In the United Nations and within bilateral development agencies there is increasing discussion of what has become known as the human rights approach to development. The approach asserts that development should be seen as the process by which people can fully realise all their human rights and that the approach should be reflected both in process and outcomes. The human rights approach has something to offer to communities and NGOs preparing to sit down with their governments to participate ...read more
In the United Nations and within bilateral development agencies there is increasing discussion of what has become known as the human rights approach to development. The approach asserts that development should be seen as the process by which people can fully realise all their human rights and that the approach should be reflected both in process and outcomes. The human rights approach has something to offer to communities and NGOs preparing to sit down with their governments to participate in planning national anti- poverty strategies. This brief introduction outlines the principle features of the human rights approach to development and its relevance to grass roots advocacy on poverty.
The human rights approach to development sees poverty as a denial of human dignity. No surprises there. The approach also recognises poverty as a denial of our human rights economic, social, cultural, civil and political - and argues that this brings something different and potentially powerful to existing efforts to overcome discrimination and to end poverty.
Human rights are legal expressions of our human dignity and they place obligations, or duties, on others mainly but not exclusively the State. While we all have responsibilities to respect the rights of others, it is now widely accepted that States have the specific obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human rights.
The obligation to respect requires the state and its agents not to violate the rights of individuals or tolerate discrimination in law, policy or practice.
The obligation to protect rights obliges the state to prevent the violation of rights by other individuals or non-state actors. Where violations do occur the state must guarantee access to legal remedies.
The obligation to fulfil involves issues of public expenditure, governmental regulation of the economy, the provision of basic services and related infrastructure and redistributive measures.
The human rights approach to development uses existing, internationally agreed, human rights standards as a framework for development policy and practice. The human rights framework is not about imposing a single model of development. It emphasises participation and the right of people to choose their own path recognising that the realisation of human rights is a shared goal.
Within their borders, States have a responsibility to focus their development efforts on realising human rights with a priority being given to the poor, marginalised and vulnerable - those currently most denied their rights. International development efforts should focus on assisting States to meet their human rights obligations again with a priority focus on the poor, marginalised and vulnerable.
At a very minimum international human rights standards impose a responsibility on international agencies and governments providing aid and development loans to ensure that their policies and practices do not have a negative impact on the capacity or ability of states to meet these obligations.
The approach encourages people to use agreed human rights standards to assert their rights and to determine their own development. It outlines how international human rights agreements can be used practically by actors in the development process to analyse their development needs, to set development objectives, to guarantee participation, to demand accountability and to call for solidarity.
It therefore has particular relevance to the current focus of development agencies on poverty and to the process taking place around the formulation, adoption and approval of Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs).
A recent study by Fantu Cheru, the UN's Independent Expert on Structural Adjustment and Economic, Social and Cultural rights not only found many flaws with the process of participation in the PRSP process to date, but found scant reference to human rights.
This is despite the formal commitment of the governments involved, donor and recipient (or lender and borrower) to human rights and the fact that these governments make up the Executive Boards of the World Bank and IMF. Human rights do not feature explicitly in the charters of these international institutions, yet these Institutions place heavy emphasis on the rule of law and should respect the legal obligations of States to human rights standards.
Most bilateral development agencies now give great prominence to both participation and the promotion of human rights through aid to complement their formal legal commitments. These policy commitments need to be reflected in the international financial institutions the governments finance and sit on the board of.
The human rights approach demands that policies to address poverty need to be judged against the requirement for States to realise specific economic, social and cultural rights progressively over time and to the maximum of available resources (including resources available through international development assistance).
Looking at each of the rights in these standards, including the right to an adequate standard of living, the right not to suffer discrimination, the right to health and the right to education it is possible to capture the different dimensions of poverty, to understand and respond to poverty as more than simply an absence of income or basic necessities but as a lack of choice and control as well as resources.
The emphasis on participation by development agencies and in the process of drafting Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) does provide NGOs and communities with new opportunities to put human rights on the table for discussion – not as a separate concern, but because poverty is a human rights issue.
NGOs participating in the PRSP process can ask for information on the likely impact (particularly on the poor and vulnerable) of suggested policies and programs on the right to social security, the right to work, the right to an adequate standard of living and other specific human rights.
They can ask what human rights agreements their government is already committed to and how the PRSP will help realise these rights. They can ask UN agencies about the comments of UN human rights treaty bodies (that monitor implementation of human rights at the national level) with relation to their country and ask how these comments are to be reflected in the PRSP and in development planning. They can ask particular bilateral agencies (such as UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Canada) with strong human rights policies for help in finding information and analysing poverty from a human rights perspective.
They can ask their NGO partners in developed countries to make similar approaches to their official development agencies and to ask that their country's representative on the World Bank and IMF raise these questions when they consider the PRSP for approval.
Fifty years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the creation of the Bretton Woods Institutions, the commitments of national governments to respect, protect and fulfill human rights have yet to be properly reflected in the policies and practice of some of the most powerful international institutions they control, the IMF and the World Bank.
All this is not to suggest that the human rights approach offers a magic panacea that will see resources and policies and power instantly transferred to the poor and vulnerable. Unlike the World Trade Organisation, the UN has no practicable way of imposing punishments or fines on governments that violate or ignore their commitments to human rights. Yet international legal standards, international solidarity, moral suasion and the court of international opinion have proved potent tools in the struggle for civil and political rights. They need to be brought to bear in the struggle for all the human rights of the poor. The PRSP process offers an important opportunity to do this.
If people are interested in finding out more about the Human Rights Approach to Development or more about economic, social and cultural human rights, then the following might publications and websites are a good place to start.