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 Goals.

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.

Key Concepts

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’

    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

    Often 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.

    The 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

    A 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

    To identify examples of human rights based approaches which are most effective in achieving positive human rights change is an on-going process of

    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.

    The 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 organisational change.

Core Principles

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:

  1. Legitimacy: 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 to water.

    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. 
  2. Empowerment: Development 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.

  3. Transparency: 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.        
  4. Participation: 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.

  5. Multi-level: 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.        
  6. 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 practice.