Can Human Rights NGOs Be Trusted in the Corridors of the UN and International Criminal Justice Institutions?

Answering the question as to whether or not human rights NGOs can be trusted in the corridors of the UN and international criminal justice institutions necessarily involves other background questions: NGOs trusted by whom, to do what, why, and how?

The UN system and international criminal justice institutions without human rights NGOs would be like human bodies drained of blood. Fully and organically structured these systems could be, but without red corpuscles to oxygenate the system with people’s ideas, hope, aspirations, and energetic efforts to strengthen human rights, and without white corpuscles that fight against State corruption and abuse, they could not live and function for long.

NGOs play indispensable roles in human rights promotion and protection and in international criminal justice institutions by bringing imminent or actual violations to the attention of governments, national human rights institutions, media, regional intergovernmental organizations, and various UN system components including the Security Council, General Assembly and Human Rights Council, as well as international tribunals and the ICC. Human rights NGOs remain critical in monitoring, investigating, and reporting on human rights situations the world over and in working constructively with governments and other stakeholders to identify challenges and develop solutions for improvement. They focus not only on immediate or urgent violations but also on issues that require continual structural improvement over the longer term, such as the rights to education, health, food, adequate standard of living, and other economic, social, and cultural rights. Human rights NGOs transform anaemic intergovernmental structures into vibrant, active, and responsive tools for alleviating human distress through full engagement in the UN human rights treaty bodies, the Universal Periodic Review, UN human rights special procedures, Human Rights Council and Security Council commissions of inquiry, and through assistance to international criminal prosecutions.

Can individual victims, or potential victims of human rights abuse (which includes any of us) trust human rights NGOs? No one suffering from or threatened with torture would argue against a significant role for human rights NGOs in the UN system or the ICC, simply because governments cannot be trusted to stamp out torture, and in fact, have not done so, let alone even admit their responsibility for it in many instances. Anyone conscious of the value of human rights promotion and protection cannot coherently argue against accommodating NGO voices in the UN and international criminal justice institutions, because the NGO role remains critical to the essence of international human rights promotion and protection which is about empowering ordinary people to limit the overwhelming power of government in people’s lives and to hold basic rights and freedoms sacrosanct against undue state interference. Decades of human rights activism in all countries since the UN was founded in 1945 proves that not only do individuals and groups trust human rights NGOs in the UN system and international criminal justice institutions, they demand this role for them, knowing that governments cannot be trusted to be the sole and exclusive guardians of humanity’s precious dignity and security. Human rights NGOs provide a pulse for the body politic so that attentive decision-makers can listen to and understand the needs, will, and aspirations of ordinary people, rather than to dictate what they shall think and do. The undeniable and essential value of NGOs for democratizing governance makes the paranoid claims of certain governments that NGOs threaten national security generally laughable, until we recall the thousands of human rights defenders who have been tortured or killed at the hands of state officials over the years.

People who dare demand respect for their human rights, and have the courage to organize with others to resist the state’s power, will always unnerve governments which habitually fail to serve their people, rule mainly by force and use law to stifle dissent and subjugate citizens. Limiting NGO activity is just one more way authoritarian governments use to divide civil society, intimidate the general public, and marginalize the political opposition.

This is not to deny or ignore the fact that some NGOs, just like some people, have ulterior motives, are dishonest, may really be GONGOs instead (i.e. fronts for governments, sardonically termed government- organized non-government organizations or GONGOs for short),65 or engage in criminal, terrorist or subversive activities. However, just as the answer to wayward individual behaviour is not to lock everybody up, but rather to expose and sanction individual offenders that exceptionally arise, neither is it defensible for governments to launch broad campaigns against NGOs because a few here or there may not be genuinely nongovernmental, or because they pursue highly political agendas or even commit crimes. The international community is fully capable of distinguishing human rights NGOs that can be trusted to work for victims and potential victims of human rights abuse in line with the principles and purposes of the UN, from NGOs that have baser aims at heart. Practically speaking, the UN accreditation system provides more than ample opportunity for UN member states to express their views on the trustworthiness of particular NGOs, and to suspend or cancel their accreditation if a majority feels the same way.

Fear of the freedom of NGOs boils down to government preoccupation to control discourse and stamp out criticism, and to some governments imagining foreign-instigated conspiracy where it does not exist. Why else would some governments go so far as to set up their own GONGOs? Such dishonest entities pose as independent, objective, non-governmental voices, while clandestinely pushing hidden state-sponsored agenda, pretending to represent citizens, and working instead to keep real NGOs from carrying out their activities and expressing themselves freely and independently.

Ultimately, human rights NGOs have responsibilities to represent facts and advocate positions accurately, fairly and in a balanced manner, and these are the same responsibilities citizens, governments and intergovernmental organizations share. A world where NGOs are controlled, or subject to unnecessary restrictions translates into a world where dull government monologue is the norm, intellectual thought and debate are stifled and repressed, and the body politic suffers from chronic anaemia. NGOs are no more perfect or imperfect than the people who run them, and in a marketplace of ideas, ordinary people rather than governments have to exercise their own judgement which NGOs are the more credible and reliable, rather than to rely on official narratives and dictates. That remains a vital part of democratic governance, human rights and the rule of law.

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