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Vigilance of independent organizations protects freedom
Lea Terhune, The Washington File

December 19, 2006

Washington -- 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.

"Often 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.

"We must defend the defenders," she said, because where human rights groups are restricted, democracies suffer.

Local human 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.

For instance, 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.

The American 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.

Similarly, the 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.

The activist 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.

Common Cause, 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 president.

Safeguarding hard-won rights dominated the thoughts of America's founders.

"The price 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.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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