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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

A great deal of work has been done in the area of human rights in recent decades by a large number of international groups who promote and protect basic rights and freedoms of all people. Two of these groups, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, operate on a global scale and have human rights as their sole aim.

Human Rights Watch

This organization commenced in 1978 and was originally called the Helsinki Watch. It was set up to monitor the former USSR’s record under the Helsinki Accords, which stated that there had to be “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief”. The Helsinki Watch expanded in the 1980s, setting up a number of committees to monitor human rights in other places. The committees combined in 1988 to form the Human Rights Watch.

The group employs about 275 lawyers, journalists, country experts, and academics to research and report on human rights violations around the world. Human Rights Watch investigates abuses such as capital punishment, children in armed forces, child labor, gender discrimination, trafficking in women, abortion rights, religious freedom, prisoners and refugees, corruption, sexual orientation discrimination, freedom of the press, torture, and war crimes. Its Human Rights Watch World Report 2013 includes details of human rights breaches in 2012 in over 90 countries. In its introduction, the latest report specifically addresses current problems in Syria, Libya and Burma.

HRW brings the violations to the attention of governments, the media, community groups and the public. It urges the governments of countries where the abuses occur to change their policies to try and combat the transgressions. Human Rights Watch played a fundamental role is bringing the likes of Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic and Augusto Pinochet to justice. It helped set up the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers and the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, and co-chairs the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

The Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch monitors and fights abuse of and discrimination against women throughout the world. It exposes any legal, religious and cultural practices that discriminate against or result in abuse of women. It also aims to stamp out rape in war, forced marriage, domestic violence, killings for having sex, and trafficking in women as prostitutes.

The organization has its critics. It has been accused by different people of being pro-American and anti-American, as well as pro- and anti-Israel. A media group has claimed that Human Rights Watch tried to crush democracy in Latin America. The Egyptian press has said the organization has a pro-homosexual and Western bias. Human Rights Watch defends itself by saying that various countries are annoyed at the group unearthing basic human rights violations.

Amnesty International

Amnesty International was founded in 1961 in the United Kingdom. It relies on mass membership and mobilization of its more than three million members in over 150 countries to bring pressure to bear on perpetrators of human rights abuses. Some of the issues it has brought to light include the plight of political prisoners, torture, punishment outside the court system, political killings, disappearances, refugee crises, human rights in war-torn areas, religious minorities, and issues relating to women.

The rise of globalization has resulted in Amnesty International going beyond human rights, to include economic, cultural and social rights. The organization has also recently concentrated on issues such as violence against women, controlling the arms trade, and prisoners of conscience. It relies mainly on volunteers but also employs a small number of professionals.

Many of its aims are similar to Human Rights Watch and the two organizations aim to complement each other in their work. Amnesty International produces reports that have less background analysis compared with those of Human Rights Watch but more information on specific violations of rights. It aims to engage and influence public opinion through writing letters to its huge membership base, fund-raising efforts, targeting the media, gaining publicity and organizing public demonstrations.

Just as the Human Rights Watch has been subject to criticism, so too has Amnesty International. It has been accused of reporting on countries that are relatively open such as Israel and avoiding closed societies such as Cambodia and North Korea where human rights breaches are arguably worse. The governments of China, Russia, Vietnam and the United States, among others, have accused Amnesty International of biased reporting. The Catholic Church has criticized it for being pro-abortion.

Other organizations 

Human rights is an important role of the United Nations, but unlike Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, it has other major roles too. Human rights are explicitly mentioned in its charter. Its Human Rights Council was established in 2005 to replace its former Commission on Human Rights and has a mandate to investigate human rights violations. It has a number of working groups that look at human rights issues relating to minority groups, indigenous populations, people of African descent, terrorism, modern forms of slavery, and arbitrary detention.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has a humanitarian mission to protect and assist victims of war and internal strife, including the wounded, prisoners, refugees and other civilians. It works to strengthen humanitarian laws and uses humanitarian principles, ensuring basic human rights for these victims.

Other organizations that are active in promoting human rights on an international scale include Global Human Rights Defence, Breakthrough which uses pop culture to promote human rights, the Carter Centre, CCJO Rene Cassin, Freedom House, Forum 18 which promotes religious freedom, Habitat International Coalition, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange for media workers, Peace Brigades International, Physicians for Human Rights, Survival International for indigenous people, World Organisation Against Torture, and Witness which uses videos and online technology.

There are also a large number of international human rights watch groups that operate within each continent. For example, Africa has the African Union which promotes human rights and democracy across its 54 member states. The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights promotes and protects human rights and investigates violations. The African Court on Human and People’s Rights was set up in 2004, which rules on whether states comply with the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.

In the Americas, the priorities of the Organization of American States include to protect human rights (including those of indigenous people), strengthen democracy and combat corruption. It also has the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, which is based in Costa Rica.

Asia has no continent-wide human rights groups, although it has several organizations at a regional level that have human rights among their aims. These include the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, and the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf.

The Council of Europe administers the European Convention on Human Rights and also the European Court of Human Rights.