The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

Nongovernmental Organizations

The term nongovernmental organization (NGO) does not define a precise legal category, either in international law or in domestic law. Instead, it is a convenient way to designate juridical persons under private international law whose only common point is that they are not governmental structures and they are non-profit. It also serves to differentiate them from intergovernmental organizations (sometimes referred to as international organizations) or for-profit companies. Although they are also sometimes known as international nongovernmental organizations (IN-GOs), the term NGO usually refers to organizations whose activities are not strictly national, while non-profit organization is more frequently used to refer to domestic organizations with similar goals.

The status of these organizations is regulated by applicable domestic law. NGOs may be member-based associations, foundations, private volunteer organizations, or many other kinds of NGOs recognized by the domestic law of the relevant country. NGOs set their own mandate, establishing bylaws, charters, and missions statements, with the collaboration of a board of directors. Member-based associations join individuals around shared objectives that are set forth in the organization’s statutes or constitution. Thus, they reflect the international solidarity of individuals, and they act as a complement to international political institutions and to the economic and trade laws of the global market.

The presence of NGOs in the international arena is not simply a product of their legal status. They take part in the life of the international community through the non-profit activities that they undertake in various foreign States. The nature of these activities may vary greatly, depending on the organization. They may be humanitarian, cultural, educational, religious, economic, and so on.

So as to protect freedom of association, the different countries’ relevant laws usually do not include constraining mechanisms that monitor the different kinds of NGOs. The only strict obligations they face is that they must not carry out activities that profit any individual, and they must not conduct political activities. These organizations are mainly accountable to their board of directors or the body that carries out that function (and that has obligations under domestic law) and, where applicable, to the general assembly of their members.

This flexibility can also be a weakness. NGOs are often subject to various pressures, such as financial or political ones. For instance, some NGOs depend almost entirely on government funding to operate, which can jeopardize their independence and nongovernmental nature.

The checks and balances, as well as the vision, provided by an association’s members or an organization’s board of directors are the main guardians and guarantors of the independence and responsibility of NGOs’ operations.

  • NGOs can obtain consultative status with certain intergovernmental organizations, whose area of interest is close to the NGOs’ field of action. This status allows them to be informed of the relevant international organization’s work and to submit documents or participate in the debates with States over issues under their competence.
  • When implementing international programs for public benefit, NGOs can sign operational partnership contracts with international organizations and financial contracts when accepting funds from international or national donors. They can also sign program agreements with the relevant ministries of the countries in which they are operating.
  • In situations of conflict, the Geneva Conventions confer on impartial humanitarian organizations the duty to provide relief and protection for victims. Therefore, it is not enough for humanitarian organizations to show financial independence; they should not select victims with whom they will show solidarity. According to humanitarian law, organizations that consider themselves “humanitarian” must respect some obligations as to how they run their operations. All victims must be considered as beneficiaries, with no discrimination based on race, religion, belief, gender, political opinion, or other categories (principle of impartiality). In situation of armed conflict, it is important that NGOs be aware of their responsibilities with regard to the mission of protection and assistance of civilians that humanitarian law confers on impartial humanitarian organizations. Failing this, the actions of private humanitarian organizations can instead weaken the protection to which victims are entitled.

DiscriminationHumanitarian and relief personnelHumanitarian principlesProtectionReliefResponsibilityRight of humanitarian initiative

For Additional Information: Beigbeder, Yves. The Role and Status of International Humanitarian Volunteers and Organizations: The Right and Duty to Humanitarian Assistance . Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1991.

Brauman, Rony. “Refugee Camps, Population Transfers, and NGOs.” In Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention , edited by Jonathan Moore, 177–94. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.

Ferris, Elizabeth. “Faith-Based and Secular Humanitarian Organizations.” International Review of the Red Cross 858 (2005): 311–25.

Flauss, Jean François, ed. International Human Rights Law and Nongovernmental Organizations/Les Organisations Non Gouvernementales et le Droit International des Droits de L’homme . Brussels: Publications de l’IIDH—Institut René Cassin de Strasbourg, Bruylant, 2005.