In contemporary international relations, it is almost impossible to acknowledge the actual situation of armed conflicts without the reports of human rights NGOs. These reports often record detailed data, including the number of civilian casualties, and therefore contribute to the construction of the representation of armed conflicts. While constructivism analyzes the normative power of human rights and NGOs, it misses the struggle over the representation of armed conflicts between human rights NGOs and sovereign states. Applying P. Bourdieu’s theory of fields, this article demonstrates how human rights NGOs have fought against sovereign states and acquired a decisive influence over the representation of armed conflicts. Sovereign states and NGOs have constituted global and local fields in which actors wrangle over legitimacy by making the representation of the armed conflicts.
This article argues that the struggles over the representation of armed conflicts between states and NGOs began in the late 1960s because of several post-colonial conflicts such as the Nigerian Civil War (the Biafran War) and the Northern Yemen Civil War. In these conflicts, traditional neutrality rarely afforded protection from military attack to NGOs; on the contrary, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)’s policy of avoiding testimony faced severe criticism as this policy seemed to help genocide continue. Until the 1960s, NGOs such as the ICRC had tended to avoid publicly criticizing sovereign states in armed conflicts even when NGOs confronted genocides.
In the 1970s, human rights networks, including local and international NGOs, have been created because of serious human rights violations in Latin American countries. Various NGOs recorded human rights violations and publicly criticized authoritarian states. In the 1980s, when the Salvadoran Civil War occurred, local NGOs tracked civilian casualties and human rights violations by armed forces. With the help of these local NGOs, the newly established Americas Watch published many reports on the Salvadoran Civil War. Thereby, the Americas Watch tried to change the foreign policy of the Reagan administration that strongly supported the Salvadoran government. The data on civilian casualties was the focal point of the struggle between NGOs and the Reagan administration. This struggle contributed to the constitution of the global regime for humanitarian crises and led to the development of the methodology of fact-finding in armed conflicts. In the late 1980s and 1990s this global regime for humanitarian crises expanded as the number of human rights NGOs increased and the UN was involved in fact-finding missions.