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Sample 1

The International Rescue Committee and the Preservation of Human Rights


1. Introduction: INGOs and Human Rights


In the age of globalization, the doctrine of human rights protection has been transformed from a philosophy into an internationally observed legal standard, which has changed the face of world politics and global policy-making. The preservation of human rights has become a universal agenda and a priority for most of the democratic governments all over the world. Apart from national governments and international organizations, probably the most prominent advocates of human rights are the International Non-governmental organizations (INGOs). In the past several decades, they were established as the voice and element of global civil society and their activities have demonstrated that certain issues can transcend national borders and can outweigh national interests. The universality and urgency of issues such as strengthening global democracy, fighting global poverty, achieving sustainable economic growth, and the observation of fundamental human rights and freedoms have re-arranged the distribution of responsibilities in the global society and have attributed a special role of INGOs as guardians of international human rights standards.

It remains a debatable topic whether INGOs are actual actors in the global policy-making process, since their role of advocates or lobbyists of human rights are discernible, but the methods that they use are indirect. In order to monitor the preservation of human rights, INGOs monitor national governments, negotiate with party officials, liaise with the media and campaign. Other instruments for the preservation of human rights used by INGOs involve training and development programmes/projects and research. In the last couple of decades, INGOs have achieved a lot in changing the public perception of human rights and have transformed them from a distant policy abstraction into a tangible subject of everyday life.

One of the pioneers in the preservation of human rights and post-conflict development is the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Since its foundation in 1933, the organization has been involved in assisting nations who have suffered from violent conflict and has provided resettlement services for millions of people all over the world. This paper will examine critically the role of the IRC in human rights and it will give account of three of its major involvements in Congo, Iraq and Bosnia. The cases have been selected in order to highlight the role of the IRC as an advocate of human rights, to examine its strengths and weaknesses.

The structure of the paper will be the following: the methodology section will briefly outline the methods selected for this case study, and it will be followed by some generic background information about the organization, its history, development, and structure. The role of the IRC in human rights promotion and protection will be illustrated through three different missions for assistance for countries suffering the consequences of violence conflict and oppression in which the organization has been involved in the past several decades. Based on its performance in all three cases some conclusions on the connection of INGOs with other actors will be made.


2. Research question

The paper seeks to analyze critically the role of the International Rescue Committee in human rights. It will be divided in three sections, and each section will concentrate on a project undertaken by the IRC throughout the years. The cases have been selected based on geography (different regions have been selected) and their connection with human rights protection. Each case will be critically approached from a human rights perspective. In order to assess the performance of the IRC in the three cases, four criteria will be used as a measurement. They are:

  1. Submitting reports on human rights situation in the conflict-stricken countries

  2. Negotiating with national governments in order to influence or change legislation

  3. Raising international awareness of human rights

  4. Replacement of the government’s services during a crisis (United for Human Rights 2010)


The reason why these four criteria have been selected is that they reveal most clearly the complexity and variety of functions and responsibilities, which INGOs have in the field of human rights. Of course, this methodology is in no way exhaustive and has its limitations. The paper does not seek to imply that human rights can be quantitatively measured or confined within these four criteria. They have been used only as a guideline throughout the critical analysis on the role of the IRC in human rights, which this paper will attempt to provide. The following sections will trace which of the criteria have been met by the IRC during its involvement in Congo, Iraq, and former Yugoslavia.


3. The International Rescue Committee – History and Background

In 1933, the American branch of the European based organization was founded as suggested by Albert Einstein, in order to assist people suffering oppression from Hitler and Mussolini. In only a few years, it assisted people suffering under the Vichy regime in France. It helped more than 2000 intellectuals escape political repression from their national governments and since its foundation, the IRC has been involved in post-conflict programmes in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. The organization has its headquarters in New York, and its European quarters in London. It has approximately 8 000 people staff and it is composed of first responders, humanitarian relief workers, international development experts, health care providers, and educators (IRC website 2010).


4. The IRC in Congo (1996 to present)

The IRC has been involved in post-conflict development in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1996. By that time, the war and ethnic conflict between Tutsi and Hutu in neighboring Rwanda had spilled over to Congo (then Zaire), when refugees from the prosecuted Hutu community fled from the oppressive Tutsi led government (Global Security 2010). The conflict affected more than 50 million Congolese people, and left many destitute and homeless. According to several surveys conducted by the IRC in that period, more than 3.8 million people died in Congo (IRC official website 2010). Many lost their lives because of diseases and lack of nutrition, not because of the actual fighting. Since 1996, the IRC has assisted those affected by the violence that occurred by providing education and communal support. The IRC “has assisted in providing critical health and emergency response services to those displaced by the violence, as well as addressing the crisis of sexual violence and working with Congolese to build their future through education, training, and community development”. Currently, the IRC is operating with more than 400 members in 7 out of 11 provinces on the territory of the country. So far, the IRC has assisted millions of people with medicine, clean water and other aid. It is the largest INGO operating on the territory of the country. The IRC is also trying to increase the access of those affected by the conflict to education and is helping them in rebuilding their home after the conflict (IRC website 2010).

The achievements of the IRC in the Democratic Republic of Congo in terms of post-conflict reconstruction and humanitarian assistance cannot be denied. The IRC has acted as a promoter of basic human rights, and its role in the preservation of international legal standards is undisputed. From the four criteria, mentioned in the methodology section, having in mind the scope and the duration of its humanitarian action, IRC does not meet only one of them . It has produced reports on the mortality rate and the development of the country in the years following the war, and it has raised international awareness of the political reality in Congo through numerous international campaigns. It has also provided basic services for the citizens of Congo when the government was incapable to do so. The only criteria, which the IRC has not met is negotiations in order to change the national legislation. So far, it has not been involved in lobbying with political parties in order to influence the policy-making process in Congo (IRC report on Congo 2007).


5. The IRC and Iraq (2003-2004 and 2007 –present)

The four criteria will be applied in the same way in the next case study, which illustrates the IRC activities in conflict torn Iraq. Since 2003, the IRC has been providing humanitarian assistance to Kurdish refugees displaced under the Saddam regime. The IRC also provides assistance to Kurdish refuges from Turkey in Northern Iraq and the Kurdish refugees in Jordan. Since the beginning of the conflict in 2003 it has assisted those displaced by Saddam Hussein in rebuilding their homes and providing legal aid for those who want to obtain legal documentation in order to have their homes returned. In addition, the IRC is helping in the reintegration of the displaced children back into school, and in the rehabilitation of women who have been victims of violence through its Women’s Health Programme (IRC website 2010).

In 2008, the IRC established a special Commission to investigate the case of the displaced people from Iraq not only in the country itself, but also in Syria and the United States. The main task of the Commission since its establishment has been to conduct field research on the living conditions of the Iraqi refugees, their right of return in their homelands and the prospects for their economic recovery. Based on these research and reports, the Commission has made important policy recommendations for the Iraqi government and the international community. Again, in order to assess the role of the IRC in the case of the Iraqi refuges we need to use the four criteria. The IRC has definitely met the first criteria, and it has produced some of the most detailed and realistic reports on the human rights situation in conflict – stricken Iraq. It also fully meets the third criteria – raising awareness of the human rights situation in Iraq. The activities of the IRC in Iraq have given publicity on the situation of the refugees, which has alarmed the international community and has transformed the public opinion. It remains doubtful however, whether it meets the other two criteria – negotiating with the national governments to change legislation, as well as securing services, if the government in power is unable to do so. In one of its reports, the Commission of the IRC for the Iraqi displaced persons presents very concrete recommendations for the Iraqi government and the international donor community on the immediate improvement of the situation of the refuges. Some of these recommendations are that services should be provided where the displaced people are currently living, increasing assistance to the displaced people and the facilitation of access to services across the country (The IRC report on Iraqi refugees, 2010). In this sense, the IRC Commission on the refuges has drafted systemic proposals, which were to serve as a basis for future government legislation. Although it has not been involved in direct negotiation with political actors in Iraq at the time, the IRC has contributed to building a strong basis for the Iraqi policy-makers to facilitate human rights in the country. As far as the last criteria is concerned, the IRC has achieved a lot in providing services for the Iraqi people, when the government has been unable to do so. Some of them have already been mentioned earlier in this section.


6. The IRC in Bosnia (1992)

In 1992, the IRC started some rehabilitation programmes in former Yugoslavia. First, it was involved dealing with the consequences of ethnic cleansing, after which it launched some humanity rehabilitation programmes in Bosnia and Herzegovina (IRC website 2010). Since the outbreak of the war in the early 1990s, thousands of Bosnian Muslims became victims of Milosevic’s policy of Serbianization and forced unmixing of people in ethnically heterogeneous Bosnia. First, ethnic cleansing became a political discourse and it was gradually embraced as a policy by people such as Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, and Ratko Mladic. The exclusionary propaganda of the Milosevic government depicted all non-Serbs as potentially threatening to the historic revival of the Serbian nation, and ethnic cleansing and genocide followed soon after (Cigar, 1995). The IRC was involved in the promotion of multi-ethnic tolerance and democracy but it was mostly engaged in helping victims of ethnic violence to recover. It has provided communal and healthcare assistance, as well as economic aid (IRC website 2010). In the case of the Bosnian refugees, only one of the criteria was met, and the role of the IRC has not been as dynamic as in the previous two cases. The IRC has met the third criteria, because it has raised awareness for the seriousness of the situation in former Yugoslavia. However, none of the other three criteria have been met.


To conclude this section, it is important to note that a general tendency in the actions of the IRC in all three cases can be observed. The criteria, which involve advocacy and human rights preservation such as reports, raising public awareness and providing of services for the victims of violence are easier to meet. The one criterion, which required the IRC to participate in the policy-making process through negotiation with national governments, is more difficult to meet. This observation can be used in order to make a broader conclusion on the role of INGOs in human rights and their connection with other actors. It illustrates the gap between the governmental and the non-governmental sector in the field of human rights and reveals the need for a dialogue and closer cooperation between the two.



7. Conclusion: the legal personality of INGOs

This paper has attempted to illustrate the role of one of the leading development and relief organizations in human rights promotion and protection. Only few of the activities of the IRC have been discussed in this paper, but they raise general questions about the legal personality of INGOs and about the impact of its possible reconsideration on the protection of human rights. Despite of the growing influence of INGOs from an international legal perspective, they remain regulatory, consultative, and advisory bodies. Their decision-making leverage is outweighed by other actors such as Intergovernmental organizations, regional organizations, and states. Up to the present moment, the INGOs have no clearly specified legal personality, despite the existence of the 1986 European Convention on the Recognition of the Legal Personality of International Non-Governmental Organizations. Currently, INGOs are advocates and promoters of human rights, but the obscurity of their legal status paralyzes any attempts for the prevention of violent conflict, and limits their activities to post-conflict development and humanitarian assistance.




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Cigar, N.(1995) Genocide in Bosnia: The Policy of Ethnic Cleansing, Texas A&M University Press, College Station


Global Security (2010) “Congo Civil War”,

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United for Human Rights (2010), “Human Rights Organizations”,

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