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Human rights NGOs have become an important part of international human rights advocacy in recent decades. Multilateral bodies such as the UN Human Rights Council and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights no longer monopolize the field, nor is it clear that they are as important as the NGOs in mobilizing public opinion and government action.
NGOs have the great asset of independence. They do not need to tailor their statements and activities to fit any government’s official policy. Moreover, they do not need to balance, as every democratic government must, the protection of human rights and the promotion of democracy against the country’s security, commercial, financial, and other interests.
NGOs widen or narrow their aperture as their goals dictate, from the global promotion of democracy to a specific country or issue. By so doing they may acquire deep expertise in particular geographical areas or subjects, even by comparison to foreign ministries and multinational organizations that follow the same issues. As Theo van Boven, a long-time U.N. human rights official, wrote in 2015, many NGOs “play an important role in the collection and dissemination of facts concerning alleged violations of human rights. Many institutions and organizations, such as the United Nations, rely heavily on information concerning violations of human rights provided by NGOs and groups.”
There are scores of such NGOs, but two examples will demonstrate the point: the International Campaign for Tibet follows China/Tibet issues with greater attention than is possible for any NGO trying to follow every global issue, and Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain reports almost daily on developments there, in great detail. The profusion of NGOs can, then, mean more and more information of real value to governments, multilateral organizations, other NGOs, potential donors, and the press. As the former U.S. government human rights official Thomas Melia put it in a 2006 CFR Backgrounder, NGOs also "think differently and have a different perspective and different analysis from the State Department,” and “pluralism in this field is helpful.”
Fact-finding is a key NGO role, but there are others. As van Boven writes, it’s critical that governments legislate human rights norms with meaningful participation from groups representing all aspects of society. The lack of non-government voices can lead to what van Boven refers to as the "democratic gap." As he put it, “The international law of human rights is a people-oriented law, and it is only natural that the shaping of this law should be a process in which representative sectors of society participate.”
Many human rights and democracy NGOs are small. The International Committee for Tibet reports expenses of $3.67 million in 2019; the Project on Middle East Democracy spent $1.63 million that year. Somewhat larger, the Committee to Protect Journalists spent $12 million in 2020. By comparison, the Biden administration has requested $26.3 million from Congress as the budget of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Separately, the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy has an annual budget in recent years of $300 million (supplied by Congress). Other governments also fund programs to promote democracy: the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in the United Kingdom has a budget of about $19 million per year and the Adenauer Foundation in Germany has a budget for international activities of about $65 million per year, in both cases provided by the national government.
It is in this context of small NGOs and government initiatives of varying sizes that the two largest international NGOs, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty international, loom so large and play such a powerful role. In 2021, Human Rights Watch had $256 million in assets and revenue of $130 million. It employs more than 500 staff members in 105 locations globally and has an annual budget of $97 million. Amnesty International is even larger, raising $436 million in 2020 and spending $376 million.
It is critical to examine their size and influence: compared to many NGOs in the field of democracy promotion and human rights, they are behemoths whose staffs and spending dwarf others in the field. Both organizations maintain large public relations staffs and their reports attract enormous attention.
In theory size can be an advantage. Larger organizations may have more independence from individual donors and may be better able to resist attacks from governments they criticize. Still, very large donors will always have the ear of officials of even the largest NGOs, and small NGOs in locations such as London and Washington need not worry much about criticism from governments that abuse human rights. Perhaps the greatest positive aspect of very large size is the ability to generate attention to particular cases and countries, an attribute small NGOs may lack.
But the very large size of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch raises several problems, starting with the threat to the “pluralism” that Thomas Melia mentioned and the “democratic gap” that van Boven said NGOs might fill. When two gigantic NGOs dominate the field, their voices can drown out those of many other, far smaller organizations. What’s more, NGOs and their leadership are not immune from harboring prejudices and political biases.
Both organizations have been deeply critical of Israel and have attracted accusations of bias against that country. In February 2022, Amnesty issued a report entitled “Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians: a cruel system of domination and a crime against humanity.” The UK foreign ministry rejected the use of this terminology, and the German foreign ministry said "We reject expressions like apartheid or a one-sided focusing of criticism on Israel.” The spokesman for the U.S. State Department said "I reject the view that Israel's actions constitute apartheid….we must ensure there isn't a double standard being applied."
The attitude of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International toward Israel presents at least two problems. The first is simply the merits of the argument: are these two organizations biased against Israel, engaging in “one-sided focusing of criticism on Israel?” What other biases might they have, with respect to particular countries or on particular issues? Are they playing some matters down and playing others up in ways that would be controversial if fully understood outside the organization?
That the U.S., U.K., and German governments felt compelled to respond to the Amnesty report is a measure of Amnesty’s influence and of the attention that its reports receive—far more than is typical for the scores of NGOs active on Middle East or human rights/democracy issues. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty also have a considerable ability to affect press coverage and the views of other NGOs, setting the agenda for debate for the media and campuses as well as for foreign ministries.
Moreover, when two such NGOs dominate the field, questions may arise as to their own internal “democratic gap.” Such large and rich organizations report to no one, nor of course are they democratically run internally. Their top officials theoretically report to boards of trustees, but the boards are themselves self-perpetuating and independent from any oversight. The very independence of NGOs, one of their greatest strengths, can become an issue when two organizations so dominate the field.
The ancient question Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? or "Who will guard the guards themselves?" arises here—and is difficult to answer. Others in the field of democracy promotion may be reluctant to criticize such powerful players—in part because anyone in the field may think he or she might one day seek employment as part of their large (and at the top very well-paid) staffs, and in part because they do not wish to tangle with organizations having such influence.
NGOs are critical participants in promoting democracy and human rights around the world. They play roles that cannot be filled by governments, and their many and varied voices provide perspectives and information that would otherwise be unavailable. The dominance of the two largest organizations is at the same time worth careful attention, especially given how controversial have been some of their activities. The independence of NGOs is invaluable, but the issues of oversight, governance, and bias at the two largest NGOs, which dominate the field globally, cannot be overlooked.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.