How Civil Society Organizations Can Promote and Protect Human Rights in Challenging Contexts
By Feras Hamdouni, Senior Program Manager with DT Institute
The views expressed in this piece are solely the author’s and do not reflect the official position of DT Institute as an organization.
Civil society organizations (CSOs) have proven indispensable in protecting human rights and empowering vulnerable individuals in conflict-affected and post-conflict regions of the world. In this article, which draws on over a decade of experience working on peacebuilding and human rights programs in Yemen and Syria, I discuss the significance of CSOs in promoting accountability and justice while outlining common challenges they face and providing recommendations for mitigating these challenges. The below challenges and recommendations are intended to contribute to a broader discussion and understanding of civil society’s role in promoting human rights in conflict-affected contexts globally.
The Role of CSOs in Protecting Human Rights
CSOs play a multifaceted role in human rights and transitional justice initiatives that can include documenting violations, aiding victims, advocating for marginalized groups, and pressuring decision-makers – state, non-state, and international – to enact and uphold policies that contribute to protecting human rights.
- By providing training and fostering local networks, CSOs increase public awareness of human rights and encourage collective action. They also empower local communities to advocate for human rights by lending expertise and resources. During my work with individual activists in Syria, I collaborated with Baytna Syria, a local CSO that empowered a group of young activists – many of whom were internally displaced – to advocate for the rights of displaced persons in their communities. Their successful advocacy efforts, which resulted in improved living conditions and access to essential services for thousands of displaced individuals, highlighted the remarkable impact of grassroots movements in promoting human rights and reinforced the importance of empowering local communities.
- CSOs also provide legal, psychological, or other specialized assistance to vulnerable groups, including human rights defenders, victims of human rights violations, and other marginalized or targeted populations. In transitional justice processes, CSOs play a vital role that parallels that of governmental actors and international institutions, advocating for victims’ rights and facilitating their participation in documentation and truth-seeking initiatives. In addition to facilitating direct transitional justice efforts, CSOs can advocate at the national or international level for policies that advance human rights and hold non-state forces accountable for human rights violations.
Challenges and Recommendations
While CSOs play a pivotal role in safeguarding human rights, their work often faces significant challenges and limitations, especially given resource constraints and contextual difficulties. In my experience in Yemen and Syria, the following strategies have been key to helping CSOs mitigate common challenges and enabling them to further their transitional justice and accountability goals.
- Collaborate to Reduce Competition and Increase Impact
In conflict-affected and post-conflict areas, the sheer number of CSOs engaged in transitional justice and human rights initiatives can lead to fragmentation and resource competition, resulting in redundancy and inefficiency. This competition for funding and recognition can divert attention from the overarching objective of upholding human rights.
Effective collaboration among CSOs – both local and international – is imperative to prevent duplication of efforts and maximize impact. A successful example of CSO collaboration can be seen in the Justice 4 Yemen Pact, a coalition of CSOs and human rights organizations supported by DT Institute unified in pursuit of justice for Yemenis. The J4Y Coalition, while relatively nascent, has already demonstrated the power and reach of successful collaboration by conducting a successful advocacy campaign that led to the release of four journalists who had previously been sentenced to death for their work.
- Manage Survivors’ Expectations to Maintain Trust
CSOs working to attain justice for survivors can sometimes overpromise results, raising unrealistic expectations among survivors and their families. For instance, exaggerated claims of quick criminal investigations and justice can raise false hopes; moreover, promising unattainable financial compensation may lead to resentment. Such disappointment and resentment can contribute to mistrust between community members and CSOs, to the detriment of CSOs’ broader transitional justice efforts.
According to one expert from the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, “the challenge lies in recognizing victimhood while adhering to legal criteria and standards” – in other words, CSOs must find the balance of recognizing and validating the trauma survivors have experienced while setting clear and realistic expectations for the complexity and length of the legal processes they will face. To do so, CSOs should communicate the scope and limitations of their initiatives transparently by setting practical timelines for justice processes, financial compensation, and policy changes. Maintaining open lines of communications with survivors and their families through open communication and feedback mechanisms such as surveys can ensure ongoing trust-building.
- Ensure Representation of Marginalized Voices
CSOs do not always represent the diversity of voices and perspectives within society. Dominance by specific interest groups or elites may lead to inadequate representation of marginalized communities. This dynamic can produce biased agendas that exclude certain stakeholders. To ensure greater inclusion, CSOs should ensure that marginalized and vulnerable groups have a voice within the organization and participate in decision-making processes.
- Prioritize Transparency and Accountability
CSOs, operating independently of formal governance, can easily encounter accountability and transparency issues due to perceived or real corruption. In addition to damaging sector credibility, lack of transparency can unintentionally perpetuate existing power imbalances and marginalize smaller, more resource-limited organizations. Similarly, CSOs can be susceptible to political bias and manipulation; as a self-preservation tactic, they may align themselves with political ideologies or be influenced by external parties with vested interests. Such biases can compromise their impartiality and undermine their effectiveness in promoting human rights.
To address these risks, CSOs should establish transparent governance frameworks with well-defined roles and responsibilities and implement robust conflict of interest policies and external oversight mechanisms. Following clear ethical guidelines can help CSOs remain accountable to the communities in which they work and enable them to build on their successes.
Civil society plays a vital role in safeguarding human rights. Transparency, accountability, communication, collaboration, and inclusion are essential to mitigating the myriad challenges CSOs face. Following these principles will enable determined CSOs to achieve sustainable success in human rights and transitional justice in conflict-affected contexts globally.
Featured photo by UnSplash.