At the end of World War II, the phrase “human rights” was virtually unknown, whether in the media, in standard textbooks, or as a guideline for state conduct in the emerging international community. It was nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that made the phrase a core element of the United Nations Charter in 1944, even as they pressed for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted three years later. This was but the beginning of a historic effort to make the Declaration a fundamental standard for measuring progress in civilized society. If the principal motivation was the prevention of another Holocaust, NGOs would fulfill the indispensable function, projected by Eleanor Roosevelt, of serving as the “curious grapevine” that would enlighten everyone about their rights and channel information about human rights violations to the world community.
This essay is about the “curious grapevine,” an extraordinary tale of how NGOs, through their persuasion, have made human rights a major item in international discourse in the media, state chancellories, and international institutions. NGOs have played the leading role in the creation of international standards and in establishing legally binding treaties incorporating these standards. They are central to the process of adopting implementing organs to these treaties and in providing the essential documentation and briefings to make these organs work.