Protecting Individual and Group Rights - For Practitioners

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Eamon Aloyo


Introduction: The Nature of the Problem

Individuals and groups cannot feel secure when they are under threat of abuse by the state in which they reside. Some of the most prominent human rights abuses are: genocidewar crimes, crimes against humanity, sexual abuse including rape, and torture. But if we take the rights in the UDHR, human rights are violated in numerous other ways, every day when people are denied due process, freedom of movement, employment, an adequate standard of living, and other socio-economic factors.

Human rights abuses can also come from seemingly benevolent state action. For example, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War as a way to end the war and prevent Saddam Hussein from developing nuclear weapons. Yet those sanctions resulted in the death of approximately half a million Iraqi children. (Invisible War)

Interventions Options

Practitioners can address violations of human and group rights in three ways. They can work to prevent abuses from occurring, they can work to stop or mitigate abuses that have already begun, and they can act after hostilities have ended to ensure that they do not erupt again.

Preventive Measures

Practitioners can work to prevent abuse in the following ways:

  • Assess and measure the specific problem
  • Prevent violence that could lead to human rights violations
  • Work toward democratization
  • Promote nonviolent direct action
  • Promote economic development

Assessment and Measurement

The first preventive measure is assessing the status of human rights in any particular location. This task is complicated, however, by the fact that it is often difficult to collect good data in regions where the most egregious human rights violations occur. Nevertheless, various organizations produce at least a rough sense of the magnitude and type of human rights violations in most corners of the globe. These include:

  • The US State Department compiles data regarding human rights abuses.
  • Amnesty International compiles an annual report on human rights around the globe
  • Polity is a widely respected measure of democracy used by political scientists among others, which measures some human rights.
  • Minorities at Risk is a project run by professor Ted Gurr at the University of Maryland that measures the security rights of individuals at risk and that has data sets available for academic research.
  • Freedom House is another widely respected resource for information on civil and political rights around the world.

One of the differences in these assessments is how each index defines "human rights," as well as how the data is collected.

Violence Prevention as a Means to Human Rights Protection

Although some may disagree, we believe that that a general level of violence within a society can lead to human rights abuses. Often, it is the very mechanisms that a state puts into place to prevent violence — the police and state military apparatus — that are the perpetrators of abuse. This abuse tends to occur more often in non-democratic regimes — hence, democracy is one of the most important political factors in protecting human rights — at least over the long term. The transition period from non-democratic to democratic regimes is a period particularly prone to violence and, unfortunately, an upsurge in human rights abuses.

Democracy, Democratization, and Human Rights Protection

Achieving democracy is one of the surest ways to lessen domestic human rights violations. Yet how does the practitioner promote democratization in an autocratic country? There are no proven answers, but many approaches have been and are being tried. The following organizations are working on this question and can offer insights and practical guidance. We also list several pertinent articles that address this issue:

Promotion of Nonviolent Direct Action

Of particular interest at the time this module is being written is the notion of nonviolent direct action as an impetus for democracy. One approach that the New York Times reports played a role in both the overthrow of Milosevic in Serbia in 2000 and of Mubarak in Egypt in 2011 is Gene Sharp's work on strategic nonviolence and nonviolent direct action. Sharp's Albert Einstein Institution has a wealth of information about this strategy, including a number of case studies.

Bolstering Sharp's work, scholars Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan argue in a new book that nonviolence resistance is generally twice as likely a violent resistance to be successful at overthrowing a dictator or other abuser of human rights. A short summary of this argument is found here.


In addition to preventing violence and the violation of political rights, if human rights are considered more broadly to include socio-economic rights, then development and the provision of basic human needs becomes critical to human rights protection. There are two ways to view human rights and international development. The first, as some claim, is the human right to development. This is a broad right that would, presumably, cover all sorts of development including increases in nutrition, housing, education, and so on. Another way of viewing this is that everyone has the rights named in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and that states or other organizations have the obligation to help less developed countries guarantee their citizens such socio-economic rights. Other useful information, specifically pertaining to human rights and human needs are:

  • The 2000 UN Human Development Report is entitled "Human Rights and Human Development," and is an excellent resource for how human rights relate to development.
  • Daniel Kaufmann, a World Bank researcher, reviews in this paper how development can be linked to protecting human rights.
  • Peter Uvin, a leading scholar on the link between development and security, has written a useful book called Human Rights and Development.

Reactive Measures

Once human rights violations have occurred, a number of responses are possible. They include military intervention to stop the human rights violations, non-military humanitarian intervention to try to support the people who have been violated and to provide socio-economic rights, monitoring by outside observers to put pressure on offending regimes or other abusers, protective accompaniment to protect particular people and sanctions — trying to use political or socio-economic tools to change a states' or non-state actors' behavior. Once the conflict has ended, there are tools to prevent abuses from occurring again. These include:

Military Intervention

Although military intervention to solve conflicts is not preferable, in extreme cases such as genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity it has the potential of saving untold numbers of lives. The problem is that it has been abused by powerful countries looking for excuses to justify their own interests.

Because military force is used, inevitably innocents' rights are violated. It is very hard for military forces to build peace — which entails gaining trust (among many other things), while they are dressed as soldiers, carrying guns, and sometimes shooting people. That is why many scholars — and practitioners — feel that humanitarian intervention and peacebuilding should be done by civilians, and fighting should be done by the military. But in "complex operations" as they euphemistically have come to be called, the territory is often not adequately safe for civilian interveners, so the military must provide the broad spectrum of assistance, or no one will do it at all. If nothing is done, as with Rwanda in 1994, many more people could needlessly lose their lives. So on balance, many people believe that military-humanitarian intervention is justified.

Some useful articles about the costs and benefits of military intervention to protect human rights include:

Non-Military Humanitarian Intervention

While generally only state and suprastate actors intervene militarily, many non-state actors, particularly NGOs intervene to provide humanitarian aid and sometimes personal protection in war-torn areas. Humanitarian assistance organizations such as CARE, Mercy Corps, InterAction, WorldVision, and Red Cross/Red Crescent are active in many conflict areas, trying to feed, clothe, and house IDPs, refugees, and other victims of the violence. Sometimes government agencies--such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are involved in such activities as well. Another approach of NGOs is protective accompaniment. If particularly high-profile people are thought to be targets for harassment or execution, organizations such as Peace Brigades International, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and Witness for Peace have provided personal escorts and witnesses whose presence helps to keep threatened people safe, and deter rights violations more broadly.

Post-Conflict Measures

When a conflict has ended practitioners can begin a healing process with the aim of preventing future violations of rights. This healing process entails truth-telling and/or justice mechanisms that are meant to stop the cycle of retaliation. Justice mechanisms may threaten negative consequences to perpetrators that they will refrain from engaging in further or future abuse. Such measures are generally of one of two types: criminal courts or truth commissions. Sometimes both are used, either sequentially or simultaneously.

Criminal Courts

Trying human rights violators, recent studies have suggested, may deter others from committing mass atrocities. But whether criminal courts can assist in protecting human rights is contentious. Oskar N.T. Thoms, James Ron and Roland Paris in a2010 article entitled "State-Level Effects of Transitional Justice: What Do We Know?" based on this longer paper review the effects of criminal justice trials. The evidence, they report, is mixed.

A 2010 study using a new data set of over 100 transitions from 1974 to 2004 of high and low level criminals, by Hunjoon Kim and Kathryn Sikkink, suggests that prosecutions do prevent prospective security rights violations (Kim and Sikkink 2010). Their data includes both international as well as domestic law and courts. They find that as the number of human rights prosecutions in countries in transition from one type of political regime to another increases, the likelihood of security rights violations in the future decreases (Kim and Sikkink 2010: 941, 951-58). Contrary to the peace versus justice tradeoff proposition that holds that prosecutions and threats of prosecutions may cause more violence, they assert deterrence even works during ongoing civil wars (Kim and Sikkink 2010: 955-6). One problem with this study for policy prescriptions is that they lumped low and high level criminals together. This is a problem for the peace vs. justice tradeoff because it tells us little about what prosecuting high-level actors, who have the greatest possibility to renew violence, might do if threatened with trials. In sum, even though the new Kim and Sikkink article is encouraging, it is too early to judge whether criminal trials can deter prospective human rights violations.

More information on the prosecution of war crimes includes:

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions

Truth and reconciliation commissions are another way societies have dealt with past wrongs. A number of options are available, such as offering amnesty in exchange for truth, or offering lighter sentencing in exchange for truth. Other justifications for truth commissions include reconciliation, peace, or restorative justice. The benefit of this option is that it may prevent a recurrence of violence, and make public important historical facts. The drawback is that victims may prefer punishment and may feel slighted by not having the perpetrators punished.

As we have said, elsewhere on this page, there is little agreement on the essential elements of a truth commission. Eric Weibelhaus-Brahm discusses alternative definitions and elements in the article "What is a Truth Commission and Why Does it Matter?"

Whether truth and reconciliation commissions are effective (however that is assessed) is also deeply controversial.

  • Oskar N.T. Thoms, James Ron and Roland Paris in a 2010 article entitled "State-Level Effects of Transitional Justice: What Do We Know?" based on this longer paper review the existing literature and find that "TJ has either positive or no effects at all. Few of them find that TJ has negative impacts. Strong claims in either direction, however, are so far not supported by the existing scholarly literature." On pp. 6-8 and 51-5 of the open source paper they summarize their suggestions for policy makers who are considering implementing transitional justice mechanisms.
  • study published after by that by Thoms, Ron, and Paris, finds more positive evidence of truth commissions working to deter — but this too is just one study and their findings should be taken as tentative.
  • Kim and Sikkink claim that not only are interests at work in deterrence, but so too are norms because truth commissions have a deterrence effect independent of criminal trials (Kim and Sikkink 2010: 953-4, 957).
  • Eric Weibelhaus-Brahm's book Truth Commissions and Transitional Societies: The Impact on Human Rights and Democracy illustrates that truth commissions do positively affect human rights over the long term, but aren't as effective in bringing about democratization.
  • In another article, Weibelhaus-Brahm asserts that transitional justice mechanisms do support long-term rule of law which then improves human rights outcomes.

What are the issues that practitioners need to consider before they engage in an intervention?

Below are some questions that may be useful for practitioners to consider when deciding how to improve human rights in a particular situation.

  1. What human rights are being violated (or on the verge of being violated)? These you can identify most easily by comparing what is happening to victims with the rights listed by the UDHR. Often, the rights in question are obvious. But identifying exactly which rights are being violated is often a necessary first step to preventing rights violations. And taking the time to interview victims and to think through which rights are violated, you may notice previously unidentified rights violations, and identify previously unseen patterns.
  2. What is the moral and legal foundation of those rights and how might the answers to these questions affect your intervention? It's important to know local understandings of rights both from the perspective of ruling elites and citizens. What rights are widely accepted? How will decisions be made about which rights should be accepted and enforced? These are important questions because if those in power don't believe in human rights, or if they only believe in a limited list of them, they will be less likely to honor or protect the rights they do not believe are valid. And if the population as a whole does not believe in a particular right, intervention to protect that will likely fail. For instance, if people in a Muslim community believe that requiring women to wear a burka does not violate women's freedoms, efforts to "liberate" women from such restrictions (which many Westerners see as repressive) are unlikely to be effective.
  3. What people and/or organizations are most responsible for these violations? If the violations are being perpetrated by the government, the response is going to be quite different than if the violations are being made by paramilitary groups or other non-state actors. If the state is responsible for the violations then practitioners may direct pressure — internal, external, or both — at the state to change its policies and behavior. If non-state actors are responsible for the violations, practitioners can help to empower the state to enforce its laws protecting rights, bringing the violators to justice. Alternatively, practitioners can negotiate with violators. If practioners can work with violators to address their grievances and needs they may no longer feel a need to attack civilians to "make a point" or otherwise protect their interests.
  4. What is the motivation behind those who are violating other's rights? Often those who violate human rights do so for rational reasons, such as wanting to stay in or gain power, or to make money. Practioners should assess the motivation of each actor to better understand how to approach the situation. For instance, although both Joseph Kony in Northern Uganda and Slobodan Milosevic in the Balkans committed terrible crimes, their motivations differed. If you understand a tyrant's motives, intervening to change their behavior is more likely to succeed.
  5. How can these motivations be altered? Motivations can be altered in number of ways. Depending on your organization, you could look at the short or long term. In the short term, leaders may respond to economic sanctions, military threats or intervention, indictments or threats of indictments by international criminal courts, or "naming and shaming" by important people or organizations. If your organization has these sorts of powers, you should look at the research on the effectiveness of these tools. If you are an advocacy organization, in addition to doing this research, you should identify the actors that can make important decisions and develop an advocacy campaign designed to change those actors' behavior.

What practical actions should practitioners consider?

  1. Should you employ nonviolent action and tactics of civil disobedience? Studies have shown that in general nonviolent efforts at reform or are more successful than using violence. See Chenoweth and Stephan's work on nonviolent resistance or Gene Sharp's work, which has been cited as stimulating the rebellion in Egypt in 2011.
  2. Should you lobby for sanctions or boycotts? Sanctions are often tried as an alternative, or prelude to military intervention. Sometimes they target individuals and their bank accounts, e.g., against Libyan leaders in March 2011, whereas others target and harm whole countries. The economic sanctions on Iraq killed more than half a million Iraqi civilians between 1990 and 2003. Unfortunately, research shows a poor track record of results for sanctions and boycotts. The tendency is for targets of sanctions to withstand them relatively well while the general population suffers. Despite such research, they are still much less costly and more politically feasible to implement than is military intervention, and they may have some positive effect. Desmond Tutu, for example, asserts that the sanctions against South Africa were instrumental in bringing about a nonviolent end to apartheid.
  3. Can the goals of the individuals who are benefiting from violating rights be achieved in any other way? Another strategy for preventing human rights violations is to offer incentives for GOOD governance. The Mo Ibrahim Prize, for example, is the largest annually-awarded prize anywhere in the world, consisting of US$5million over 10 years and US$200,000 annually for life thereafter. It goes to former democratically-elected African heads of state who demonstrated excellent governance while in office and willingly relinquished power when their term ended.
  4. Is this a case of conflicting rights in which the other party is merely trying to defend what they regard as their rights? In this case, what mechanisms and institutions might be available (and widely seen as legitimate) for resolving the rights disputes? This should not be brushed aside as merely attempts to "dignify the sordid process of international politics," as George Orwell put it. Often people have strong cultural beliefs and traditions that do not coincide with broader definitions of human rights. Female genital cutting or mutilation (FGM) is one case where defenders of the practice say it is part of a tradition, and human rights organizations condemn it as a human rights violation. Fighting these sorts of human rights violations is tricky. Over the short term, strategies must engage a great number of people and local leaders who actually engage in the practice. Over the longer term, education and opinion changing strategies are possible. As Keck and Sikkink discuss, it is possible to end oppressive relationships such as Chinese foot-binding. The end of the British slave trade was also the overcoming the right to own humans as property to regard everyone as morally equal and endowed with human rights.
  5. Which organizations may be willing and able to prevent such rights violations? These may or may not be the same one(s) that have the responsibilities to guarantee the rights. Matching the violation with the appropriate organization is key. For instance, an aid organization such as Doctors Without Borders might be an appropriate NGO to call in an instance where people need immediate medical help, whereas a larger organization such as the UN or NATO may be appropriate when a resumption of violence is likely. You may want to consider which combinations of actors might be necessary, and how someone — it need not be you — might coordinate their work. Similarly, you may want to consider which organizations to target — the ones most severely violating rights?
  6. How can protections be constructed even if powerful individuals are motivated to violate some people's rights? If you can't change powerful actors' motivations, you may be able to change their ability to carry out human rights violations. For instance, a peacekeeping force might be deployed to protect civilians with a limited mandate to not overthrow the offending government. Or an organization could provide humanitarian aid to a region in which a leader is intentionally withholding life saving aid or trying to starve a population to death?
  7. Can you work with the people who are threatening rights to improve enforcement? Don't underestimate the capacity to influence even the most intractable foe. If your organization cannot influence the people who are violating human rights., consider who might be able to influence the power-holders. If no one works to change the root causes of the problem, it will just continue, making trauma healing an endless job. That is far less successful than stopping abuse before it happens, and it allows a lot of suffering to continue. Working to prevent abuses, not just respond to them, is a better long-term strategy. However, the pressure to respond to immediate short-term needs is often hard to resist. (See below.)
  8. Should you focus on the short or long term? The short-term approach to protecting human rights is to treat the symptoms, so to speak. Aid (as distinct from development) organizations supply fundamental needs and provide trauma healing programs to treat the victims of violence and abuses. The long-term approach is to work on the root causes of human rights violations to prevent future abuses. This is often more difficult because powerful people violate human rights for political and economic gain. But when successful, this approach has the potential for longer-lasting benefits. The two options are not mutually exclusive. Many organizations provide assistance, while at the same time lobbying powerful organizations to change policy that would render unnecessary their aid work. For instance, aiding the Darfur victims of the government of Sudan's abuses is vital short-term aid work. A longer term approach would be working with Sudan's government to change its policy.
  9. What parties and institutions are responsible for enforcing human rights? Generally, individuals have duties to respect others' human rights, and states have the duty to guarantee their citizens' human rights. If states are unable or unwilling to guarantee their citizens' human rights--or are themselves violating those rights, supra-state organizations such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) or other states assume the secondary responsibility to protect the human rights of the country in question. Under what conditions this secondary responsibility can be exercised — especially when it violates state sovereignty — is highly contentious.
  10. How can individuals or groups pressure those responsible for enforcing rights to do their jobs? Pressure can be applied in a number of ways, from the media to threatening or actually cutting funding, to voting people out of office, to name just a few. Applying pressure to those in power should be done cautiously to avoid further human rights violations. One example of a perverse outcome is Sudan's president, Bashir, expelled aid organizations from Darfur when he was indicted by the International Criminal Court.
  11. Are the abuses severe enough to warrant armed humanitarian intervention? If so, you will have to consider the pros and cons of military intervention and its impact on the larger society and whether you wish to lobby for it on the local and international scene. See the research section on humanitarian intervention work for more guidance on this topic.
  12. Are the abuses bad enough to qualify as criminal offenses by either domestic or international law? If so, you should weigh the pros and cons of using the law to hold to account the offending actors. Things to consider include:
    • Are prosecutions the best option? Answering this question requires you to consider the "peace vs. justice" tradeoff. If a culture believes primarily in retributive justice (punishment), then prosecution of rights violators might, indeed, be the best option. However, if the culture favors restorative justice, a truth commission of some sort might be a better option. It is also important to consider the impact of this choice on continued human rights abuses. If abusers believe that if they surrender there is no "out" besides trial and execution, then they may continue to fight and continue to perpetrate abuses. If abusers are offered a livable life if they surrender or otherwise settle the conflict, retributive justice may not be served, but many lives might be saved. Finding the proper balance between punishmentapology, and forgiveness, is always challenging.
    • Which organizations may be willing to prosecute rights violators? If the choice is to pursue prosecution, local, national, international, and hybrid tribunals are all options, and each has its costs and benefits. Local tribunals are most accessible to the general population and may have more credibility. However, capacity to hold a fair trial might not be as good as a national or international approach. National tribunals have the same problem, especially if the rights violators still hold some (or all) power. But international tribunals (such as the ICC) are often not culturally sensitive, and may seem removed and unresponsive to local concerns. One approach is a hybrid national/international tribunal, such as the ones held in East Timor, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, and Cambodia. These hybrid tribunals also have drawbacks — lower budgets and lower judicial standards are frequently cited as problems — but they are sometimes more politically and culturally acceptable than big, international processes.
  13. Is anything being done to help the victims of rights abuses recover? Humanitarian aid (to provide food, shelter, and medical care, for instance) is a common response to rights' violations, as are trauma-healing programs that try to help survivors move on after being victimized. These are valuable, and the need is often seemingly endless. That is why addressing the root problems simultaneously is also important, so that the stream of traumatized people doesn't continue to grow indefinitely.
  14. How have others successfully and unsuccessfully handled similar problems and what can you learn from them? Despite the numerous failures to protect human rights, there are also successful programs that have lessons to teach. All sorts of NGOs have been successfully protecting the human rights of vulnerable populations world wide. Examples include OxfamPartners in Health, and Doctors Without Borders. Other more political cases organizations — such as Human Rights Watch and International Alert are more contentious — some observers believe their efforts are successful; others do not. Nicholas Wheeler presents discusses and evaluates the efforts of many such programs in his book, Saving Strangers.
  15. Which cases most closely parallel your own? One of the most important decisions you can make when assessing what value your organization may be able to contribute is to decide which cases are most similar to your own, and why they are similar. This doesn't mean that you should discard everything that at first appears dissimilar. There may be valuable lessons from organizations that are focused on issues seemingly unrelated to your own. In other words, it's important to look for areas of commonality, even where it may at first look it seems like there is none.
  16. What further resources might you need and how could you obtain them? Resources could come in the forms of money, sympathetic allies in offices of power, other NGOs with similar missions, votes, or something as simple as a public space in which to conduct one's weekly public meetings. We are all sometimes prone to look at too large or too small of a picture. Listing various levels of analysis from the small and local to the large scale — and what would help you reach your goals — might be useful.
  17. Do you have other creative ideas? Take some time at the start of your project to brainstorm ideas for your unique situation. Although there are many general responses to human rights violations, every situation is unique. It could be helpful to think carefully and critically about what innovative solutions your organization might be able to implement. Of course the more you are able to inform this brainstorming session with historical information and case studies, the better. The key is figuring out the answer to four fundamental questions:
    • What's the situation we want to change?
    • What changes are likely to have the most impact?
    • What is needed to accomplish those changes?
    • If your organization does not have the capability to carry out an effective intervention on its own, who can your collaborate with, recruit, or otherwise influence to put together a team capable of an effective intervention?