Organizing on international human rights
issues can be difficult for a variety of reasons. Among them:
- Different countries have different human rights frameworks, necessitating a range of different philosophies of human rights ;
- The problem is simply too big, in terms of geography and population, for a single activist organization to solve ;
- Intervention from wealthy, industrialized nations comes across as colonial and paternalistic, but that's where most of the funds that sustain international human rights work come from; and
- We all have to start somewhere.
Fortunately, there are a wide range of human rights organizations that approach this problem from a variety of different angles. The list below is not comprehensive (or objective; my list has a heavy U.S. and Western bias), but it should be a good start.
Amnesty International has historically focused on the rights of prisoners and refugees, but in recent years it has expanded its mission to better address a broader range of issues that include reproductive health, free speech, racial and ethnic discrimination, and LGBT rights.AI needs volunteers
, and has done more to organize and support local volunteer officers and chapters in the United States than any other international human rights organization. If you aren't committed to one specific issue but want to hit the ground running, this is the organization to contact.
Founded by former ACLU
executive director Aryeh Neier, Human Rights Watch applies the fundamental values of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights on a global scale. HRW is a little more data-focused than Amnesty, but the missions of the two organizations overlap more often than they don't.
Oxfam is not generally classified as a human rights organization, but the work it does on behalf of the poor and marginalized around the world fits easily within that framework - and, unlike direct relief organizations, Oxfam attempts to deal with these problems in a systemic, policy-centered way.
UNICEF, like Oxfam, is often written off as a direct services nonprofit - but there's no international organization of comparable scale that does more to advocate for the rights of children. If you're mainly concerned about how national governments treat their young and vulnerable, you're unlikely to find a more powerful organizational ally than UNICEF.
Doctors Without Borders is dedicated to putting physicians in situations that most of us would travel the world to avoid. While opportunities for local volunteer work are somewhat limited, donating and raising funds for these courageous doctors is always a worthwhile use of your time.
Liberal billionaire George Soros is associated more often with U.S. Democratic politics than international human rights work, but it's clear that the latter is his real passion. The Open Society Foundations carry forward Henri Bergson's concept of the "open society" and attempt to promote it on a global scale.
The Albert Einstein Institutes is essentially a think tank dedicated to disseminating, developing, and applying the work of community organizing scholar Gene Sharp. He specializes in nonviolent revolutions
- I don't believe anyone has written more comprehensively about the subject - and every international human rights activist would be well served to read his work.
While Doctors Without Borders puts physicians in life-or-death situations on the field, PHR takes advantage of their advocacy potential. Give this site a visit.
Co-founded in 1992 by musician Peter Gabriel
, Witness uses video and other multimedia technology to document human rights abuses around the world.
It's impossible to promote human rights in any large-scale context without media, which is why countries that want to keep their human rights abuses under wraps tend to target journalists for oppression and retaliation. The Committee to Protect Journalists uses its considerable political muscle to fight them.
The Red Cross/Red Crescent prioritizes direct services over advocacy, but its ubiquity and quiet commitment to human rights give it a level of power and access that most other human rights organizations lack.
The United Nations is flawed and inefficient, controlled by many of the same nations that human rights organizations are working to change - but it is the most powerful nonprofit organization on Earth, and its documents create the statutory foundation for international human rights law.