2023-06-15 Expert Seminar and book launch – The roles of human rights NGOs in the international human rights system


GHR convenes an Expert Seminar to reflect on the vital role of NGOs in building the United Nations (UN) human rights system, and to plan and strategise on how to safeguard and strengthen their engagement and ensure that the international system is relevant, accessible, responsive and effective for rights holders, defenders, and victims of violations and abuses.

This Seminar takes place on Thursday afternoon 15 June 2023 in the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights (ADH) on the occasion of the launch of a major collective publication titled ‘The Protection Roles of Human Rights NGOs’. Sponsors are Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the UN, the Canton of Geneva and the Geneva Human Rights Platform.


We are a unique training organisation in International Geneva. Over the last 20 years, ‘Geneva for Human Rights – Global Training’ (GHR) trained about 2’000 defenders and NGOs in the use of regional and international human rights procedures. We conducted hundreds of courses and expert seminars, in Geneva and in all the regions, thus empowering defenders to fully participate in the processes of human rights implementation on the spot.

Our Programme of Human Rights Policy Studies supports our training activities. Its main project concerns the NGOs in the UN human rights system. In June 2021, our Assembly decided to focus this project on the role of human rights NGOs in the building-up of the UN human rights system.

Many international experts and human rights practitioners were invited to share their experience on the protection roles of human rights NGOs since the creation of the UN. The study was coordinated by Prof. Bertrand Ramcharan (GHR Board member and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights ad interim), together with three co-editors: Ms. Penny Parker (GHR board member, Minnesota Lawyers), Mrs. Rachel Brett (former Quakers’ UN Representative) and Prof. Ann Marie Clark (Purdue University, Indiana). The result is a collective publication of 1064 pages, with 62 Chapters on a wide diversity of issues, published in Brill Nijhoff’ series of International Studies in Human Rights.


Last revised – Geneva, 4 June 2023

Draft Programme

(updated 6 June 2023)

Invited Chair: Felix Kirchmeier (Executive Director, Geneva Human Rights Platform, ADH).

15.00   Welcome and introduction

  • Felix Kirchmeier (Executive Director, Geneva Human Rights Platform, ADH).
  • Barbara Fontana (Head Human Rights Section, Swiss Permanent Mission).
  • Olivier Coutau (Délégué à la Genève Internationale, Canton of Geneva).
  • Ms. Ines French (GHR redaction team): presentation of the book.
  • Prof. Bertrand Ramcharan: highlights on the first international NGOs.

 15.30   Round Table-1. The essential role played by non-governmental actors in

building the international human rights system.

  • Chair: Mr. Michael Khambatta (Director Gulf Centre, Canada).
  • Key note speech: Adrien-Claude Zoller (President GHR).

Experts on the Round-table[1]:

  • Mr. Ian Seiderman (International Commission of Jurists).
  • Mr. Miloon Kothari (member UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in Israel, India).
  • Mrs. Diane Ala’I (former Representative Baha’i International Community, Geneva).
  • Mrs. Christa Meindersma (writer, former senior political advisor to the UN, NL).
  • Mrs. Fay Parris (President Women’s Bar Association, Queens, New York).

16.45  Round Table-2. The role of NGOs and the international human rights system in addressing the current and future human rights challenges (such as rising authoritarianism, civil society repression, persistent and rising inequalities, climate crisis, racial justice, AI and social media, regression of human rights standards, threats to universality, and protection of defenders).

  • Chair: Nicolas Agostini (Geneva Representative DefendDefenders).
  • Key-note speech: Clement Nyaletsossi Voule (Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Togo),

Experts on the Round-Table:

  • Mr. Gustavo Gallon (Ambassador of Colombia, former Special Rapporteur on Equatorial Guinea and on Haiti),
  • Mrs. Lucy McKernan (Human Rights Watch) ,tbc.
  • Mrs. Anna-Karin Holmlund (Amnesty International).
  • Mr. Olivier de Schutter (Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and HR), tbc
  • Phil Lynch (Director International Service for Human Rights).

17.30   Conclusions

GHR invited the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Volker Türk, to conclude with a key-note speech on the protection of human rights defenders (tbc).

 18.00   Reception in the Geneva Academy.

Co-sponsors: Permanent Mission of Switzerland at the UN-Geneva, Canton of Geneva, and the Geneva Human Rights Platform.

[1] Experts having confirmed. Other names may be added.

Origins of the Study Project


  1.  Geneva for Human Rights

In 2003, a dozen of experts and NGOs members launched a specific training organisation for human rights defenders, called ‘Geneva for Human Rights – Global Training’ (GHR). The UN, ILO, UNESCO and regional (governmental) organisations had adopted an array of general principles, declarations and conventions on specific rights and a variety of violations. Multiple treaty bodies, mechanisms and special procedures had been set-up to monitor States’ compliance with their obligations. But, using this system was becoming a complex matter for those in the regions. Training them was crucial.

Our first General Assemblies defined concrete objectives. The international system had to be reinforced, but the main problem was the growing gap between international decisions and the realities: domestic implementation had to be the core objective of our training. As human rights have to be realized by the country itself, strengthening national protection mechanisms and capacities had to be a priority. GHR would train all those involved in the promotion and protection. But, the main partners were the defenders, victims, witnesses and their organizations, who constitute the major engine for UN Special procedures, treaty bodies and UPR, with their reliable information and essential proposals. Our training would focus on the use of the international system, and on the elaboration of the best strategies at domestic, regional and international levels to bolster domestic implementation.

GHR has four programmes: the Global Training Programme (GTP), with a diversity of courses, the Geneva Advocacy Programme (GAP), with advocacy priorities on procedures, themes and countries, the Implementation Programme (INP), with a series of projects to ensure the realization of human rights, and the Programme of Human Rights Policy Studies (HPS) to support GHR training and initiatives, by monitoring international human rights negotiations, covering all meetings of UN human rights bodies, analyzing the main trends, undertaking in-depth studies, and informing our trainers and partners in the field.

  1. The studies of GHR

In the HPS Programme, we undertook Human Rights Studies on the priority issues of defenders in the field, such as enforced disappearances; transitional justice; indigenous peoples’ rights; religious freedom; racism and racial discrimination on the UN agenda; and the strategies of hardliner states in the UN human rights bodies. For years, our main studies focused on the core teaching of GHR, namely the UN Special procedures and treaty bodies.

In 2020, GHR initiated a Study project on the role of NGOs in the human rights system of the United Nations. Since then, the project had three parts:

  • In view of the actuality, it started with the monitoring of the Covid-19 crisis. On 24 March 2020, GHR launched an appeal for solidarity, commitment and hope to all those involved in the work of the Human Rights Council and to GHR partners and former interns and trainees. The study on the impact of the health and social crises crisis helped elaborating proposals the UN mechanisms and procedures, and for the draft Statement of the President of the Human Rights Council;
  • Theme of the second study was Consultative Status of NGOs with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). It analyzed not only the rules for the consultative status and the initiatives to give access to the ‘non status’ organizations, but also how civil society organizations used their status to contribute to the building-up of the UN human rights system. Part of this research was published in a Chapter entitled ‘NGOs, the UN and human rights‘ in the collective book ‘100 Years of Multilateralism in Geneva. From the League of Nations to the UN[2]. The research showed a wide ignorance in local and international circles of the important role played by NGOs in the building of the UN human rights system: without independent human rights organisations, victims, witnesses and their defenders, many international or regional human rights mechanisms and procedures would never have been created;
  • This assessment led our General Assembly of 8 June 2021 to adopt the proposal of Prof. Bertrand Ramcharan, GHR Board member and former High Commissioner for Human Rights ad interim, that the third study of this project would focus on the role of human rights NGOs in the building-up of the UN human rights system to highlight the essential role played by NGOs in the building-up of the UN human rights system.
  1. The Study on The Protection Roles of Human Rights NGOs

To work with our two board members, Prof. Ramcharan and Ms. Penny Parker, GHR set-up in August 2021 a redaction team, composed of Ms. Ines French, Ms. Maryna Yazianok, Nicolas Zoller and Adrien-Claude Zoller. A few weeks later, two other experts were invited to join as co-editors: Mrs. Rachel Brett (former Quakers’ UN Representative) and Prof. Ann Marie Clark (Purdue University, Indiana, author of several books on international NGOs).

The redaction team prepared a synthesis of GHR studies on the role played by victims, defenders and NGOs, in particular in the inclusion of human rights provisions of the UN Charter; in several articles of the UDHR; in ending the ‘no power’ doctrine’ and establishing the fundaments for public and confidential examination of cases of violations; in the creation of the first procedures on country situations, and of the first thematic procedures. The synthesis also covered the non-governmental contributions to numerous conventions, declarations, bodies of principles; the cooperation with the UN Sub-Commission, the World Conference and the creation of the mechanisms of the new Human Rights Council [3].

With this synthesis, a discussion paper ‘for a study project and publication on the protection roles of human rights NGOs was submitted to 97 international experts and human rights practitioners (December 2021 – January 2022), inviting them to share their experience on the protection roles played by human rights NGOs since the creation of the United Nations and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Covering the main themes and situations highlighted in GHR internal study, these potential contributors were selected with geographic and gender diversity. 75 of them reacted positively.

Prof. Ramcharan and the members of the redaction team read and commented all the draft submissions received before the deadline (31 March 2022). They prepared a bibliography and a detailed index with most of the names of organizations and individuals mentioned in the draft articles. Some partners invited to contribute had indicated their interest, but had declined because of the deadlines, and the team drafted a questionnaire to interview them. Finally, a few NGOs statements were include reference to a few major NGOs missing. The synthesis was drafted by Prof. Ramcharan and the redaction team.

At the end of April 2022, the manuscript contained 62 Chapters, including the concluding Chapter. It was sent to the publisher, ‘Brill – Nijhoff’ (‘Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden’) at the beginning of May 2022. Prof. Ramcharan with Mrs. Ines French worked on the editing and the correspondence with all the contributors, who had to sign the consent to publish form for ‘Brill – Nijhoff’. The table of contents of the publication is to be found in the Appendix.


Geneva, June 2023

1.    Adrien-Claude Zoller: A Tribute – Alain Dick, Penny Parker, Bertrand Ramcharan
2.    The Role of Nongovernmental organisations in Developing and Protecting Human Rights – Ann Marie Clark and Paul Jannsen Danyi
3.    Protection NGOs in the Age of Neurotechnology – Jared Genser and Stephanie Herrmann
4.    NGOs and the Responsibility to Protect – Kurt Mills
5.    NGOs: Powerful Agents of Change – Fay Y. Parris, Esq. and Simisola M. Adeosun
6.    Human Rights Protection in Emergency Situations: The Need for Synergy between the Human Rights and Humanitarian Communities – Laurie S. Wiseberg
7.    Civil Society and the UN System – Rosa Freedman and Samuel Gordon
8.    Statement by Forty-Six NGOs on Problems Experienced in the Human Rights Council
9.    Joint Declaration on Protecting and Supporting Civil Society at Risk – Human Rights Mandate-Holders from the UN, African Union, OAS, OSCE
10.  The International Commission of Jurists and the UN Human Rights System, Advocating for the Progressive Development of International Human Rights Law, Standards and Mechanisms – Ian Seiderman and Massimo Frigo
11.  The Role of Human Rights NGOs in Strengthening the Protection Mandates of the Human Rights Treaty Bodies – Anna-Karin Holmlund
12.  The Role of an NGO Representative in Advocating for the Responsibility to Protect at the UN – Christiane Caldera and Elizabeth Pramendorfer
13.  The Roles of NGOs in the UN Human Rights System: The Case of South Asian NGOs – Samuel Jayakumar
14.  African Civil Society and the Struggle for Human Rights – Bertrand Ramcharan
15.  NGOs in the African Commission: The Role of the African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies – Marshall Conley and Hannah Forster
16.  NGO Strategy for Oversight of Human Rights in a Constitutional Regime: The Colombian Case Before the Commission on Human Rights – Gustavo Gallon
17.  The Guyana Human Rights Association and the Struggle for Justice in Guyana – Bertrand Ramcharan
18.  Reflections of an NGO Advocate on Justice Deficit Systemic Disorder (JDSD) as a Threat to the Global Human Rights Project – Basil Fernando
19.  Tibet at the United Nations: Perspective of an Eye-witness – Christa Meindersma
20.  Non-Governmental Organization’s Efforts at the United Nations to Promote Human Rights in North Korea – David Hawk
21.  Securing the Rights of 65’000 Chakmas and Hajongs in India a Country of 1.4 Billion People – Suhas Chakma
22.  Developing Strategies to Protect NGO Human Rights Defenders – Roberta Cohen
23.  “International Memorial” : Human Rights Protection, Public Education, and Historical Truth in Russia –Tanya Smith
24.  Developing and International System for Internally Displaced Persons – Roberta Cohen
25.  The Role of Non-Governmental Organisations in Dealing with Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances in Argentina and Chile – Thomas Eammon McCarthy
26.  Amnesty International’s Policy Submissions to the UN Secretary-General:  From the Archives
27.  Human Rights Watch on Accountability for Human Rights Abuses: From the Archives
28.  NGO’s in Action for Protection: Jacob Blaustein Institute Urgent Appeal for a More Robust International Response to Russia’s Invasion of and Human Rights Violations in Ukraine
29.  Human Rights in the United Nations Charter: Successful NGO Advocacy at the San Francisco Conference – Felice Gaer
30.  NGOs and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Recalling William Korey’s Study – Inès French
31.  NGOs and the Commission on Human Rights: The Roots of an Essential Partnership – John P. Pace.
32.  At the Service of Human Rights NGOs and Defenders in the United Nations – Adrien-Claude Zoller
33.  The International Service for Human Rights and the Recognition, Participation and Protection of Human Rights Defenders – Phillip Lynch and Madeleine Sinclair
34.  NGO Written Submissions to the Commission on Human Rights: From the Archives – Maryna Yazianok
35.  “NGO Involvement Crucial in Promoting Human Rights, UN Official Says”: From the Archives
36.  Human Rights NGOs and the U.N.: the Canadian Experience – Daniel Livermore
37.  NGOs’ Contribution to the Work of the Independent Experts – Emmanuel Decaux
38.  Courageous Leaders and NGO Initiatives – Hans Thoolen
39.  NGOs, the 1993 Vienna World Conference, and the Consolidation of a Global Human Rights Movement, Some Personal Recollections – Christian Strohal
40.  The Struggle to Establish Women’s Rights as International Human Rights: The Role of Nongovernmental organizations in Vienna and Beijing – Felice Gaer
41.  NGOs and the Fight against Discrimination – Bertrand Ramcharan
42.  Indigenous Peoples and the United Nations: Challenges and Opportunities – Claire Moretto and Nicolas Zoller
43.  Quaker Human Rights Work at the United Nations: Conscientious Objection to Military Service – Rachel Brett
44.  A Campaign for Freedom of Religion or Belief in the United Nations: The Experience of the Baha’i International Community – Diane Ala’i
45.  From the Grassroots to the UN: Franciscans Building Bridges – Cedric Chatenalat
46.  The Preventive Role of Human Rights NGOs – Bertrand Ramcharan
47.  Universal Rights Group’s Advocacy of UN Preventive Strategies – Marc Limon and Mariana Montoya
48.  Prevention of Torture: The Role of the Association for the Prevention of Torture in the Adoption and Implementation of the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture – Barbara Bernath
49.  Civil Society Dialogues to Prevent Conflicts and Protect Human Rights in Asia – Robin Ramcharan
50.  Civil Society: A Partner to Promote Human Rights in the Universal Periodic Review Process– Mona M’Bikay
51.  Coming Full Circle in the UPR Cycle? Civil Society Stakeholders and their Role in the UPR – Gianni Magazzeni and Eliska Rybar
52.  The Challenge of a New Issue for the Human Rights System – Edward J. Flynn
53.  NGOs and Human Rights Challenges of the Future: Neuro Rights, Artificial Intelligence, Cyber Weapons, Robots in Armed Conflicts, and Human Rights in Outer Space
54.  The United Nations and Human Rights – Adrien-Claude Zoller
55.  UN Human Rights Day Statements, 10 December 2021
56.  Human Rights Watch and 59 NGOs on the Credibility of High Commissioner’s visit to China
57.  NGO, China and the UN Treaty Bodies – Vincent Ploton
58.  The Geneva Climate Change Consultation Group
59.  The Quest for Justice – Could a Permanent “Peoples’ Court” Reinforce the Role of Civil Society in International Law? – Ekkehard Strauss
60.  Recapitulation and Reflections


Geneva for Human Rights – Global Training

Ecumenical Centre, 150, Route de Ferney, P.O. Box 2100, CH-1211 GENEVA 2, Switzerland

E-mails: info@gdh-ghr.org; & acz.hr@bluewin.ch;

tel. (41-22) 320.27.27 & (41-79) 345.82.00

fax: (41-22) 320.24.40



[1] Experts having confirmed. Other names may be added.

[2] 100 Years of Multilateralism in Geneva. From the League of Nations to the UN’. Edited by Olga Hidalgo-Weber & Bernard Lescaze. Box set of 2 books, available in English and French. Editions Suzanne Hurter, September 2020, 720 pages,

[3] Adrien-Claude Zoller, ‘The engagement of the civil society with the un human rights system’, Geneva, September 2021, 40 p.