Introduction to Human Rights | Lesson 16: “The Human Rights Movement”

In this class, we will deal with the non-governmental
human rights movement, which has been the main driving force for the observance and
respect for human rights. We have stated in the first class of this
course that for several decades now human rights has become a common, day-to-day expression
and it has acquired great moral legitimacy worldwide. Indeed, at present it is a topic
that is found in newspapers headlines in acronym form, and every reader knows what it means.
It is also an integral part of the agenda of the United Nations and an obligatory reference
in political speeches everywhere. The credit for these developments belongs
to the “human rights movement”. By human rights movement we refer to non-governmental organizations, as well as to ordinary people, working worldwide for the promotion and respect
of human rights. The non-governmental human rights movement
started in the 1960s. In the immediate years after World War II, governments, acting through
the newly created United Nations, had taken a number of initiatives to enshrine in international law human rights, as well as other humanitarian concerns. They also took important steps towards
establishing forms of international criminal justice for particularly heinous crimes. Yet,
this initial momentum came to a halt with the onset of the Cold War and nothing of much importance for human rights happened in the 1950s, other than the anti-colonial process. The 1960s, a turning-point time in many senses, witnessed the emergence of the non-governmental
human rights movement which took up the banners that governments had all but abandoned. Amnesty International was founded in 1961. Later on, other international human rights
organizations were created. At the national level, in the 1970s, human rights organizations sprouted in places under dictatorial rule; first in South America, then in Eastern Europe. Soon most countries counted local human rights organizations As the human rights movement expanded, the issue gained uncontested legitimacy. Sure
enough, at that point many tried to appropriate the idea of human rights to buttress their
own political agenda. As a consequence, observers began to distinguish between credible and
not-so-credible human rights organizations. The most credible ones are characterized by
the fact that they are not for profit; they work for the rights of all and treat similar
situations similarly; they do not subordinate their concern for human rights to other agendas; and their work is conducted rigorously and professionally. They are the flagships of the human rights flotilla, the core of the human rights movement. Over time, the work of these serious human rights organizations has mobilized the United
Nations and other intergovernmental organizations into creating or activating international
treaties and mechanisms for human rights protection and promotion. Their work and jurisprudence
has begun, increasingly, to capture headlines. Yet there are two axioms that should never
be forgotten: (a) Whether deemed as natural faculties or historical breakthroughs, human rights
are not graciously granted by the powers that be. Rather, they are conquered by the persistent
demand of organized common people; (b) As a corollary, the strength and successes of
the human rights cause rest, in the end, on the actions of the human rights movement. It is this non-governmental movement the impulse behind whatever human rights policies or initiatives
may be adopted by individual governments or by intergovernmental organizations such as
the United Nations. International human rights organizations began
to be formed first, beginning in the 1960s. Then, national organizations were created.
In many places (Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, The Philippines, Southern Africa) they worked
under the umbrella of the Catholic Church or of a coalition of churches. As the human
rights movement grew, regional organizations were founded, either to provide support to
the national ones within their region, or to work directly for human rights in that
area. Some organizations, such as Amnesty International,
are membership-based. This organization declares to have more than three million supporters
as well as members and activists in 150 countries. Other organizations are basically staff-driven,
even if they may have a committed board of directors. An example is Human Rights Watch.
Yet others are governed by a body of members of a certain profession – lawyers, in the
case of the International Commission of Jurists; physicians in the case of Doctors Without
Borders. A few international organizations, including
all three just mentioned, work for human rights all over the world. National organizations
concern themselves mainly with human rights in their respective countries. Regional organizations
do so regarding one or more countries within their region. Many international organizations
focus on the protection and promotion of human rights in one or more countries, regions or
sub-regions. Major international human rights organizations tend to
work more on civil and political rights, although some, including Amnesty International, have
branched out to economic, social and cultural rights as well. Other organizations focus
on specific rights or situations, such as freedom of expression, women’s rights, the
rights of indigenous peoples, the rights of migrants, etc. Also, first Human Rights Watch
and then Amnesty International, among others, have long ago included as part of their work
the monitoring of internal and international wars to ascertain if the international norms
of armed conflict (International Humanitarian Law) are respected. Documenting individual human rights abuses
or patterns of human rights violations, and disseminating these reports, is a method almost
universally used by non-governmental human rights organizations. Some, like Human Rights
Watch, take special care to target this information to the U.S. authorities. Other common methods of work include campaigning for an issue or a country; urgent action networks
to be mobilized in case of an imminent abuse or to stop an ongoing violation; sending observers
to trials when it is to be feared that fair trial guarantees may not be respected; promoting
congressional or intergovernmental hearings or the approval of specific treaties; assisting
the victims of human rights violations and their relatives in their needs, including
medical treatment; and seeking to bring to justice the perpetrators of human rights violations. Most human rights organizations have adopted policies on funding, tending to secure the
reality and the image of their impartiality. They include not accepting donations from
governments or from compromising sources. Neither do they accept money with strings
attached to them or donations that represent a significant enough percentage of their budget
so that they may create a relationship of dependence. Please visit our website and watch the next class of this course.

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