The effective protection of human
rights always requires a good knowledge of the human rights conditions and
applicable legal principles. 9 NGOs consistently monitor human rights
situations in particular countries all over the world (the latter is applied to
transnational NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International). They
also monitor whether states comply with their obligations under human rights
law. In other words, they act as “watchdogs” and provide an independent
overview and assessment of whether and how human rights are ensured. Such
monitoring helps to collect data about human rights situations at the national
and international level and highlight any problems. NGOs are well known for
their role in gathering information with respect to the abuse of human rights
and freedoms. They gather information from various sources: for example, from
human rights victims, witnesses, other human rights NGOs, newspapers, in
examining injuries and physical evidence, observing trials, and demonstrations.
By gathering and disseminating information about human rights issues NGOs try
to draw the attention of the public, governments, and other actors to the
problems that exist in the human rights field and raise the concerns of usually
unheard voices. Thus investigation, documentation and dissemination of the
information by human rights NGOs play a vital role in bringing human rights
abuses to the attention of public and international community. As Claude
Emerson Welch notes, “without the flow of information, documentation, and data
from NGOs the entire human rights implementation system and the UN would come
to a halt”. 10 The important role of NGOs in gathering the information is
recognized by Theo van Boven as well. According to the former director of the United
Nations Human Rights Centre in Geneva, NGOs provide 85 percent of the
information provided to the Centre11 and thus prove that the United Nations are
greatly dependent on NGOs for information. Indeed, NGOs serve as a key source
of information to governments, intergovernmental organizations, politicians,
human rights tribunals. Furthermore, NGOs provide reliable and credible
information that sometimes contradicts the information provided by states, and
thus proves that some countries may lie about the real human rights
situation(s) in their country.

The information that NGOs “gather,
verify, and disseminate is their major weapon in lobbying governments to change
the policy” 12 regarding the human rights. In playing the role of “advocates”,
NGOs try to influence the politicians to make decisions in favour of better and
more efficient human rights protection. In large part the lobbying takes
through the NGOs participation in the negotiations or consultations processes
on the new human rights standards. NGOs also lobby regional, international
governmental bodies to take some actions with respect to human rights violator
states. 13 Thus the NGOs lobbying has an internal, as well as external
dimension. It is noteworthy that traditionally in the work of human rights
NGOs, the gathering of information is concentrated on governments’ violations
of human rights rather than exploring the reasons (for example, traditional,
cultural, socioeconomic development and etc.) that underlie them. A fear exists
that explaining why human rights violations occur may justify the governments
or give credence to the claims that human rights violations take place because
of underdevelopment. 14 This could allow some governments to continue the human
rights violations and ignore their obligations under human rights law. Aiming
to improve the human rights situation, the NGOs quite often directly assist
human rights victims by providing them legal assistance (for example, handle
individual complaints), humanitarian assistance (for example, providing
emergency aid, food, water, shelter, medicine, and health care for the
rehabilitation of torture victims15) and other kinds of direct assistance.
Because of NGOs’ knowledge of human rights situations and reputation for
impartiality, in some cases the NGOs are involved in the reconciliation and
mediation process. 16 Usually they act as politically neutral intermediaries,
working with opposing parties, facilitating negotiations, and helping to find
an accepted solution for both parties. 17 This is especially the case in
solving conflicts where the ethnic minorities are involved.

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The education on human rights issues
contributes to the improvement of human rights situations themselves, because
people learn about their rights and thus increase the possibility of claiming
them. NGOs disseminate information about human rights in general, as well as on
specific topics; they organize courses, release publications, and organize
events (seminars, round tables and etc.) on various topics of human rights; and
thereby NGOs increase public awareness of human rights. Still the most
effective weapon of human rights NGOs in protecting human rights is the
“mobilization of shame” or the use of so-called “naming and shaming” strategy.
This strategy holds that the gathering and publishing of information about a
country’s human rights records/abuses within their own borders will shame the
government into changing its behavior, increasing the government’s compliance
with international human rights standards. This strategy depends on the idea
that all governments, all countries in the world would like to be known as
civilized ones, which observe the international human rights standards which
they themselves have helped to devise. 18 No government will easily admit that
it allows the violation of these standards. 19 Thus, the effectiveness of this
strategy greatly depends on the credibility and reliability of the information
provided by NGOs. The use of the “naming and shaming” strategy can not only
bring positive changes within the country, but it can also mobilize
international public opinion against the offending regime, leading other states
or intergovernmental organizations to take action, such as open criticism or
diplomatic and economic sanctions against the violating nation in order to
change “the bad practice”. In other words, human rights NGOs’ work has an
external dimension as well. For example, active NGOs advocacy in the
international arena has resulted in some sanctions having been taken against
the People’s Republic of China after the Tiananmen Square massacres in 1989.
More than twenty years after this event, “many of the U.S sanctions against the
People Republic of China created in response to the Tiananmen military
crackdown in 1989 remain in effect, including some foreign aid-related
restrictions, such as required “no” votes or abstentions by U.S.
representatives to international financial institutions regarding loans to
China (except those that meet basic human needs)”.20

It is obvious that by acting in many
different ways the human rights NGOs strive for some positive changes in
protecting human rights. They attempt to convince some actors – the local and
national governments, inter-governmental bodies, international community or
other non-state actors – to take some or refrain from some actions in
protecting human rights or to change their policy in the human rights field
towards the greater protection of human rights and to create a human rights
friendly environment. In this case the NGOs are the catalyst for human rights
policy changes. To measure precisely the effectiveness of NGOs is difficult,
but “nearly everyone familiar with human rights politics acknowledges their
influence, including many governments whom they have criticized, and this
suggests that the influence is significant”. 25 NGOs help to identify and
prioritize key human rights issues, highlight the imperfections of human rights
implementation process, draw attention to human rights abuses, notify the
emergency situations and address a wide range of previously unrecognized
problems, like violence against women. The active work of NGOs has led to the
situation that most human rights questions are included in national and
international agendas and the new human rights documents (national, regional
and international) are initiated. The active advocacy of human rights NGOs
provides the opportunities to develop a culture of human rights protection.
They also contribute to creating a better society, raising the world
consciousness about human rights and, most importantly, they help to translate
the formal promises of governments for better human rights protection into
actual reality and thus give opportunities for individuals to fully enjoy their
internationally recognized human rights standards. From this perspective, NGOs
are certainly defenders of human rights. Moreover, if not for the pressure of
NGOs, “the diplomatic taboo that long prevented states from directly
criticizing each other’s internal behaviors might still be in place”. 26

The importance of NGOs in ensuring the
full enjoyment of human rights is recognized in the 1993 Vienna Declaration,
which stresses “the important role of NGOs in the promotion of all human rights
and in humanitarian activities at national, regional and international levels
…. to the promotion and protection of all human rights and fundamental
freedoms”. 27

Not in all cases has the work of human
rights NGOs and the consequences of their activities been treated as positive.
There is always a risk that in some cases the activities of NGOs will have a
negative effect on human rights, or sometimes will even be associated with more
rights violations. As in the previous case there are external and internal
dimensions. Regarding the latter, in some cases, pressuring the governments to
ratify the international human rights treaties may lead to an effect contrary
to what is expected. Some countries, especially the authoritarian regimes, can
ratify human rights treaties, but they “can not only get away with continued human
rights violations, but may at times even step up violations in the belief that
the nominal gesture of treaty ratification will shield them somewhat from
pressure”. 28 Also there is a threat that political opponents of the government
may try to use human rights NGOs for their purposes “by feeding the NGOs news
about alleged atrocities on the part of the government which may actually never
have taken place”. 29 Still, in both of the above-mentioned cases, NGOs are
only a tool of speculation in achieving the goals of political players. The
other threat (more external in its nature) is seen by less economically
developed, non-western countries which lack a democratic character and usually
become subject to criticism regarding human rights situations. In such contexts
the attitude dominates that human rights NGOs are enemies, the agents of
western countries that use the attractive excuses such as protecting the human
rights with the aim to attack the non-western countries. The NGOs are not seen
as altruistic organizations aiming to improve the human rights situation in the
country, but rather as tools of powerful western countries in increasing their
influence and power in more vulnerable and weak non-western states. “Some large
countries frequently use the pretext of “freedom”, “democracy” or “human
rights” to encroach upon the sovereignty of other states, interfering in their
internal affairs, damaging the unity of other countries or the solidarity of
their nationalities”30 – asserted China’s state chairman Jiang Zemin in his
1995 speech to the United Nations. Similar rhetoric was employed by Bahraini
lawmaker Hassan Al Dossari. In his speech about the role of the National
Democratic Institute (NDI), a Washington-based organization operating in
Bahrain, he maintained: “The interference of NGOs is no less dangerous than
military action. Both are tools used by some countries to achieve self-serving
political goals. … This is a soft force that is at times even more dangerous
than direct military action or economic sanction because it target mindsets,
the culture and the national identity of societies and people”. 31 Considering
the fact that most NGOs (including the most influential ones) are located in
the Western hemisphere and that usually the human-based sanctions are applied
by powerful western countries, like the U.S., such a threat seen by nonwestern
countries is not groundless. Moreover, as Rachel Brett notes, “governments do
not tend to act when they are forced to take some actions towards protecting the
human rights in other countries, if they don’t have political motivation or
some other political interests”. 32 As countries differ in many aspects
(different political, social, economic, culture values and etc.) it is crucial
that in trying to achieve some positive changes on human rights the NGOs would
be very sensitive to the local conditions that give rise to human rights abuses
and ways in which local societies adapt and apply human rights norms. 33 In
this case the principle “one-size fits all” is not a solution; there are no
universal tools and ways which could be applied to the same situations in
different countries, because it could have negative reflections on human rights
situations. Speaking about the NGOs impact in protecting human rights and freedoms
in the role of media, good relations with officials and “flexibility” of the
government should not be devaluated. In fact, in ensuring the real enjoyment of
the human rights the cooperation among the NGOs and media is crucial. Publicity
is a powerful tool in defending human rights. In many cases the NGOs efforts
would be meaningless if they would not be published. I agree with Peter R.
Baehr, who says that “human rights NGOs would be hard put to have any impact,
if the media would not pay attention to their activities”. 34 It is true that
governments are more likely to be persuaded to act on behalf of human rights in
the face of media attention or the threat of it. 35 Once a particular human
rights problem gains public attention, it becomes more difficult for state
authority to ignore it. Chances of success are greater if the government
respects the freedom of speech and the expression of public opinion. Thus, it
might be claimed that NGOs are not almighty and largely the successes of their
activities depends of power of publicity.

Finally, speaking about the effective
protection of human rights the nature of NGOs should not be forgotten as well.
Basically the success of NGOs in protecting the human rights relies on their
nature. NGOs as being the grassroots organizations are close to ordinary people
and hence their closeness, better knowledge (human rights NGOs are often among
the first to reach the scene of massive violations of human rights),
understanding of their needs and problems helps better represent their
interests. They are more efficient because they involve less bureaucratic red
tape and overhead, 38 are independent and non-political as well, and their
activities, unlike states, are not restricted by rule of law, international
agreements, etc. They can be more flexible and have more freedom to act
compared to the state and thus can “be much more vocal, outspoken and fiercely
critical of violations that occur”. 39 Moreover, the NGOs concentrate all their
efforts and energy on one topic – protection of human rights. Meanwhile, the
state must concern itself with a wide range of interests and is not able to
concentrate only on human rights issues. Finally, NGOs can act effectively only
when their objectives coincide with those (state’s or) powerful states’
interests. The effectiveness of NGOs also greatly depends of the NGO itself:
large, powerful, transnational and active NGOs which have resources and power
in their hands have more chances to make positive changes regarding the
protection of human rights, rather than their weak and powerless counterparts. Some
authors tend not to give all laurels to NGOs in decreasing the number of human
rights abuses. Some argue that the most human rights violations have ended
through contextual factors such as political, social or economic changes and
not the efforts of human rights NGOs. 40 Moreover, some research has found many
factors that influence human right practices: economic development and growth,
foreign economic penetration, domestic conflict, interstate conflict,
population size and level of democracy. 41 In sum, the protection of human
rights is a multiple process and the success of NGOs activities in protecting
human rights greatly depends on a complex set of factors such as the activeness
of NGOs, means that have been taken, strong civil society, political form of
the government, political, socioeconomic situation in the country and many