In the last two years a number of prominent NGOs – such as Oxfam and Save the Children – have faced calls for accountability for serious human rights violations and criminal acts of their staff, some of whom were implicated in sexual abuse, violations of children’s rights, and sexual harassment. These reports revealed such ongoing acts taking place in a context of impunity. Indeed, mechanisms for accountability of NGO staff have been weak, minimal, and poorly enforced, indicating a larger problem about power dynamics in the NGO sector and its lack of human rights accountability.
Because international human rights law is directed at states rather than non-state actors, it creates a human rights vacuum in which non-state actors are not held responsible for respecting human rights. Ironically, NGOs often define their raison d’être as the respect, protection, and fulfillment of these very rights. NGOs typically embrace human rights in theory and rhetoric, but their practices can be inconsistent with these commitments. In fact, the mission statements of prominent development NGOs illustrate the centrality of human rights and high standards of accountability and ethical integrity to their stated values and mission. Save the Children International, for example, states that its vision is, “[a] world in which every child attains the right to survival, protection, development and participation.’ It further states that its core values are, ‘accountability, ambition, collaboration, creativity, and integrity.”
Another, Oxfam International, states that its vision is that of “[a] just world without poverty. We want a world where people are valued and treated equally, enjoy their rights as full citizens, and can influence decisions affecting their lives.” The statement continues “[e]veryone has a right to realize their potential, and to live free of poverty in a secure and more equitable world… We subscribe to all international conventions on rights, and to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights… We welcome all beliefs that advance human rights.” CARE International states that they “seek a world of hope, tolerance, and social justice, where poverty has been overcome and all people live in dignity and security.” Its core principles include a duty to “[p]romote empowerment, work in partnership with others, ensure accountability and promote responsibility, address discrimination, and seek sustainable results.”
While many NGOs have been keen to embrace the principle that international human rights law should apply to corporations, they have largely not insisted upon the same for themselves. While they have created toothless and voluntary forms of self-enforcement - such as the Red Cross Code of Conduct and the International Non-Governmental Organization Accountability Charter - these are ineffective and lack a real enforcement structure. The result is that NGOs function in a kind of human rights vacuum. They are entitled to preach human rights, but when they fall short in respecting and practicing them, as they inevitably and not infrequently do, there is no international human rights law framework of accountability that applies to them and protects those who may be harmed by their abuses of power.
Development and humanitarian aid NGOs in particular have complex and often problematic and contradictory human rights records that they almost never acknowledge and which receives little attention and analysis from the media. Although they acknowledge the principle that human rights are interrelated, indivisible, and interdependent, NGOs routinely compromise some human rights in order to advance the respect and fulfillment of others. Generally, they tend to prioritize social and economic rights at the expense of civil and political rights, in keeping with their humanitarian and development aid centered missions. Sometimes they support social and economic rights in prejudicial ways that exclude certain sectors of society, which in effect privileges social and economic rights, and contributes to the violation of civil and political rights of minorities that do not find favor with the government.
As the most recent cases have shown, NGOs have also frequently failed to protect both vulnerable employees within their organizations, especially women and other sexual minorities. They have moreover failed to respect the rights and welfare of children, women, and vulnerable populations such as refugees and internally displaced people with whom they work. In Rwanda today, they continue to disrespect the right of genocide survivors to reparative justice, despite them being amongst the most vulnerable and marginalized groups, a vulnerability and marginalization to which development NGOs themselves historically contributed and exacerbated, as Peter Uvin, Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College has illustrated.
This partial and highly morally and legally compromised approach to human rights has been documented in many different contexts and countries. One of the most detailed and devastating indictments of it can be found in Peter Uvin’s study, ‘Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda.’ Uvin illustrates how development NGOs such as USAID and many European national aid agencies played a central role in violating the human rights of Tutsis in the years leading up to the Rwandan genocide. The author shows how the NGOs were engaging in discriminatory structural violence in accordance with the policies and preferences of the then Hutu supremacist government ruling Rwanda, and participating in forms of neglect, marginalization, and persecution in accordance with government policy.
Because NGOs function in many countries where the rule of law is weak, democracy is non-existent or highly dysfunctional and compromised, they have little legitimate legal oversight. One way to address this is for the countries in which large international NGOs are based (predominantly, but not exclusively in the United States and Europe) to create greater legal regulatory frameworks of extraterritorial jurisdiction that apply to NGOs registered in their countries. In some cases, these laws already exist and can be applied, but the relevant legal authorities need to be far better resourced to be able to prosecute them effectively.
Such laws would be akin to the laws that the United States, Canada, and many European countries passed to hold their respective sexual abusers legally accountable for their crimes committed outside of their jurisdictions. Thanks to such laws, such crimes can now be prosecuted in these jurisdictions when the alleged criminal returns, or is deported back. These laws have been critical to creating at least some deterrence in Southeast Asian and other countries, where there is a long and disturbing history and contemporary problem of Americans and Europeans illegally pursuing sex with minors and engaging in other sexual crimes.
Self-regulation for NGOs is insufficient and ineffective. It has been the default policy for decades and has failed repeatedly and continues to fail, as the recent cases of human rights abuses and violations with Oxfam and Save the Children illustrate. However, these human rights failures are by no means limited to Save the Children and Oxfam. They are also extensively documented as taking place in UN agencies, especially and extensively amongst UN peacekeepers in countries such as Congo, Haiti, and Sri Lanka.
Much stronger accountability and regulation of NGOs acting in foreign countries needs to be pursued to protect the vulnerable from abuses of power and to hold NGOs accountable for the behavior of their employees. For too long the good intentions of NGOs have been considered sufficient to deny them a framework of accountability to regulate their actual practices. But good intentions are not good enough. Human rights will never be respected and protected if they rely on the self-interest of NGOs. Rather, we need to have an independent legal authority that will place human rights and the rule of law above public relations, donor dependency, internal organizational imperatives and the bureaucratic hierarchies of NGOs that protect abusers and deny justice to victims of human rights violations.
About the author
Noam Schimmel is Visiting Associate Professor of Ethics and International Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University. He researches in the areas of human rights, development studies, the politics and ethics of human rights law and its application, and global justice. He recently was Research Visitor at the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, Oxford Faculty of Law, where he researched reparative justice, the human rights of Rwandan genocide survivors, and the human rights responsibilities of NGOs.