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The Role of Non-Governmental Organisations

Without having read the report discussed by Valentina below, her post raises (apart from bringing to mind David Kennedy’s excellent paper The International Human Rights Movement: Part of the Problem? to mind) an interesting and in international law debates often overlooked issue of legitimacy of non-state actors. In this case that of non governmental organisations (NGOs). There can be no doubt that the influence and sheer numbers of NGOs in general have increased dramatically in international law and diplomacy over the last 15-20 years. While this is for the most part a good thing, it can be argued that this influence has taken place without much critical appraisal. Although the increase in numbers of NGOs has occurred across various fields of law, it is worth calling into question whose interests and cases each NGO claims to represent and serve. It might be that, say, the area of human rights is considered “universal”, in the sense that the claim to protect human rights is a worthy cause regardless of who is making the claim, but the situation in Israel, and elsewhere, clearly illustrates that conflicts arise. The problem of legitimacy is perhaps even more acute in other areas of law; for example that of environmental law. Here the influence of NGOs has equally increased both nationally and internationally over the last 10-15 years. One such example is seen in the 1998 Aarhus Convention (on access to environmental information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters) where NGOs played a significant role both in the creation of the Convention and in its day-to-day operations. Under the Convention, NGOs have, for example, a say in the nomination of members of the Convention’s Compliance Committee. Given the increase in environmental NGOs it is, however, not hard to imagine that differences of opinion will exist among them. This is, for example, witnessed in the debate on global warming where the role of nuclear energy as a carbon-free source of energy remains contentious and has spurred hefty debate even within established environmental NGOs. Likewise, the legitimacy of some human rights NGOs ought to be critically examined, including NGO Watch for that matter, simply because, in a time when the influence of these organisations increase, their claim to legitimacy ought to be equally examined. Hopefully readers of International Law Observer can contribute to this. It is worth bearing in mind that the most influential NGOs are usually the ones that remain bipartisan such as, for instance, ICRC and Medicine Sans Frontier.

One Comment

  1. KSK KSK 18 November 2008

    I’m doing some research in the area of NGOs and international law. Do you know of any good law review articles on the subject?
    Thanks in advance


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