Professor, Department of English and Cultural Studies, Panjab University
A vibrant civil society can challenge those in power by documenting corruption or uncovering activities like the murder of political enemies. In democracies, this function is mostly performed by the media, NGOs or opposition parties. — Evgeny Morozov
Though Abraham Lincoln was of the opinion that “laws without enforcement are merely good advice”, many activists believe that when governments fail to safeguard human rights or remain indifferent to ecological degradation, it is the non-governmental organisations that come to the frontline to ensure enforcement or remain vigilant enough to speak out against the State’s inadequacies or its transgressions. International laws protecting the democratic rights of the people as well as the environment, remain moribund without such vigilance and timely enforcement.
Though the private status of international vigilantism carries with it the position of a non-State actor whose actions do not carry any legal foundations, it has to be understood that their active interventions, though unsolicited, remain autonomous and within the preview of public law. As argued recently by Eilstrup-Sangiovanni and JC Sharman in Vigilantes Beyond Borders (Princeton 2022), the advantage of this cross-border activity has become integral to global governance, thereby encouraging innovative norms, and raising political alertness that persuades governments for adjustments and transformations in the service of humanitarian relief. However, law enforcement has considerably remained a State prerogative.
Clearly, the role of the NGOs is broadly one of “advocates and service providers” who have increasingly through investigations and evidence begun to prosecute wayward governments, companies and individuals and often succeed in picking up criminals red-handed. This provocative approach of the NGOs such as Amnesty, Greenpeace, Transparency International, Global Witness and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society underscores the trend of resorting to legal recourse to enforce international laws wherever the State expediently uses unlawful means to enforce diktats suited to its ideology.
These private bodies have over the years begun to actively contribute to the evaluation of State policies in the context of public law, sponsoring new international policy agendas and proposing reforms in the existing international legal practice. Such jurisdictional role thus has become integral to the working of many NGOs which refuse to remain bogged down merely in an advisory or consultative role.
Scrutiny from an institutional or non-constitutional perspective is a vital approach to the understanding of democratic legitimacy. The NGOs aim at influencing international law-making through the provision of information, mobilisation, lobbying and often direct participation in the inspection of the enforcement process. This is achieved through bringing to the centre-stage the significance of planning conferences or sponsoring annual lectures like the famous Amnesty Lectures at the University of Oxford where some of the best thinkers in the world like John Rawls, Jacques Derrida, Edward Said, Helene Cixous, Paul Ricoeur, Julia Kristeva, were asked to reflect on the connection between their specialisms and human rights, thereby raising the profile of human rights in the academic community and beyond. Ricoeur’s lecture on ‘Freedom and Interpretation’ is still talked about and heatedly debated till today. It broke new ground for his theory by explaining how the ideas he had set out in A Theory of Justice could be applied at the international level. Wole Soyinka, Nawal El Saadawi and Andre Brink were brilliant in the fourth series, The Dissident Voice.
The new norms thrown up at these international conferences help the NGOs to link political systems, economies, societies and cultures across borders. The aim is largely to initiate an international participatory democracy of self-rule where each participant has the freedom and the space to evolve new norms and understanding of what is vital to human freedom and justice always bearing in mind the deep connections between the local and global.
If this is the practice, let not the authoritarian State brush the contributions of NGOs aside, adopting extreme measures of thought control and the erasure of constitutional practices vital to the working of a democracy as well as international law. The challenges posed by NGOs within civil society indeed spur the unconstrained voices of the public and its dissent towards the implementation and use of law in a manner that often eats into the rights of the people. This in turn helps in putting a check on the indiscriminate and illegal use of executive powers as well as putting on alert the review mechanisms, thereby enforcing the essential element of transparency and accountability. Such invigilation by the NGOs therefore safeguards the inclusive nature of international law. However, checks and balances that the NGOs stand for provoke the State into a drive for more power. A certain degree of fear of non-governmental institution lurks in the mind of the leadership.
Nevertheless, positions on each side must not be rigidly upheld. State and non-State actors must act in concert to consistently target campaigns of hate against the minorities. For instance, the recently introduced anti-conversion laws or the banning of Hijab in educational institutions or raking up the issue of mosques being erected on temples goes against the letter and spirit of the Constitution and encourages terrorising of the minorities and severe violations of religious freedom. Targeting of the Shahi Idgah mosque in Mathura or Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi has further fuelled the resurgent Hindutva campaign. Freedom loving people are outraged by the attacks on intellectuals for holding views contrary to the government.
The political and religious leadership must join hands with NGOs to reinforce the just and peaceful working of a civil society. Operating in a harsh world of laws and lawlessness demands a much more balanced and nuanced view of politics on a multilevel understanding of the subject of NGO activism. States have often ignored the considerable impact of NGOs on various international agencies like the Geneva Convention of 1864, the World Anti-Slavery Convention, or the Statute of the International Criminal Court which have stood up against any form of intimidation, State-sponsored violence and pre-emptory police action. Such contributions of the NGOs, therefore, would not only awaken the public to a new consciousness, but also help in passing on to the government agencies enough knowledge collected as a result of serious in-depth research. The pooling of resources works as an impetus to the evolution of sound and rational legislation geared towards egalitarianism and strict adherence to rules of justice.
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