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Rights and responsibilities of human rights organisations (2009)



Human Rights Organisations Rights and ResponsabilitiesThe Council first initiated thinking on a research project on rights and responsibilities of human rights NGOs in 2002. The project was meant to explore issues of legitimacy and accountability, focusing particularly on human rights NGOs and address following questions:

  • What are the essential elements of “legitimacy” and “accountability” for human rights NGOs?

  • What benefits will human rights NGOs obtain by demonstrating clearly that they are accountable and legitimate – and what risks might they face?

The research focus included:

a. Definitional issues: What distinguishes NGOs, including human rights NGOs, from other kinds of organisation? Are these particularities essential? What influence do regional, political or social divides have, or size and situation? Do “international” and “national” NGOs have different responsibilities?
What is meant by “legitimacy” and “accountability”, recognising that most NGOs face multiple forms of accountability and may claim to have legitimate authority to act or speak in relation to several areas of activity? Do human rights NGOs have distinctive responsibilities in relation to “legitimacy” and “accountability”?
What are the boundaries of legitimate authority for human rights NGOs?

b. Issues in relation to other actors in “civil” society: Are human rights NGOs “accountable” to other NGOs and if so in what ways? If so, how do responsibilities differ depending on an organisation’s size, scope and stature? How can human rights NGOs maintain legitimacy during periods when their message or tactics are unpopular or create divisions of opinion within their constituencies? What risks and opportunities do human rights NGOs incur if they associate more closely with broader social movements? What issues of legitimacy arise in relation to movements that are genuinely grassroots?

c. Issues in relation to government and official institutions: How do government or other official funding affect NGO accountability and legitimacy? What issues of legitimacy arise when human rights NGOs challenge the positions of democratically-elected governments? What, if anything, distinguishes NGOs from investigative journalists or activist academics who do not claim the same authority? Is the claim of NGOs that they are independent and impartial less convincing because (at least in some countries) they have greater access to political, media and business leaders or where official foreign policy positions echo NGO positions? What forms of accountability can governments reasonably impose, and what forms of accountability are abuses of liberty of association? How should human rights NGOs manage their relations with political parties – especially in emerging democracies?

d. Issues in relation to those whom human rights NGOs claim to represent: In what senses are human rights NGOs accountable to those who they protect or assist, or for whom they claim to speak? Should NGOs assume professional obligations (similar to those that a lawyer assumes in relation to a client, for example)? If so, can these be spelled out? Do those on whose behalf human rights NGOs speak have a right to be consulted on broader issues – for example, on which countries an international group campaigns on at a given time? Or which human rights abuses are highlighted? If so, how could such obligations be implemented in practice?

e. Internal issues: Many NGOS have grown enormously in scale in recent decades. They have more staff; they undertake a wider range of activities, including high profile advocacy and press work; they operate multi-million dollar budgets and run sophisticated fund-raising and membership systems. What issues of internal management arise for larger NGOs of this sort, in relation to mandate, accountability and transparency?

The project was the subject of extensive consultations and multiple drafts of a final report were prepared. Each draft generated passionate debate and critique and the Council read this as a sign that the subject matter demands much wider debate. It therefore extended the length of the project, including attempting an online forum. However with the Executive Board and Secretariat unable to agree on a final draft, the project was left in draft. The final draft (2009) can be found below.

Research team