On March 15, 2006, the network of powerful non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that includes Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch , joined with recidivist human rights abusers such as Sudan and Libya to support the U.N.'s new Human Rights Council . These regimes vehemently opposed serious reform, knowing that this would expose them to close scrutiny. The intense debate, led primarily by the U.S. and Israel, centered on the argument that the proposal did not go far enough in ensuring that the failures of the old Human Rights Commission would not continue.
NGOs have long enjoyed direct access and influence to the failed Human Rights Commission and to the other U.N. bodies. Protected by the "halo" effect from accountability requirements, the NGO network was also central to the disastrous 2001 Durban Conference on Racism, which was prepared under the auspices of the UNCHR. At Durban, NGOs largely ignored the issues for which the conference was called, focusing instead on intense anti-Israel advocacy. As documented in detail by NGO Monitor, under the "Durban strategy", the NGO campaign to undermine Israel continues to reverberate in calls for divestment, sanctions and boycotts.
As part of this process, the unverifiable and biased reports published by the multi-million dollar NGOs, starting with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, contributed to the Israel-bashing during the annual sessions of the UNCHR. As detailed research by NGO Monitor has shown, these NGOs systematically strip the context of terror from their reports and rely on eyewitness claims that lack credibility.
For instance, HRW published "Razing Rafah," a 135-page report condemning Israeli military actions in Gaza based on unverified evidence from Palestinian "eyewitnesses," and HRW continues to refer wrongly to the IDF actions in the Jenin terror center and elsewhere as "war crimes."
This biased publication lacks credibility, and is part of HRW's political anti-Israel campaign, and demonstrated the departure from universal human rights norms in the NGO network.
Similarly, in place of verifiable reporting on actual human rights issues, the section on Israel in Amnesty's 2004 Annual Report consists of inflammatory rhetoric such as "violations of international law", and "crimes against humanity." In the absence of clear and consistent criteria by which to measure and apply such terminology, it loses all normative and legal significance.
Neither HRW nor Amnesty have drawn the appropriate lessons or shown any contrition regarding their role in reinforcing the anti-democratic political biases under the previous UNCHR. It is therefore not surprising that these NGOs endorsed the new Council framework and failed to weigh in on behalf of serious U.N. reform.
In criticizing the U.S. and Ambassador John Bolton for demanding more, Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, and a frequent contributor to anti-Israel bias said, " It obviously doesn't do everything we hoped for, but it is clearly better than the Human Rights Commission."
Similarly, Amnesty International has also adopted this minimalist approach. Amnesty's Secretary General, Irene Khan, stated "the U.S. administration should not jeopardize the best chance in decades to establish a more effective U.N. human rights body."
Part of the problem
NGO officials also oppose thorough reform that includes changes in the way in which the U.N. deals with NGOs, arguing that this will diminish the ability of non-governmental groups to have an impact on U.N. decisions and resolutions.
This may sound noble, but the depressing reality is that these NGOs use their consultative status under the Economic and Social Council to disseminate false and unsubstantiated allegations, and are responsible for undermining the concept of universal human rights.
In other words, politicized NGOs with biased agendas are not part of the solution to the ills of the U.N. - they are part of the problem. Real NGO reform would diminish their status, access and influence in U.N. bodies, and would reveal the lack of credibility and biases in some NGO reports.
Thus, U.N. reform must also include widespread changes in the ways in which the international body interacts with NGOs. Serious NGOs can help the analytical and decision-making process in the U.N. in some cases, but not when they merely exploit access to this body to promote conflict. NGOs must be held accountable and organizations that lack balance and use their funds for propaganda rather than for independent research, should not receive automatic access.
The NGOs most suitable for working in conjunction with the U.N. body and its subsidiaries are those that are transparent, and do not push narrow ideological and political agendas. These organizations can positively contribute to human rights, through substantiated reports that are based on credible sources, and use a single universal standard applied equally to all countries. Through this process, NGOs could contribute positively to the new Human Rights Council, and help its members avoid the failures that discredited the old framework.
Israel Kasnett is a Senior Researcher for Special Projects at NGO Monitor