Traditionally speaking, Public International Law represents a set of norms enacted by states in order to regulate the relations between them. However, since the end of the Cold War, the role of NGOs has significantly influenced the international realm. NGOs have been subject to significant growth, especially in the area of human rights, humanitarian law and environmental law.
Currently, Article 71 of the UN Charter serves as a legal basis for the activities of NGOs. Article 71 provides that NGOs can intervene in the international arena and can be granted consultative status. NGOs can influence international law-making process in several ways. Firstly, they encourage states to codify international rules. Their initiatives result very often in soft law, which may serve as a basis for future “hard law”. Secondly, NGOs have a watchdog and monitoring role, they ensure that legal norms are applied correctly and provide technical resources or expertise. Furthermore, as Cullen and Morrow point out, NGOs are active participants in the enforcement of international law: they assist non-state actors in bringing international claims. Amongst human rights NGOs acting as amici curiae, the most active bodies are Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists. NGOs also operate as lobbyists and advocates, generating publicity about violations of international law.
In the last decades NGOs have become important participants in the creation of international norms, for example NGOs assisting in the drafting of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. McCorquodale and Otto highlight that NGOs are the representatives of the international civil society and are often a means whereby individuals join together to speak as a collective to the rest of international society. Additionally, Posner points out, that NGOs stimulate international attention to human rights violations around the world. They also help to shape the work of the UN and other intergovernmental organizations. NGOs primarily provide accurate information concerning human rights abuses. Their credibility comes from the fact that they are not political in the conventional sense, having “no political affiliation, endorsing no political party.” They also represent a source of support for individuals whose rights are being breached. In addition, they serve an educational function, by informing communities of their rights.
It is important to mention that although NGOs play an important role on the world stage, they are frequently subjected to hostility and opposition from governments. For example, the activities of Greenpeace in their campaign against French nuclear testing in the Pacific led to the sinking of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior by French agents. Furthermore, governments with poor human rights records perceive NGOs as anti-government organizations which threaten internal stability. Posner emphasizes that governments should perceive NGOs as a positive indicator of a country’s democratic institutions, rather than as a threat to society.
It is beyond doubt that NGOs participate actively in the creation, development, and enforcement of international human rights law. They bring new ideas, sustained focus, and pressure upon states that violate their obligations. Governments should pay close attention to enhance and support their activities.
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