There are many great human rights organisations around the world where human beings can come together to make abuses visible, hold authorities accountable and be pro-active in the fulfillment of the human rights. One of the organisations major achievements is that it is due to their work that the UN has human rights as an explicit working area. What is it with human rights organisations that make them able to achieve this?
Human rights organisations are of course diverse, the ones referred to here are the ones that have the possibility for volunteers to contribute to their work. The nature of the organisations as non-governmental organisations makes them independent from states and corporations and accountable to all those people that choose to finance their work. Transparency is kept by making their financial reports as well as their strategic plans public and members can furthermore participate in the making of the organisations strategic plans. And this is crucial – they can actually participate! Not just contribute to the organisations’ work by implementing what the staff has decided but affecting the decisions that are made.
Holding states accountable is, like I mentioned earlier in the text, one of the methods that organisations use to reach their goal of a world where the human rights are fulfilled. Viewing the organisations as part of this world, the method can serve successful from within. So what is the relation between participation and accountability? Participation is one of the four principles of accountability: transparency, participation, response and reflection & deliberation.
From a human rights-perspective, participation is a right that is found in article 12 in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Its definition, which goes hand in hand with the right to freedom of expression is that:
”Participation is not solely the act of expressing an opinion and having that opinion taken seriously, but of being able to construct that opinion freely through accessing information and meeting and debating with others.”
The volunteers’ participation in the human rights organisations can now be seen as a way to fulfil the human rights by both fulfilling the specific human right to participation as well as making sure that the organisation won’t commit any abuses. Through participation – through committing to accountability – trust is established and the rest of the organisations’ work will be shaped accordingly. Hopefully making it even better. This is a way of working that enables people’s initiatives and ideas to transform into actions that can solve or prevent human rights abuses. Let us all remember this! Participation will not only lead to the reaching of your own interests but for the reaching of everyone’s interest – which is by definition the fulfilment of the human rights.
Whether human rights organisations have this perspective can sometimes be unclear but someone that has put this very clearly is the Center on the Developing child at Harvard University. They emphasise the importance of strengthening people in order to create an environment where also other people will be strengthened, leading lives that will be free from abuses, lives where people are better equipped to overcome obstacles. Perhaps this is a part of the answer to why human rights organisations can be so successful.
This perspective is something that should be taken into account everywhere, all the time. Within the sphere of the state it is recognised as citizen participation and an important aspect to remember is the distinction between “citizen control” and “citizen manipulation”. Sherry R Arnstein published already in 1969 an article about this topic where he emphasised that there are different levels of participation where some not even are participation but instead manipulation. An example of this could be to put the volunteers in a council with the purpose of creating a platform for their point of views but where the ones who share their point of view actually are the staff. Another form of false participation is by Arnstein named “tokenism”. In this case, the council would be a forum for the volunteers’ thoughts and opinions, but with no method to actually take the thoughts and opinions into account.
These two modes – manipulation and tokenism – take us to a dark place within human rights organisations; they could become places where human beings – volunteers – are objectified for the sake of the organisations appearance. But this isn’t what necessarily needs to happen. Thinking of this dark place could lead to the conclusion that volunteers shouldn’t be included within the human rights organisations’ work at all. But with the knowledge of how participation actually is a human right, the dark place can serve as a remembrance of how important it is to create an opportunity for true participation for the volunteers. With this reflection in mind, human rights organisations will be able to fulfil the human rights already within their own work – taking us all one step closer to the world where the human rights are fulfilled.