NGOs: The People's Voice in International Governance?

Leon Gordenker
Professor Emeritus,
Princeton University,
Princeton, NJ, USA

A Presentation Made at a UNU Public Forum
on Human Rights and NGOs
on 18 September 1996
UNU, Tokyo, Japan

I. Human Rights, States and Global Governance

The very notion of human rights - that based on their own existence people have claims on and protection from excesses by society - runs radically across the central organising principle of the sovereign state in our world. The territory of our globe is actually and legally divided into discrete parcels of land and people administered by governments. The people living in each of these parcels, according to the organising principle of the state, come under control of the government of the land and none other. Governments relate to each other and not to the people subject to another government. When they decide to do so, governments acting in the name of states create organisations, such as the United Nations. States fall under no authority, except their own, unless they agree to some limits.1 Yet this notion of sovereignty, so dear to the contemporary crop of nationalists, does not in fact describe anything except a principle.

On a global basis, governments agree to promote human rights through such organisations as the United Nations. Their agreement suggests an implicit contradiction. How can individuals have rights protected by international surveillance if governments pretend to act autonomously, even when they agree among themselves, as most have done, to respect those rights? Why did they sign up in the first place?2

A glib answer to these questions would hold that governments respond to the wishes of their subjects. The UN treaties of our time assert the human rights of participating in social decisions and provide for the protection of association and expression necessary to such participation. Yet the daily pictures of bloody heads under truncheons of so-called security agents bear witness to the superficiality of such a view. So does the elaborate rhetoric that government spokesmen use to explain away refusal to do anything about such denials of rights in other states.

Is the whole panoply of human rights instruments that the overwhelming majority of governments have pledged to apply nothing more than a cynical fraud or a utopian illusion? It would be hardly more than that if the principle of sovereignty described actuality. It would be hardly more than an illusion if governments could always act in an untrammeled way. The international organisations that deal with human rights issues - the United Nations and its human rights establishment, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Children's Fund, the International Labour Organisation, the Council of Europe and some other regional bodies - all stand for the hope of enlisting the cooperation of governments. To some extent they succeed, at least rhetorically and at most in terms of bringing national practice in conformity with international norms. Indeed no government now denies the general validity of international human rights norms or proudly admits violating them. Rather they usually try to refute any criticism that crops up - it does regularly - in the international organs. Such criticism depends, however, on the willingness of governments to instruct their representatives to voice opposition. It also depends on the ingenuity and integrity of international civil servants.

This approach to human rights results in fragmentary treatment, uneven application of standards, difficulty for individuals to get what they are promised and plenty of evasion. No general government exercises authority over stages of application. Yet somehow rules, and above all expectations, have been created about the permissible behaviour and duties of governments. The existence of these rules and expectations suggests that, even without a hierarchical command, human rights are promoted and protected - not perfectly, not necessarily brilliantly but more than ever before. These functions without overarching authority and without coercion may be called governance.3

Governance in relation to global issues is driven by interdependence of economies and societies and supported by increasingly easy communication among individual people and their organisations. It may be encouraged by the widespread acceptance of privatization of functions that governments monopolized. What we have come to call the civic society - that is relationships among people and organizations outside of formal governmental arrangements - is closely related to governance. Human rights is a striking example of a global issue where governance, not merely

government, applies. Yet this fragmentary, fluid approach to global issues excludes formal popular participation. No world legislature exists. Nor do governments hasten to develop a means by which representatives of the people or the people themselves take part in making decisions on human rights. Is there then no popular voice?

II. NGOs as Participants in Global Human Rights Governance

If a popular voice requires detachment from government, then indeed in governance concerned with global human rights, there is a popular voice. It emanates from non-governmental organizations.4 The character of that voice, however, is far from self-evident and demands sophisticated examination.

NGOs steadily participate in the global organization, with all its fractures and irregularities, for promoting and protecting human rights. NGOs have been omnipresent in the human rights activity that has surged since the end of the Second World War. That they have a role in the deliberations among governments in the UN framework has been especially striking.5 It comprises three approaches, all part and parcel of governance.

The first of these has to do with setting agendas for international cooperation and also for national policies. NGOs that deal specifically with human rights, and others whose work touches on human rights, try to bring violations of standards and shortcomings in national practice into the light of publicity. They inform their members and supporters of such instances. They submit information and recommendations to international organs, such as the UN Commission on Human Rights or the Council of Europe. Where possible, they lobby and advocate specific policies for national governments. Some NGOs dealing with human rights do not work across national boundaries; they direct attention exclusively to the governments of their countries. They carry information from the transnational NGOs and those that work at the international level to their home polities. Such activity helps to set the agendas for international cooperation and national action.

A second mode of participation brings NGOs into the process of formation of human rights policies in both the international and national realms. NGOs have become an integral part of intergovernmental deliberations on human rights and have had an equally prominent role in some national legislatures and bureaucracies.

A third mode of action relates to the administration of accepted policies. NGOs have contracted with international agencies to offer technical assistance on human rights to governments that request it. They have also rendered such assistance on their own. They have taken part in officially sponsored surveys and investigations of human rights applications, including some cases of severe violation. They have trained human rights observers and analysts who work in other organizations or in national realms.

In all of this activity, which contributes to global governance, NGOs have none of the formal authority of government. If they apply internationally sponsored and recognized rules, they do so out of conviction and out of the experience of helping to form them. They are based primarily in the civic society and accordingly their attention necessarily goes to it as well as to official agencies. NGOs are of course constrained by national laws and rules but typically operate at the edges of government authority and find their way around various constraints. In contrast to governments, they find most support - financial, moral, intellectual - without exercising authority. They usually emphasize their contrast with government.

III. NGOs as the Voice of the People

It is tempting to stamp the title "The Voice of the People" on the NGOs that have affected international governance, such as it is, on human rights. They have worked with growing skill, penetration and insight in the development of the agenda, in deliberations of transnational bodies and on the execution of adopted policies. The most active have never relented in their criticism of violations of rights and have applauded advances. They have also acted positively to form new rules, such as those on the rights of children. In a world of governments, and the conviction among many governors that sovereignty has priority over global rules, NGOs have produced impressive results since 1945. These have no historical parallel. Yet precisely whom NGOs represent remains a tantalizing question.6 Furthermore, comprehensive data are embarrassingly absent, forcing an observer to rely on impressions.

NGOs differ from governments by definition and in actuality. But some NGOs directly get some or most of their financial support from governments. These are perhaps relatively few in the human rights field; still, the NGOs working in refugee relief, where human rights are part of the agenda, get substantial or even most of their money from governments and their international organizations. Similarly, some disaster relief organizations, whose work has to do with persons deprived, frequently as a result of malevolent government, of the right to food, shelter and education, are largely government financed.

Some, but certainly not nearly most, NGOs offer membership to anyone who wishes to join. In other cases, the NGO forms around leaders, raises funds and interests contributors who then receive information and other services. The creation of some NGOs is stimulated by governments or intergovernmental agencies. Such an NGO does not of course have the characteristic of a membership organization.

Furthermore, NGOs vary greatly in how their priorities, policies and programs are put together. In some apparently rare cases, the membership participates directly in such decisions. More frequently, but by no means commonly, the membership is polled on policy issues. A far more usual arrangement leaves such decisions in the hands of a professional core staff. Depending on local laws, NGOs have boards of trustees or similarly supervisory organs, but the degree of their involvement in decisions varies enormously.

A related question has to do with the leadership of NGOs. As usual with NGOs, the visible practices vary enormously. Some NGOs even claim not to have any leaders or other hierarchical organization. Others obviously respond to a single figure, sometimes a charismatic sort, sometimes a skillful bureaucratic manager. Whatever the case, few well-based generalizations are possible.

The geographic extent of political engagement raises further questions about representation.7 Some NGOs that relate to human rights operate almost exclusively at the level of intergovernmental relations, typically around the United Nations and other international organizations. Others have national bases but extend their actions beyond the boundaries of their countries. Still others work only in the national realm. Some show a strong interest in promoting and working with grass-roots organizations, while others have no such association. NGOs sometimes form interorganizational alliances only for particular issues, while others belong to groupings with a more general outlook, such as the International Council of Voluntary Agencies or the American group, INTERACTION. From time to time, such groupings make pronouncements on human rights, counsel their members and represent their common views in the meeting halls of intergovernmental agencies. Yet NGOs usually make their own decisions about the scope of their operations, however much their names or programs might lead an observer to asssume patterns of behavior.

Finally, NGOs that have agendas centering on or impinging on human rights issues vary enormously in their abilities to persuade. Some of this variation derives from the degree to which the governments they contact are open to persuasion. Some of it depends on the issue itself. Moreover, the skill of officials and the integrity and plausability of their output differ among organizations. So no matter whom they represent, NGOs as a category tend towards unpredictable results ranging from highly successful in their terms to little impact.

The variety and variability of NGOs can hardly sustain the argument that they represent the people of the world as a legislature in a democracy does its constituents. Yet NGOs do serve one of the functions for which legislatures are designed. A set of voices beyond that of officialdom sounds through the NGOs in the human rights field. In some instances, the NGO voices emanate vertically through societies and administrative units from bottom to top of the official hierarchies. In the human rights field, NGOs can concentrate on transnational policy, rather than limiting themselves by territorial and institutional boundaries.

At their best, NGOs have the ability to poke holes in shoddy defenses of low human rights standards. On occasion, they can even offer some protection to individuals and groups who are threatened or disadvantaged.8 The rising level of professional proficiency in NGO outputs over the years produces voices that cannot be shut down with easy gestures from authority. Their skills and scope of concern mean that human rights NGOs, taken together, contribute to long-term creation and application of standards whether or not there is well-defined popular demand behind them.

IV. Conclusion

NGOs clearly fall short of representing all of the peoples of the world. They do provide a voice from people who want a voice for all people. This activity is consistent with democratization and liberalization as well as some social movements of the civic society. Some governments and some other social organizations still make serious efforts to still the NGO voice. They do so at the national level with secrecy, repression and hostility. At the local level, some nationalistic, religious or ethnic groups promote violations of human rights and resent NGOs that call attention to their deeds. NGOs promoting the rights of women become a particular target at this level. At the international level, opponents use among other things procedural maneuver and definitions, e.g. group rights, to deflect NGO activity.

Whatever the vagaries and opposition, the NGO voice will endure. It has gained wide acceptance as a moral and ethical influence. New organizations are forming where they had earlier never been seen or permitted. The NGO voice has proved to be practical in reining in repression and violation of human rights. In advancing beneficial global governance, it has a claim to be heard as the primitive expression of the people's voice.

1. Splendid examples are briefly cited by Philip Alston, "The Fortieth Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Time More for Reflection than for Celebration," in Jan Berting et al.(eds.), Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Westport, CT, Meckler Corp., 1990), pp. 2Ð3. See also Asbjörn Eide, "The Universal Declaration in Space and Time," in ibid., pp. 17Ð19, 27-28.
2. Cf. David P. Forsythe, The Internationalization of Human Rights (Lexington, MA, Lexington Books, 1991), chap. 7.
3. See extended discussion in James N. Rosenau, "Governance in the Twenty-first Century," Global Governance, vol. 1, no. 1 (Winter 1995), pp. 2-43.
4. See Thomas G. Weiss and Leon Gordenker, NGOs, the UN and Global Governance (Boulder, CO, Lynne Rienner, 1996), pp. 212-13 and passim.
5. Felice D. Gaer, "Reality Check: Human Rights NGOs Confront Governments at the UN," in Weiss and Gordenker, op. cit., pp. 51-66. See also Kathryn Sikkink, "Human Rights Issue-Networks in Latin America," International Organization, vol. 47 (1993), pp. 411-42.
6. Leon Gordenker and Thomas G. Weiss, "NGO Participation in the International Policy Process," in Weiss and Gordenker, op. cit., p. 219.
7. See Peter R. Baehr, The Role of Human Rights in Foreign Policy (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Macmillan Press, 1994), passim for discussions of how human rights policy is formed and applied.
8. Gaer, op. cit., pp. 55-6.

Return to the Documents Page

Comments and suggestions:
Hari Srinivas -