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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Human Rights Watch started in 1978 as the Helsinki Watch to check that the former USSR was abiding by the Helsinki Accords. Section vii of this accord states that there must be “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief”. During the 1980s, the Helsinki Watch set up committees to keep watch on human rights in other trouble spots around the globe. In 1988, the various committees combined and formed the Human Rights Watch.

It is one of two global organizations that monitor basic human rights in places where these rights are likely to be oppressed or abused. The other body that does this is Amnesty International. Human Rights Watch is a US based non-government organization that employs about 240 professionals worldwide, including journalists, lawyers, academics, and country experts. Its Human Rights Watch World Report 2007 highlights human rights transgressions in over 60 countries.

The main way Human Rights Watch acts against violations of human rights is to conduct research into suspected abuse of rights in different regions and to produce detailed reports on their findings. This brings the abuses to the attention of governments, community groups, the media, and the general public around the world. The organization meets with governments of countries where human rights abuses have been found to occur and urges them to establish policies and programs to reverse the violations.

The types of breaches the Human Rights Watch investigates are those contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was set in place by the United Nations in 1948. The group reports on human rights issues such as capital punishment, torture, war crimes, children in armed forces, child labor, abortion rights, trafficking in women, prisoners, refugees, corruption, gender discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, religious choice, and freedom of the press.

There are many examples of the work of this organization. A recent instance was its criticism of the Jordanian government when it arrested officials for praising Iraq’s Al-Qaeda chief, the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Human Rights Watch also brought world attention to the mass killings and famines initiated by the regime of the late Saddam Hussein. In 2007, it exposed the squalid conditions of migrant emergency centers in the Canary Islands where hundreds of children were living. It has uncovered abuses by Serbs and Croats, Hutu and Tutsi, Israelis and Palestinians, and Christians and Muslims.

Human Rights Watch helped found the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers in 1998. Standards set in place under this protocol include banning military recruitment of persons under the age of 18 years. It co-chairs the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which was set up in 1992 and now involves more than 1,400 organizations in over 90 countries working to abolish the use of landmines. It also helped found the International Freedom of Expression Exchange which monitors censorship and promotes freedom of speech, in particular for media workers of all descriptions.

The organization successfully called for a war crimes tribunal where former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic was indicted on six counts of human rights abuses that Human Rights Watch had earlier highlighted. Its evidence at the Rwanda war crimes tribunal helped prosecute several perpetrators. It was involved in legal action against Chilean ex-leader Augusto Pinochet, which established a precedent that heads of state who block or escape prosecution in their own country can be tried anywhere.

It also provides grants to authors being persecuted for their writing. The scheme was established by playwright Lillian Hellman and novelist Dashiell Hammett. The grants also help raise awareness of writers who speak out against abuses of human rights. Each year, the Human Rights Defenders Award is given out by the organization to champions of human rights.

Human Rights Watch has a Women’s Rights Division which fights abuse and discrimination against women. The division exposes and denounces any policies and practices that make women second class citizens. This includes cultural, legal, and religious practices that discriminate against or exclude women. It also includes issues such as rape in war, domestic abuse, forced marriages, unequal rights in divorce and inheritance, killings and beatings for having sex, and being used in forced labor.

The division does not tolerate any excuses for this abusive and discriminatory behavior against women, whether for alleged religious, cultural, punishment or financial reasons, or to save women from alleged Western degradation and excesses. Human Rights Watch takes the view that women’s lives and rights matter just as much as those of men. The Women’s Rights Division has highlighted and fought to overcome a range of abuse and discrimination against millions of women in countries throughout the world. This includes:

– rape of women in war in countries such as Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kosovo, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone, where attackers tend to receive little or no punishment.

– the high rates of domestic beatings in countries like Pakistan, Peru, Russia, South Africa, and Uzbekistan, while governments turn a blind eye or are soft on offenders.

– trafficking of women in Burma, the Dominican Republic, Moldova, Nigeria, Thailand, and Ukraine to work as prostitutes, often in other countries, with governments not doing enough to prevent it and punish the culprits.

– discrimination in the workforce against pregnant women, for example in Guatemala, Mexico, and South Africa.

– abuse and discrimination in educational institutions against women whose sexual orientation isn’t mainstream or who don’t conform to male ideals of how females should behave. This doesn’t only occur in third world nations but in western countries too, such as the United States and Australia.

– discriminatory laws against women, taking away their legal rights and putting them in the hands of their husband or other male family member.

Human Rights Watch protects basic human rights around the world. It promotes political freedom and protects people from war crimes. It supports victims as well as human rights activists. The organization conducts detailed research into possible human rights abuses and publishes its findings. It pressures governments and other organizations to end the abuses. Human Rights Watch is keen to prevent the human rights tragedies of the scale seen in the 20th century.

The organization does not receive or accept funds or other assistance from any government. Instead, it relies on private contributions. For more information on Human Rights Watch and its work, see http://www.hrw.org/.

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