• Inside Development
Organization Profile

Top human rights groups and global networks: A primer

By Amy Lieberman01 July 2011

A woman and a man hold up a banner by Amnesty International. Photo by: Richard Potts / CC BY

The basic principles of human rights are ancient, but it’s only in the last 50 years or so that human rights organizations have begun to pop up.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations, includes education, health care, food and many other areas of focus for the international development community. It’s no wonder, then, that aid groups are increasingly framing their work in the context of human rights, whether they advocate for sex workers’ rights or help boost primary school attendance. Highlighting human rights can broaden the scope and appeal of global activism and advocacy campaigns – and it may help secure funding at a time it is increasingly difficult to come by.

Here are some of the largest and most influential international organizations and networks focused on the promotion of human rights.

Human rights groups

Amnesty International

  • Headquarters: London, United Kingdom
  • Type: nonprofit network
  • Founded: 1961
  • Secretary general: Salil Shetty
  • Focus: research and advocacy is broken down into 25 broad categories focusing on children, indigenous peoples, health and other issues
  • Members: more than 3 million network supporters, activists and members in more than 150 countries and territories

Amnesty International is arguably the world’s prime, multifaceted human rights organization, operating as both a network and a reliable, detailed research database. Amnesty’s strength lies partly in its girth: Through its offices in more than 80 countries, Amnesty regularly produces short analyses and in-depth reports on issues related to human rights. Amnesty engages its supporters through petitions posted on its website and shared via Facebook or Twitter. Amnesty’s user-friendly website has a search function and allows browsing through by country and topic.

Human Rights First

  • Headquarters: New York City and Washington, D.C., USA
  • Type: nonprofit
  • Founded: 1978
  • President and CEO: Elisa Massimino
  • Focus: research and advocacy; programs include providing assistance to asylum seekers to the United States and advocating against U.S. counterterrorism measures amounting to torture
  • Staff: 57 per HRF website

Human Rights First conducts fact-finding and advocacy work on a global scale but often geared toward the U.S. government. For instance, HRF works to protect human rights defenders, refugees and asylum seekers around the globe but often stresses U.S. accountability on these and other issues, whether it is pushing the United States to close its military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or pressing U.S. officials to raise human rights abuses with world leaders. HRF offers a pro bono program for lawyers to represent asylum seekers in the United States, and in a recent publicity stunt, one attorney biked across the United States to raise awareness and funds for the group’s work. HRF’s website is fairly basic but gives a good overview of the human rights situation stateside as well as in certain parts of the Middle East.

Human Rights Watch

  • Headquarters: New York City, USA
  • Type: nonprofit
  • Founded: 1968
  • Executive director: Kenneth Roth
  • Focus: research and advocacy to prevent discrimination, uphold political freedom, protect people from inhuman conduct in wartime, and bring offenders to justice
  • Staff: 280 worldwide

Human Rights Watch compiles information on human rights in nearly every country, often through grass-roots networking. On its website, topics are broken down into 12 broad categories (including refugees, United Nations, health and arms) and even more subcategories, totaling close to 90 listings. Each year, HRW publishes more than 100 studies, including its mammoth World Report. Its in-depth reports – five were published in May 2011 alone – provide ample information about hard-to-reach regions and marginalized issues.

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

  • Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland
  • Type: U.N. office
  • Founded: 1993
  • High commissioner: Navanethem Pillay
  • Focus: standard-setting, monitoring, on-the-ground implementation
  • Staff: more than 850 in Geneva, New York, 11 country offices and seven regional offices around the world

As secretariat of the U.N. Human Rights Council, OHCHR works to mainstream a human rights focus through all United Nations programs and agencies. Outside the U.N. system, it facilitates partnerships with various international institutions such as the International Criminal Court, civil society organizations and governments. The office’s website provides fact sheets, research papers as well as free, downloadable training and educational materials such as guides, manuals and handbooks – including some specifically geared toward human rights monitors and social workers. It also showcases routine assessments conducted by its country and regional offices, as well as other background and news.

United for Human Rights

  • Headquarters: Los Angeles, USA
  • Type: nonprofit
  • Founded: 2004
  • Executive director: Michele Kirkland
  • Focus: provides free educational materials on human rights
  • Staff: 3

United for Human Rights makes books, videos and other educational material available free to educators. Its sister organization, Youth for Human Rights International, produced the acclaimed “United” anti-bullying music video. United’s website offers a brief explanation of human rights and their history, as well as one-minute public service videos exploring 30 of these rights. The human rights education packages mailed by the nonprofit are geared toward high school and college students, and include a documentary and 24 copies of a booklet that discusses the story of human rights. The website also offers suggestions for taking action in your own community to challenge human rights violations.

International human rights networks

Association for Women’s Rights in Development

  • Headquarters: Toronto, Canada
  • Type: international network
  • Founded: 1982
  • Executive director: Lydia Alpízar Durán
  • Focus: creates capacity-building strategies to strengthen women’s rights, supports women’s rights advocates and organizations, lobbies international institutions and actors
  • Members: nearly 5,000 individual and more than 3,000 institutional members in 130 countries

AWID campaigns such as “Where is the Money for Women’s Rights?” and “Influencing Development Actors and Practices for Women’s Rights” involve topical research, networking and lobbying. The association’s Young Feminist Activism initiative offers a way for young feminists to become involved with the organization and to receive a special online newsletter. AWID’s website features reports and news briefs of a feminist bent; its “Urgent Action” section features online petitions and other ways to support feminist human rights defenders and movements that are under threat. The site also showcases gender-related training courses and conferences worldwide, as well as fellowship ads and solicitations for research papers. Outside Toronto, AWID has offices in Mexico City and Cape Town, South Africa.

Child Rights Information Network

  • Headquarters: London, United Kingdom
  • Type: international network
  • Founded: 1995
  • Director: Veronica Yates
  • Focus: advocacy campaigns and analysis to promote and defend children’s rights
  • Members: more than 2,100 organizations in 150 countries

Guided by the United Nations’ Convention of the Rights of the Child, CRIN helps to elevate campaigns and coalitions, as well as to enforce treaties, that call for full respect of children’s rights. CRIN’s website includes country pages that don’t just provide news and analysis (in multiple languages) but also links to relevant international and domestic laws ratified by each country. The website also contains topic pages, an “Ask the Expert” function and an advanced search for laws affecting children around the globe.

Global Network of Sex Work Projects

  • Headquarters: Edinburgh, Scotland
  • Type: international network
  • Founded: 1990
  • President: Andrew Hunter
  • Focus: “influences policy and builds leadership among sex workers”
  • Members: more than 100 institutions

Evolved from a loose alliance of activists more than 20 years ago, NSWP has emerged as a leader in supporting human rights policy for sex workers. The association and its members oppose the criminalization of sex work. They conduct research and speak out at international health and trafficking forums, as well as various events NSWP organizes each year, including the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers in December, the International Sex Workers’ Rights Day in March, and a film festival in London. At these events – and on NSWP’s website – they circulate “Research for Sex Work” and “Making Sex Work Safe,” publications intended for sex workers, researchers, health activists and others. NSWP’s website is fairly basic; it features the work of its partners by region.

Human Rights Information and Documentation Systems, International (HURIDOCS)

  • Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland
  • Type: international NGO
  • Founded: 1982
  • Executive director: Daniel D’Esposito
  • Focus: improve documentation methods and information technologies
  • Members: 40 affiliated NGOs

HURIDOCS provides advice and support to international human rights organizations in various ways, ranging from personalized consultations via phone or email correspondence to on-site support and training. Simply put, the organization helps human rights groups process, analyze, store and present research and other documents in an organized, safe manner. HURIDOCS offers advice on how to best document human rights violations or witness testimonies, for instance, and it engages in longer-term partnerships aimed at setting up documentation management tools that could be used for litigation or other reasons. HURIDOCS tries to provide all of its services free of charge to organizations based in the Global South, and works on a cost-sharing basis with institutions based elsewhere.

International Federation for Human Rights

  • Headquarters: Paris, France
  • Type: international network
  • Foundation: 2009
  • International Secretariat CEO: Antoine Bernard
  • Focus: “action priorities” include ending impunity of human rights violators, facilitating the work of human rights defenders and promoting universality of all rights, especially those of women and migrants
  • Staff: 30 in Paris
  • Members: 164 organizations

FIDH’s members are active around the globe, including in countries like Myanmar, North Korea and Zimbabwe where human rights work can be tricky. FIDH’s website, which can be viewed in English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Russian, among other languages, provides easy access to all of its partner organizations – a convenient feature when you’re searching for human rights groups in a particular country. The website also offers timely and in-depth information, press releases and open letters on various issues such as migrants’ rights, terrorism, women’s rights and international justice. Only nonprofits can become FIDH members, although individuals and companies can become “friends” by donating.

International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association

  • Headquarters: Brussels, Belgium
  • Type: international network
  • Founded: 1978
  • Secretaries general: Gloria Careaga and Renato Sabbadini
  • Focus: campaigning for the rights of lesbian, gay, bi-, trans- and intersexual people
  • Members: 690 groups in 110 countries

ILGA works with its partners to draw public and government attention to discrimination against LGBTI persons through programs, protests, media work and diplomacy. ILGA’s website provides ample information on discriminatory practices, laws and attitudes toward people because of their sexual and gender identity; it features an organization directory, topical and regional pages with news and action alerts, as well as a world map that allows site visitors to filter only countries that consider transgenderism a mental illness or punish female-to-female relationships, among a host of other options. Perhaps a unique aspect of the site is the “Your Stories” section, which provides an open forum for LGBTI people to share their experiences and thoughts. Any organization can join ILGA, whose members gather every year or two.

World Organization Against Torture

  • Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland
  • Type: international network
  • Founded: 1986
  • Secretary-general: Eric Sottas
  • Focus: fight against “torture, summary executions, enforced disappearances and all other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”
  • Members: 297 affiliate members in the SOS-Torture network

The Organisation Mondiale Contre la Torture is the world’s main coalition of NGOs fighting torture. Its 297 member organizations, present in 97 countries, serve as its eyes, ears and supporting hands that work alongside OMCT’s International Secretariat in Geneva to report and follow up on cases of abuse and torture. OMCT is the only organization that provides legal, medical, social and other forms of assistance to individuals at risk or victims of torture; it also helps protect human rights defenders, women who have faced or are at risk of facing violence, and vulnerable children. OMCT mounts “urgent campaigns” and issues appeals every day to government authorities around the globe in response to reported cases of torture. Member organizations – all listed on the OMCT website – gain special access to information on U.N. human rights bodies.

These are only some of the many organizations and networks with a strong human rights focus. Others are doing equally important and unique work to help individuals around the globe protect and uphold human rights. Please let us know if we forgot to list any institution focusing squarely on human rights work.

About the author

Amy s headshot
Amy Lieberman

Amy Lieberman is a journalist based in New York. She has reported on migration, health and gender from the UN Headquarters, in addition to nine countries, including Cambodia, Colombia, Mexico and Nepal. Her work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, The Christian Science Monitor and World Policy Journal, among a host of other news outlets. She is a Master of Arts candidate in politics and government journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.


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