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World: Amnesty And Human Rights Watch -- How They Work (Part 2)

  • Jeremy Bransten

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are both known for their authoritative reports shedding light on the abuse of human rights across the world. How do these organizations compile their data, how do they evaluate sources, and what challenges do they face in the countries in which they operate? In the second part of this two-part series, RFE/RL examines whether the work of international, nongovernmental human rights groups can have a genuine effect on authoritarian governments.

Prague, 24 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have gained a high profile and broad recognition in Western countries for their campaigns on behalf of prisoners of conscience and the abolition of unjust judicial practices around the globe.

Amnesty International received the Nobel Peace Prize for its work in 1977 and the two groups' annual country reports are often quoted by journalists as reference points. The question is: How effective are these groups' reports in bringing about change and how fruitful is their advocacy work on behalf of specific causes or repressed individuals?

Matilda Bogner, head of the Human Rights Watch office in Tashkent, told RFE/RL that assessing the impact of her work in Uzbekistan is often difficult. But she does feel her efforts are helping to make a difference, at least in some individuals' lives.

"It's always very difficult to say what sort of an impact we have here," she said. "Unfortunately, overall, I don't see that the human rights situation is improving. However, maybe if we weren't here it would be even worse. I don't know. But certainly for individuals, we have been able to have some impact. The impact varies a lot. Sometimes people just find it very supportive that they're able to come and talk to us and that they know that we care and that we are working on their issue, even if we haven't objectively been able to change the situation in Uzbekistan or their particular situation. But they do feel that support and solidarity with them, that we're here, that we take an interest and that we pass their information on and that the rest of the world finds out about what's happening to them. But sometimes we are able to have quite a concrete impact on particular cases."

One of the cases Bogner cites is that of Ergash Bobojanov, a member of Uzbekistan's Birlik opposition group, who was arrested and charged with criminal defamation for writing two articles critical of the government published in a Kyrgyz newspaper.

Bobojanov was released from prison under a presidential amnesty in February, and Bogner believes the campaign on his behalf waged by Human Rights Watch helped win his release.

Otanazar Oripov, chairman of the locally based Mazlum human rights group, praises the work of Human Rights Watch in Uzbekistan. Speaking by phone from Tashkent, he told RFE/RL that although it is difficult for NGOs to have a direct effect on government policies in Uzbekistan, the international publicity that groups like Human Rights Watch can garner for causes in Uzbekistan sometimes forces the authorities to actively address abuses.

"It is very hard to influence our government -- they don't pay attention," Oripov said. "But we have a high opinion of Human Rights Watch, especially, and their reports. And although they don't [often] have a direct effect on the government, their information gets through to other governments. The United States, for instance, uses their findings and the United Nations does as well. And through them, actual help can sometimes be given to actual people here."

In recent years, several local human rights organizations have appeared in Uzbekistan, even if many of them, like Mazlum, have had trouble gaining official registration from the authorities. Oripov says Human Rights Watch and other foreign watchdogs active in Uzbekistan should concentrate some of their efforts in funding and training these local groups so they can play a bigger role in monitoring human rights abuses in their own countries.

Oripov said Human Rights Watch researchers "are very hard-working people. They gather a lot of information and monitor the situation. But their help to other, local human rights organizations is limited. They do not provide material or technical assistance. They don't have such a program."

Thousands of kilometers to the west in Belarus, local human rights organizations also struggle under the authoritarian leadership of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Lukashenka has accused foreign human rights organizations of spying and fomenting propaganda hostile to the government. But for Ales Hulak, of the Belarus Helsinki Committee, foreign watchdogs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch offer precious encouragement.

"For us, human rights advocates working inside the country, these [organizations] are useful because we feel a degree of outside support in our work. It creates more guarantees for our safety and more guarantees that we will be able to continue in our work." Hulak said it is "a system of collective defense that works to a certain degree."

As in Uzbekistan, measuring the exact degree of effectiveness of these organizations is difficult, but Hulak is sure of one thing. "[If] they didn't exist, things would be worse," he said. "It's hard to say how effective their work is, how direct an influence the work of these organizations has, but one can say with certainty that if this work was not going on, things would be worse."

Ivan Fiser, Central Europe researcher for Amnesty International in London, told RFE/RL that progress sometimes comes slowly and often depends on the efforts of more than one advocacy group. But persistence pays off. One of the long-term human rights issues Fiser worked on in recent years was the campaign to end the criminalization of homosexuality in Romania.

"The provision in the Romanian penal code which criminalized same-sex consensual relations had been implemented and had led to the imprisonment of many individuals who had been considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. The campaign to abolish this provision of the penal code lasted, for Amnesty, for well over eight years," Fiser said.

In 2001, Romanian deputies voted to strike the provision from the books. It was an important victory for all the human rights organizations that had lobbied for the change and brought Romanian legislation closer to accepted European standards.

But in the world's sea of injustice, it was only a drop. Human rights campaigners around the globe face a Sisyphean task -- but the occasional victories, they say, make it all worthwhile.