Ethics in Action

The Ethical Challenges of International Human Rights Nongovernmental Organizations

Ethics in Action

This book is the product of a multiyear dialogue between leading human rights theorists and high-level representatives of international human rights nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) sponsored by the United Nations University, Tokyo, and the City University of Hong Kong. It is divided into three parts that reflect the major ethical challenges discussed at the workshops: the ethical challenges associated with interaction between relatively rich and powerful Northern-based human rights INGOs and recipients of their aid in the South; whether and how to collaborate with governments that place severe restrictions on the activities of human rights INGOs; and the tension between expanding organization mandate to address more fundamental social and economic problems and restricting it for the sake of focusing on more immediate and clearly identifiable violations of civil and political rights. Each section contains contributions from both theorists and practitioners of human rights.


“How should Western human rights activists deal with people from different cultural backgrounds? What should be the moral priorities of international human rights nongovernmental organisations? Should they focus their energies on the promotion of democracy, the alleviation of poverty, or both? Is it ethically acceptable to cooperate with authoritarian governments that repeatedly infringe the right of their peoples? These are some of the questions that the book addresses in a unique multiyear dialogue between theorists and practitioners of human rights. A valuable read for anyone thinking about how to make human rights real.”
Mary Robinson, President, Ethical Globalization Initiative

“On the surface the advancement of human rights looks simple. A moment's thought and a month's experience lead to the conclusion that it is anything but. This splendid collection of essays dares to unmask the simplicity and plumb the complexity. It doesn't pretend to supply all the answers. But it does more than just ask the right questions. It illumines them in ways they have rarely been explored before. This volume is a great gift to all who care about suffering and its relief.”
William F. Schulz, Executive Director, Amnesty International, 1994-2006.

“This book contains the most impressive collection of essays on the politics and ethics of international human rights NGOs to date. Pioneering in its attempt to bring leading INGOs into conversation with moral philosophers, the essays sparkle with the creative tension that the encounter generated. One of the most important questions in the practice of human rights concerns the ethical responsibilities of the most powerful INGOs, almost all located in the West, and their accountability towards the millions whose suffering do not register on their moral compass. This volume adds immensely to our knowledge of this question, with essays and commentaries from eminent practitioners and academics.”
Balakrishnan Rajagopal, Ford International Associate Professor of Law and Development, Director, MIT Program on Human Rights & Justice

“The publication of Ethics in Action is itself a testament to the influence international human rights NGO's (INGO's) have come to play. The quality of the essays and responses demonstrates how important the dialogue between practitioners and scholars is in clarifying deeply contentious issues of whether Northern INGOs dominate or cooperate, whether INGO's should work with or against oppressive governments and whether promoting economic and social rights requires different strategies from civil and political rights. This is essential reading for scholars and policymakers engaged in understanding and promoting human rights.”
Michael W. Doyle is the author of “Ways of War and Peace” and Harold Brown Professor of International Affairs, Law and Political Science at Columbia University.

“This important and path-breaking book brings about a spirited and fruitful dialogue among human rights theorists and practitioners on the ground. The authors -- leading experts from around the world -- debate dilemmas at the heart of human rights enforcement, including: do political and civil rights take priority over economic and social rights? When if ever should human rights organizations compromise with authoritarian governments or repressive cultural practices? How should they balance respect for the wishes of donors with attention to the most urgent needs? The questions addressed here could hardly be more important or fascinating, and the results are genuinely illuminating. Sustained progress on human rights requires this kind of well-informed and searching dialogue among scholars, advocates, and practitioners representing diverse cultures and regions. The authors differ on many things but share the sound conviction that to do good in the world we must combine moral reflection and knowledge of local contexts. Bell and Coicaud are to be commended for wedding the wisdom of practice to the insights of ethical reflection.”
Stephen J. Macredo, Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Politics and Director of the University Center for Human Values, Princeton University

"Between 2002 and 2005, the United Nations University and the City University of Hong Kong organized a series of ‘‘dialogues’’ about the ethical challenges facing international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs). Participants included ‘‘high-level representatives of INGOs’’ and ‘‘academic theorists’’ who study human rights (p. ix). The result is this fascinating and timely volume, which addresses not only human rights narrowly construed, but also humanitarian aid and development." - —JENNIFER RUBENSTEIN Princeton University, Ethics and International Affairs

"Ethics in Action fills an important gap in the growing literature on the contributions that INGOs make to the international system, and the editors deserve praise for taking on such an important, yet often neglected, subject. The book's authors have taken a hard look at the impact --both positive and negative--that human rights INGOs have on the world, and in doing so have fulfilled the editors' first goal of discussion. But if the book compels other like-minded civil society actors and academics to take pause and reflect on their own activities and research, then they will have succeeded in their second goal of refining responses as well, and in doing so will have made an invaluable contribution to the cause of global human rights."
Andrew S. Thompson, Special Fellow, Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) H-NET BOOK REVIEW


2007 Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Title Award