The Human Rights-Based Approach

The equal and inalienable rights of all human beings provide the foundation for freedom, justice and peace in the world, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948.

Achieving equality and dignity of all also underpins the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), which guides our work.

Prioritizing the application of human rights principles became a cornerstone of UN reform efforts initiated in 1997. UNFPA was one of the agencies that in 2003 adopted the UN Common Understanding on a Human-Rights-Based Approach (HRBA) to Development Cooperation, which clarifies how human rights standards and principles should be put into practice in programming.

The human rights-based approach focuses on those who are most marginalized, excluded or discriminated against. This often requires an analysis of gender norms, different forms of discrimination and power imbalances to ensure that interventions reach the most marginalized segments of the population.

Elements of good practices under a human rights-based approach

  • Programmes identify the realization of human rights as ultimate goals of development
  • People are recognized as key actors in their own development, rather than passive recipients of commodities and services.
  • Participation is both a means and a goal.
  • Strategies are empowering, not disempowering.
  • Both outcomes and processes are monitored and evaluated.
  • Programmes focus on marginalizedand excluded groups.
  • The development process is locally owned.
  • Programmes aim to reduce disparities and empower those left behind.
  • Situation analysis is used to identify immediate, underlying and root causes of development problems.
  • Analysis includes all stakeholders, including the capacities of the state as the main duty-bearer and the role of other non-state actors.
  • Human Rights standards guide the formulation of measurable goals,targets and indicators in programming.
  • National accountability systems need to be strengthened with a view to ensure independent review of government performance and access to remedies for aggrieved individuals.
  • Strategic partnerships are developed and sustained.

Source: The Human Rights-based Approach to Development Cooperation

Rights vs. needs

Before 1997, most UN development agencies pursued a ‘basic needs’ approach: They identified basic requirements of beneficiaries and either supported initiatives to improve service delivery or advocated for their fulfilment.

UNFPA and its partners now work to fulfil the rights of people, rather than the needs of beneficiaries. It’s an important distinction, because an unfulfilled need leads to dissatisfaction, while a right that is not respected leads to a violation. Redress or reparation can be legally and legitimately claimed.

A human rights-based approach also seeks to reinforce the capacities of duty bearers (usually governments) to respect, protect and guarantee these rights. It aims to address development complexities holistically, taking into consideration the connections between individuals and the systems of power or influence. And it endeavours to create dynamics of accountability.

Rights holders and duty bearers

This is a two-way street: Individuals and communities need to be fully informed about their rights and to participate in decisions that affect them. Governments and other duty bearers often need assistance to develop the capacity, the resources and the political will to fulfil their commitments to human rights.

The rights-based approach deals not just with outcomes but also with how those outcomes are achieved. It recognizes that people are actors in their own development, rather than passive recipients of services. Informing, educating and empowering them is essential. Their participation is central, not only to ensure they have ownership over the programme, but also to sustain progress.

A rights-based approach develops the capacity of duty-bearers to meet their obligations and encourages rights holders to claim their rights. Governments have three levels of obligation: to respect, protect and fulfil every right. To respect a right means refraining from interfering with the enjoyment of the right. To protect a right means to prevent other parties from interfering with the enjoyment of rights. To fulfil a right means to take active steps to put in place, laws, policies, institutions and procedures, including the allocation of resources, to enable people to enjoy their rights.

Mechanisms for protecting human rights

A number of UN treaty bodies mechanisms help UNFPA advance human rights, including

  • Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women
  • Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  • Special Procedure mandate-holders the Commission on Human Rights (human rights experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective)

Recently the Universal Periodic Review has emerged as a powerful mechanism. This state-driven process reviews the fulfillment of the human rights obligations and commitments of all 193 UN Member States once every four and a half years. The UPR is giving considerable attention to sexual and reproductive health and rights, which comprised  27 per cent of all recommendations issued during the first cycle of the mechanism (2008 to 2012).   

UNFPA also provides technical support to national human rights institutions – including human rights commissions and ombudsman offices to monitor sexual and reproductive health and rights and to pay particular attention to the situation faced by certain population groups, such as indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, and migrants, who are often subject to human rights violations.

Updated 24 November 2014

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