What is a Human Rights Based Approach (HRBA)

In our work promoting human rights worldwide, we apply a human rights-based approach. The purpose of such an approach is align policy and practice with international standards and guidelines grounded in the pursuit of human dignity for all without discrimination. 

There is no single human rights-based approach and many and different ways of using one. How one decides to use a human rights-based approach and to what extent, depends on the context and the field.

A HRBA is often used in combination with other relevant methods such as a participatory approach and/or a gender-based approach.

HRBA in International Development

A human rights-based approach, or a rights-based approach (RBA) is often used in international development, and a starting point is the 2003 UN Common Understanding of a Human Rights-Based Approach to Development Cooperation. As a framework for development and policy-making the approach centres around the promotion and protection of the fundamental rights and freedoms. Every human is guaranteed this set of rights – no matter race, gender, religion, or any other status.

In this context, the approach underlines the duty bearers’ legal and moral obligations to rights-holders. Duty-bearers must respect, protect, and fulfil human rights.

Another purpose of using the approach is to empower individuals to know and to be able to claim their rights. They should also be empowered to hold duty-bearers accountable.

In addition to seeking to ensure the respect, protection and fulfilment of these rights, the approach stresses that participation, accountability, and transparency in decision-making processes is key.

Read about the PLANET model 

It is also common to apply a human rights-based approach in work with humanitarian aid, and advocacy.

A HRBA in Humanitarian Aid

In humanitarian aid a human rights framework is used to help ensure that affected populations are protected from harm. A good reflection of this approach is the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s Operational Guidelines for the Protection of Persons in Situations of Natural Disasters. This includes harm caused by the violation of human rights. Also, a HRBA is frequently used to evaluate needs. In particular to consider specific needs by e.g., vulnerable groups and how their rights are affected. A HRBA seeks to make sure that rights of affected populations are respected and fulfilled in a way that is dignified, participatory, and accountable.

The framework is also used to involve affected populations and make sure they get to participate in decision-making processes affecting their lives. People’s views and concerns should be considered when designing and implementing humanitarian programmes.

Humanitarian organisations should be held accountable and often use a human rights framework to make sure that they are fulfilling their obligations.

A HRBA in Advocacy

To shed light on human rights issues and to advocate for the promotion and protection of human rights humanitarian organisations often use a human rights framework.

Advocacy can include demanding changes in policies and practices that adversely impact human rights, and summoning support to address violations affecting groups and individuals.

In advocacy work, a HRBA can be used to identify specific rights being violated and to create powerful cases arguing for why the specific rights are key and why they should be protected. It can also be used to collaborate with different stakeholders, such as governments, civil society organisations, and international bodies when promoting and protecting rights.

Furthermore, a HRBA can be used to watch and report on human rights violations and to make sure to report on those violations to relevant authorities and the public. This can help to raise awareness of the issue and put pressure on duty-bearers to take action to address the violations.

How We Work with a Human Rights-Based Approach

HRBA in Research and Higher Education

UN and civil society actors routinely integrate human rights-based approaches in their work, as the examples provided above illustrate. However, duty-bearers at national and more local levels have less experience working with these kinds of approaches. RWI works closely with duty bearers around the world to promote practical integration of human rights considerations into a range of legal, policy and operational contexts.

One method we at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute have developed consolidates an extensive range of international legal and operational standards and guidelines into what we call the Framework for Integrating Human Rights and Gender Equality, or FIRE. FIRE draws attention to six dimensions that are consistently reflected in these standards and guidelines, including:

  • Governance systems and structures
  • Fundamental rights and equality
  • Non-discrimination
  • Participation and access to information
  • Social norms and context
  • Agency and empowerment

Within these dimensions, important elements are highlighted that reflect the detailed considerations found in the volume of international standards and guidelines. Using FIRE makes these standards and guidelines more accessible to operational actors, helping to ensure that human rights-relevant consierations are not overlooking in the design and implementation of policies.

We also use FIRE to structure academic research into human rights issues, drawing upon the six dimensions and associated elements to help guide description and analysis of complex contemporary challenges, such as building resilience to pandemic risk.

Finally, we use FIRE for strengthening the ability of duty-bearers to understand issues they grapple with from a human rights perspective. For instance, we are currently working with local authorities in three countries in Africa to examine climate-related displacement from a human rights perspective.

Learn more about the FIRE model and how we use it: Contact Dr.Matthew Scott 


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