Building a coalition of a country’s human rights organiza­tions to speak with one voice against abuses

When human rights groups work together they can often do much more to improve a country’s human rights situation than individual groups could do on their own. Unfortunately, the global experience of the human rights movement is filled with coalitions that have failed due to divisions. The Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos (CNDDHH), a coalition of human rights organizations in Peru, highlights the characteristics of a strong coalition and shows how to successfully fight against an authoritarian government like that of Fujimori in the 1990s. Still today, and since its inception in 1985, CNDDHH has used its broad support base to combat a wide range of human rights offenses, including campaigns for the disappeared, against the death penalty and impunity, and for the creation of a truth commission. The utility of its coalition-based approach to human rights work is exemplified by its campaign to stop Peru’s withdrawal from the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (ICHR).

In 1999, Peru was under the dictatorship of Alberto Fujimori, whose totalitarian regime did not respect human rights. Several cases of human rights violations involving Fujimori had made their way to the ICHR. The first ruling, on the Castillo Petruzzi case, was against the Peruvian state. Rather than contesting the ruling, Fujimori and his government decided to withdraw from the ICHR. By doing so, they would deprive Peruvian citizens of the possibility to turn to an international institution in the absence of national justice.

The CNDDHH was at the time involved in several other human rights projects, but it immediately set those aside in favor of launching a campaign to stop the government’s plan. The campaign’s principle objective was to defend the right of all Peruvians to be able to denounce abuses before the ICHR. In order for this to be possible it was necessary to inform the population about the implications of the government’s decision, to channel the respective expression of civil society and to impede the withdrawal from the ICHR.

The CNDDHH decided to use lobbying, the spread of educational information, and finally pressure as strategies. These strategies were developed simultaneously to respond quickly to the demands of the situation. The national public opinion, the international community, and the very members of the ICHR itself were identified as allies. The CNDDHH put out several press releases intended to raise awareness of the issue among citizens and civil society organizations. Once awareness had been raised, they took a more active role, mobilizing civil society in support of its campaign. Because of its broad membership base of human rights organizations, the CNDDHH was able to find over one hundred activists across the country to bring information and logistical necessities to other civil society organizations. Finally, the members of the CNDDHH National Board of Directors visited other Latin American countries and gathered support for their cause.

The campaign to stop Peru’s withdrawal from the ICHR was a success, showing that coalitions could effectively mobilize civil society. The uprising of support for the cause also contributed to the destabilization of Fujimori’s regime, ultimately leading to its downfall.

In the process of organizing the campaign and working as a coalition, the CNDDHH encountered a number of difficulties that they had to resolve. First, when the focus of the organization switched from their previous campaigns to the movement to prevent the withdrawal from the ICHR, financiers of the project had to be convinced of its importance. Some, for example, had originally given money in support of a campaign against torture. They had to be shown the potential impact of the initiative before they were willing to support it financially. The campaign against Fujimori’s regime was also risky, as some human rights organizations were attacked. Caution was necessary to carry out the project successfully.

Other difficulties that the CNDDHH encountered were due to their existence as a coalition organization. The members of the coalition are varied, encompassing urban and rural organizations, national and regional organizations, and Catholic and evangelical churches, among others. Due to this reality, creating unity is a constant challenge. In order for the coalition to survive, the effort of each of the members is required in accepting responsibilities, recognizing the diverse capacities of other organizations, and working together to respect the decision-making mechanisms. Mutual trust is an indispensable requirement. In the ICHR campaign, maintaining unity in the face of dictatorship was important, and this was accomplished in part by assigning the Executive Secretary the job of organizing and implementing the campaign.

Another challenge for coalition groups is decision-making. Consensus building is a time-consuming process, especially when different organizations have different views on political position or strategy. If decisions have to be made quickly, there is not always as much time for discussion and consensus as would normally be necessary. This was the case during the ICHR campaign, when the time available to mount a campaign before Peru’s withdrawal was limited. In order to create as much consensus as possible in the short time available, the CNDDHH called a special meeting to define its position and create a plan of action. In this way the coalition was able to involve as many members as possible in the decision-making process.

One key, that has kept CNDDHH a strong and vibrant coalition, is creating within the group the ability to react in spite of the social and political imbalances that generally run through the contexts in which human rights organizations work. It is necessary to remain alert to the events that move our societies – from a human rights perspective – in order to be able to respond without losing sight of the coalition's goals and objectives as a collective. 

The success and strength of the coalition is due to a number of factors, including: 
1. Clear principles of internal performance
Since its first meeting, the coalition decided that it will pledge to reject all forms of violence, to remain independent of political parties and government, to adhere to democratic society and to oppose the death penalty. Organizations that do not adhere to these principles are not allowed to participate in the coalition.
2. Decision-making by consensus
The decision-making process ensures common agreement and solidarity. All groups must be in agreement. While groups in the coalition are different in size and come from different parts of the country, each group has an equal voice when a subject is put to the vote and when the National Assembly elected by the General Assembly is formed.
3. Total representation
The internal process of selection and agreement gives the representative of the organization legitimacy at the internal and external levels of that person and the organization. When a person is chosen by member organizations to participate in an international meeting, for example, that person participates not only as a representative of the organization he or she represents, but as a representative of the national coordinator or chordindora.
4. Agree on priorities to be implemented together
Member organizations meet in the form of a General Assembly every two years, where it is decided to give priority to the issues to be addressed as a coalition. The work on these issues is carried out collectively and at the national level by the Executive Secretariat, a permanent body working on the implementation of the resolutions of the National Council and the General Assembly. The Executive Secretary is elected for a two-year term and serves as the Coalition's spokesperson, organizing and facilitating meetings and mobilizing members. The work of the National Coordinator is limited to activities distinct from those applied by coalition organizations on priority issues.

For more information on this tactic, read our in-depth case study.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

Contexts are never identical, and in some places it may not be possible to establish a broad coalition of human rights organizations. However, there are several key techniques that can be learned from the experience of the CNDDHH. First, consensus and making sure that each organization’s voice is heard are important. Solutions must be examined for short term and long term consequences and weighed accordingly so they do not cause the unity of the coalition to weaken. Second, an organization’s scope of action and goals must be defined. The CNDDHH was able to quickly shift gears to concentrate on the ICHR campaign because it clearly defined the goals. Finally, clear leadership is necessary in a coalition in order to maintain unity. The leader must have authority to act quickly and efficiently. These guidelines can help any coalition run more smoothly. A unified and well-run coalition is then able to effectively promote human rights and act quickly to mobilize its members and make a difference in human rights.