Background: Legal and policy commitment
The principle that the enjoyment of all human rights is both the means and the goal of development is a long-standing one.
To apply this principle in all their work is a legal
commitment undertaken by parties to the UN Charter as well as by the UN
itself. The policy commitment was reaffirmed in 1997 by the UN system
as a whole in its Programme of Reform. This applies to all parts of the
system from the UN Development Programme to the World Bank. The reform
programme drew on the UN General Assembly’s Declaration on the Right to
Development of 1986 which had indicated that a human rights framework
is needed for effective development. This principle was also reflected
in the 1990s world conferences on social development, gender, human
rights and racism – and more recently in the Millennium Development
A wide range of international actors have made
explicit their legal and policy commitment to base their work on human
rights. This is now the case for the European Union, bi-lateral donor
states as well as regional organisations and leading NGOs active in
development and humanitarian response.
Application in practice
The commitment to fully integrate human rights is
clear – but transforming work practices, and sometimes organisational
ethos, remains the challenge. IHRN provides practical support for the
application of Human Rights Based Approaches. Based on core principles, this support is tailored as needed.
Working definitions and concepts applied by IHRN are
outlined here, with a specific focus on ‘human rights’ and ‘human
rights based approaches’ (HRBA) in development. These are distilled
from practical experience and Policy Positions.
Human rights law is based on the principle that the state is the
primary entity obligated to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of
those in its territory. The state undertakes to ensure that its
Constitution, laws, policies, budgets and practices reflect these legal
obligations and help achieve, rather than undermine, the enjoyment of
the full spectrum of human rights. This applies to all branches of the
state and to all levels, including local authorities. For example, a
state’s poverty eradication plan should be automatically reviewed
before and during implementation to assess its human rights impact. The
state also undertakes to regulate behaviour of third parties –
corporations, international organisations, etc. to ensure that human
rights are effectively enjoyed.
Human Rights are not limited to ‘rights’ recognised under national law
the term ‘rights’ and ‘human rights’ are used as if they are
interchangeable. This can create confusion by equating rights enshrined
in national/constitutional law with human rights recognised on the
international level. International human rights law has been made by
states agreeing the standard to be achieved on the international level.
Human rights commitments undertaken in
international treaties are recognised as inherent to the human being
and cannot be undermined by a Constitution or other national law. In
practice, where national law or practice fails to respect human rights,
advocates will propose that the national law be changed.
means by which those agreed international standards are to be met are a
matter of discretion for each state. For example, the standards to be
met to ensure a fair trial are clear and detailed (right to a defence,
presumption of innocence etc) – yet there is a variety of legal systems
which meet those minimum standards. Compare for example Civil law and
Common law justice systems.
More than one human rights based approach
commonly expressed confusion flows from the mistaken assumption that
there is ONE human rights based approach. The reality is that there are
principles to be applied to achieve human rights standards, and the
choice of methods, tools, etc are left to states, IGOs, bi-laterals
etc to choose according to what is most effective. A government, donor,
or NGO may expect to use different approaches for different areas of
work in different contexts. There is more than one human rights based
approach to address any human rights challenge.
Active learning to identify human rights based solutions
identify examples of human rights based approaches which are most
effective in achieving positive human rights change is an on-going
a) Identifying the human
rights impact of current approaches - taking account of the full
spectrum of human rights, and the range of affected groups; and
b) Adjusting that approach through effective organisational learning.
Network is committed to a process of active learning from the
experience of its members in new contexts and pilot applications. The
Network draws individuals and organisations together with a range of
skills – not only in human rights and related disciplines, but in
The concept of human rights based approaches (HRBA) is contained in five legal principles, namely:
Express application of the international human rights framework
Empowerment of rights holders
Participation in one's own development (as of right and not just as best practice)
Non-discrimination and prioritisation of vulnerable groups; as well as
Accountability of duty-bearers to rights-holders (for process and impact)
In overview, the following principles guide IHRN in its
application of human rights based approaches: Legitimacy, Empowerment,
Transparency, Participation, Multi-level - and informing all areas of
an organisation's work:
Human rights based solutions may or may not require legal strategies or
language, but are grounded in and gain legitimacy from the inherent
human rights recognised in international law. These are minimum agreed
standards. States are always encouraged to attain higher standards of
respect for human rights, and the law itself is not static- it is
continually evolving through states recognising and codifying new human
rights or clarifying the content of existing standards e.g. the right
Development encompasses the full spectrum of
human rights and these are indivisible, inter-related and
inter-dependent (e.g. the right to education cannot be enjoyed without
enjoyment of the right to food). There must be non-discrimination in
the enjoyment of all rights. Economic, social and cultural human rights
involve immediate obligations in three ways regardless of resources
(non-discrimination; obligation “to take steps” and to ensure the core
minimum of the right).
Universal human rights, and their formulation in international treaties
are sometimes criticized as Western constructs, inappropriately
‘imposed’ on people in very different cultural contexts. In reality,
all states have exercised their sovereignty in becoming parties to
human rights treaties. In this context organisations committed to human
rights based approaches remind ‘beneficiaries’ through their work that
their state has undertaken to respect minimum standards.
premised on human rights shifts the focus from the fact that poor
people have needs to the fact that poor people have human rights. It
requires that root causes be addressed and involves the equitable
distribution of power and resources. This flows from the fact that
human beings’ inherent dignity entitles them to a core set of human
rights that cannot be given or taken away. Such an approach contrasts
with a charity-based approach by challenging vested interests and power
structures, recalling that development is an inherently political
process. It necessitates using human rights language where applicable unless it is strategic not to do so.
Human rights based development serves to empower communities and
individuals to know, claim and defend their rights and to know their
correlative responsibilities. This includes identifying those
responsible –legally or morally– for respecting, protecting and
fulfilling their human rights, and holding them accountable for such responsibilities.
Human rights based solutions also involve engaging in awareness raising
with government partners, ‘service providers’ and other duty bearers.
These actors must understand their obligations to respect, protect and
fulfill the human rights of all. A holistic approach to human rights
awareness requires that rights holders and duty bearers share the same
understanding of human rights.
Human rights based solutions maximise the participation of a community
(participation itself being a human right) enhancing the impact of
development work, as well as its sustainability.
Human rights based solutions recognize the diverse levels at which
human rights obligations and violations arise and the need to address
them systematically and strategically. This may involve new
alliances among individuals, communities, at country level and
internationally and new mechanisms for advocacy.
All areas of an organisation's work
need to be premised on human rights: whether strategic planning,
marketing, policy, priorities, programmes and partnerships (with CBOs,
donors, NGOs) – or the organisation's own staff conditions of work,
selection, training, management and promotion.
Applying these principles ultimately leads to
greater empowerment, accountability and transparency and in turn to
greater fulfillment of human rights.
Pooling knowledge and costs
Costs of developing and enhancing Human Rights Based Approaches are
reduced, and synergies gained, by pooling knowledge and experience with
like-minded actors at various levels. Major development, humanitarian
and human rights bodies are working on varied aspects of this
challenge–often in isolation from each other. IHRN seeks to contribute
to, and draw from, these experiences to harvest and test better