Globalizing Human Rights: The Work of Transnational Human Rights NGOs in the 1990s
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Globalizing Human Rights:
The Work of Transnational Human Rights NGOs in the 1990s

I. Introduction

This paper summarizes the results of a mailed survey sent to nearly 300 transnational human rights organizations, of which more than half responded. The survey was designed to identify the geographic distributions of human rights organizations, their political activities, their work with international agencies, their organizational structures and resources, their links with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and their definitions of human rights goals. This study is part of a larger project to better understand how the work of transnational human rights NGOs influences global political and social change. [End Page 379]

A. Background 1

Research on the development of international human rights law and institutions has identified the crucial role played by nongovernmental agents in defining international human rights norms, developing institutional mechanisms to ensure adherence to international norms, and monitoring national and local human rights practices. In recent years, researchers have made more concerted efforts to understand how NGOs operate and interact with other global actors to promote changes in local and global policies. 2 This research grows in part from the observation that a growing number of NGOs are engaging in international political activities. An increasing number of these groups are organized across national boundaries. This study is directed toward a better understanding of the work being done by transnational human rights NGOs.

Much of the existing research on transnational human rights NGOs consists of: case studies of individual organizations working for human rights; 3 comparative studies of a select number of organizations; 4 studies of the work of human rights organizations and institutions in specific countries or regions; 5 and studies of the political processes surrounding human rights standard-setting and enforcement. 6 This study complements previous research [End Page 380] with a systematic survey of the population of transnational human rights NGOs, addressing questions about how these groups are organized and how they seek to influence global human rights work.

The survey was intended to help answer, in a systematic way, a series of questions involving the array of transnational human rights NGOs, their locations, resources, structures, and memberships. Special emphasis was placed on the distribution between the Global North and South, and whether these transnational human rights NGOs are mass-based organizations with many individual members or, rather, are comprised largely of small professional staffs. There is an underlying assumption that the structure and the configuration of organizations within the movement will have important consequences for the human rights movement’s goals, strategies, and impacts. In addition, the mandates of these NGOs were compared, with emphasis on the difference in the goals on which these NGOs focus and the categories of rights that are receiving their attention. It will be interesting to see what these differences reveal about the human rights movement.

What are the strategies and activities of international human rights NGOs? Is there some kind of specialization or division of labor among them? Do all the groups work with international institutions? How much attention does the human rights movement devote to public education on human rights, standard-setting, implementation, and enforcement? What do the differences in activities tell about the human rights movement? How fragmented and competitive are the NGOs? Is this a diffuse and uncooperative human rights movement, or is there some degree of integration and cooperation? Below follows a description of some of the broad characteristics of international human rights NGOs in an attempt to begin to answer these questions.

B. The Survey

The survey used in this study was developed in consultation with human rights advocates, scholars of international human rights politics, and researchers familiar with organizational surveys. 7 Several items in the survey [End Page 381] build upon previous studies of national social change organizations such as those John McCarthy has made of US-based organizations working to combat drunken driving 8 and to promote empowerment of the poor. 9 It also builds upon a survey of national and local US-based peace movement organizations 10 and a broad study of US voluntary associations by Dennis Young and colleagues. 11 Relying on previous studies...