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of independent organizations protects freedom
Terhune, The Washington File
Fifty-eight years ago, after the human rights abuses of World War
II in Nazi concentration and prisoner-of-war camps, the United Nations
adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In a world where
constant vigilance is necessary to protect basic freedoms, human
rights "watchdog" organizations are essential. They monitor
people's access to basic rights and speak out when there are abuses
in developing and developed democracies alike.
at personal risk and against great odds, nongovernmental organizations
and other human rights activists advocate for human rights and expose
abuses. They strive to protect the rights of minorities and workers
and women and to stop the trafficking in human beings," U.S.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at her department's commemoration
of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights December 14. She noted
that human rights groups help build healthy civil societies, maintain
the rule of law and keep governments accountable.
defend the defenders," she said, because where human rights
groups are restricted, democracies suffer.
rights advocates, often the first targets of repressive regimes,
alert the public and governments to violations. Larger international
organizations document abuses and publicize issues more widely to
bring international pressure to bear. Globally focused groups such
as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch report on all countries
where human rights abuses are perpetrated.
A nation with
the United States' influence accrues proportionate responsibilities.
One issue recently taken up by global human rights advocates is
the obligation of U.S.-based companies to ensure employees are not
mistreated in factories outside the United States. Such campaigns
result in greater awareness and even legislation.
Equality Now and other women's rights advocacy groups spotlighted
human trafficking and its impact in the United States. This advocacy
helped push legislation through Congress. The Victims of Violence
and Trafficking Protection Act was passed in 2000, a law that has
been revised and strengthened to address global human trafficking.
Laws now allow prosecution in the United States of American citizens
who commit sex crimes upon children in other countries.
Within the United
States, watchdog groups champion civil rights, governance and transparency
issues. The nonpartisan Freedom Forum promotes the First Amendment
of the U.S. Constitution. "It guarantees free speech, free
press, religious freedom and the rights of assembly and petition.
But it is under frequent attack and needs help," Freedom Forum
chairman Charles L. Overby said. The forum runs seminars for journalists
of diverse backgrounds. In contrast, Web-based Fairness and Accuracy
in Reporting (FAIR) monitors print and broadcast news, keeping the
media accountable by posting lapses.
Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a venerable and controversial watchdog
group that has been a thorn in the side of every U.S. administration
since it began in 1920. It works through the judicial system, pursuing
civil liberties cases that involve constitutionally guaranteed rights:
free speech, association and assembly; the separation of church
and state; equal protection under the law; right to due process;
and right to privacy. The ACLU defends American citizens and non-citizens,
and monitors legislation before Congress.
Southern Poverty Law Center is committed to racial equality and
combating hate crimes. From it evolved Teaching Tolerance, an educational
program to foster respect and understanding for all ethnicities
and religions in school classrooms.
groups that supported the civil rights movement, which succeeded
in making discrimination according to race, gender or creed illegal,
are now watchdog groups. The National Association for the Advancement
of Colored People (NAACP) is the largest of these. The National
Urban League, founded in 1910, is one of the oldest advocates for
the rights of African Americans.
a nonpartisan organization, was founded by Republican John Gardiner,
who served in the Democratic administration of Lyndon B. Johnson.
Its goal is to strengthen public participation in government, to
fight corruption, promote fair elections and ethical standards in
government and protect civil liberties. "Today's political
climate demands a citizens lobby that is strongly and effectively
engaged, providing a watchful eye and demanding accountability of
its leaders," reads the Common Cause Web site.
Many more groups
advocate different concerns. Independent, partisan and bipartisan
organizations monitor civil society in the United States. Such groups
both challenge and cooperate with the government. The U.S. government
itself has watchdog agencies: its Department of Justice has a Civil
Rights Division, which in recent years has worked with various American
ethnic communities to ensure their customs are understood and their
rights protected. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has a section
that investigates allegations of civil rights violations. There
are also commissions that monitor and report to Congress and the
hard-won rights dominated the thoughts of America's founders.
of freedom is eternal vigilance," said Thomas Jefferson. Thomas
Paine wrote, "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom
must undergo the fatigue of supporting it." Today, human rights
groups carry some of that load.
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