics. Achieving policy goals in the UN and other diplomatic circles may depend as much on persuasion as pressure. As Wilder Tayler notes, “Pressure and persuasion are the two main tools of the human rights movement. Apart from them there is not much more.”
With specific regard to the standard-setting work of human rights organizations, in the introductory chapter to Human Rights: From Practice to Policy, Walling and Waltz note that historically human rights organizations did not set out to involve themselves with developing normative standards or legal instruments. In many cases, perhaps most cases, they were drawn into that enterprise as an extension of their advocacy work on a particular issue. During the 1970s and 1980s human rights organizations by default served as de facto think tanks on normative issues related to human rights, as human rights scholarship was relatively sparse and the international policy framework was only emergent. As human rights scholarship and the human rights implementation machinery have developed in recent years, human rights organizations continue to play an important role in developing normative principles and supporting initiatives, but they do so in partnership with a wider epistemic community.
International Human Rights Organizations
(listed chronologically, from year founded)
- (1922) Fédération Internationale des Droits de l’Homme
- (1952) International Commission of Jurists
- (1961) Amnesty International
- (1977) Human Rights Watch
- (1978) Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers’ Committee for International Human Rights)
- (1982) INTERIGHTS, The International Centre for the Legal Protection of Human Rights (as of May 2014, no longer in operation)
Reports and Policy Analysis
- International Council on Human Rights Policy, Standard-setting: Lessons for the Future. 2006.
On advocacy and standard-setting work
- Clark, Ann Marie. Diplomacy of Conscience: Amnesty International and Changing Human Rights Norms. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
- Clark, Ann Marie. “Nongovernmental Organizations: Overview.” In International Encyclopedia of Human Rights, edited by David Forsythe. Oxford University Press, 2009: 91-93 (section on standard-setting).
- Cook, Helena. “Amnesty International at the United Nations.” In The Conscience of the World: The Influence of Non-Governmental Organizations in the UN System, edited by Peter Willetts, pp. 181-213. Brookings Institution, 1996.
- MacDermott, Niall. “Standard Setting for Human Rights.” Peace Review 1 (1989): 30-34.
- Mutua, Makau. “Standard-Setting in Human Rights: Critique and Prognosis.” Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 29 (2007): 547-630.
- Tolley, Howard, Jr. “Popular Sovereignty and International Law: ICJ Strategies for Human Rights Standard Setting.” Human Rights Quarterly 11, no. 4 (1989): 561-585.
- Van Boven, Theo. “The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations in International Human Rights Standard-Setting: A Prerequisite of Democracy.” California Western International Law Journal 20 (1989-1990): 207-225.
- Weissbrodt, David S. “NGOs and the International Standard Setting Process.” Mennesker og rettigheter 1 (1983): 20-23.
On history and role of the human rights movement
- Hopgood, Stephen. Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.
- Keck, Margaret and Sikkink, Kathryn. Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
- Khagram, Sanjeev, James V. Riker and Kathryn Sikkink. Restructuring World Politics: Transnational Social Movements, Networks, and Norms. University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
- Larson, Egon. A Flame in Barbed Wire: The Story of Amnesty International. New York: F. Mueller, 1978.
- Moyn, Samuel. The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. Belknap Press, 2010.
- Neier, Aryeh. The Human Rights Movement: A History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.
- Nelson, Paul J. and Ellen Dorsey. New Rights Advocacy: Changing Strategies of Development and Human Rights NGOs. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2008.
- Power, Jonathan. Like Water on Stone: The Story of Amnesty International. Northeastern Press, 2001.
- Tolley, Howard, Jr. The International Commission of Jurists: Global Advocates for Human Rights.
- Welch, Claude, Ed. NGO’s and Human Rights: Promise and Performance. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
Advocacy Work and Training Tools
- Amnesty International. Amnesty International Handbook, 2002.
- Amnesty International. Amnesty International Campaigning Manual, 2001. (Note: See Chapter 6 on international human rights standards and organizations, pp. 97-110.)
- Human Rights Education Associates (HREA).
Multimedia Sources, including Film
Amnesty International. “Amnesty International’s 50 year history.” YouTube.