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Respecting Human Rights Demands Accountability for Human Rights Protectors

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Too often, in the media, public conversation, the human rights community and NGO world human rights organizations are excluded from genuine critical engagement.

Because their intentions are considered largely unimpeachable and because their efforts are so widely respected there is a tendency to show them deference rather than to engage them sympathetically but critically.

This tendency undermines human rights and does no service to these organizations either.

Human rights organizations have distinct ideologies and campaigning emphases - despite their commitment to shared goals of protecting universal human rights as defined and codified by international law.

The tension between pragmatism and principle in their efforts to promote human rights is inevitable and continuous despite rarely being acknowledged and discussed vigorously and transparently. Like all organizations promoting social change they have had their share of successes and failures.

The romantic view of human rights organizations which dominates much of public discourse and parts of academia does a disservice to human rights because it presents organizations promoting human rights as paragons of virtue, almost as Gods of infallibility, good intention, and right moral outcome.

This is not the case and cannot be the case, by virtue of the often difficult choices, conflicting priorities and values, internal politics, exigencies of human rights advocacy, and the biases and power dynamics which inform human rights organizations, as they similarly inform other organizations promoting urgent and essential social change in the context of a world replete with asymmetries of power, resources, and media attention.

Human rights organizations have had tremendous victories but they have also had spectacular failures - particularly with regard to their inability to significantly influence the UN and member states to act to prevent and stop genocide and other mass atrocity, enforce human rights conventions with any degree of reliability, and similarly, in failing to advance restorative justice in a substantive way for victims of genocide and other mass atrocity.

Their models of engagement are sometimes overly scholarly and passive, and while many excel at observing and reporting human rights violations far fewer succeed at preventing and stopping them.

The reasons for this are complex and are not a simple case of finding fault with human rights organizations who face multiple challenges in pursuing human rights and who struggle with relatively few resources given the epic scale and scope of human rights violations globally.

Still, there needs to be a larger discursive space for criticism and accountability, for it is only through such reflection that any organization can continue to grow, be responsive to changing realities, and maintain the necessary openness and humility that leavens excellence and the successful realization of an organization's mission.

Some human rights organizations fixate on human rights violations in particular countries or regions disproportionately and often without just cause; this undermines their commitment to the principles of universality, equality and non-discrimination.

Some, in their firm and sincere commitment to human rights ideals make the perfect the enemy of the good, aligning human rights with a zealous utopianism that while well intentioned can have devastating consequences in fragile settings where the very advocacy and demands of human rights organizations can inflame ethnic and political hatreds and tensions and sow the seeds of conflict and violence, and which sometimes do more to undermine human rights than to protect and realize them.

Some organize themselves around campaigns that have symbolic value and generate media attention and popular interest but are not necessarily most urgent and do not reflect the needs of individuals and peoples suffering from the most egregious violations of human rights and in immediate and intense vulnerability to harm.

In promoting human rights we ought to show those organizations advancing human rights respect and appreciation but not deference, hold them accountable to the values they strive to represent and protect and critically assess their efforts to do so, and encourage a more prominent place for discussion, dissent, and contestation within the human rights community and society at large about how human rights are advanced.