The Human Rights-Based Approach: UN introduction

The UN Secretary-General’s Programme for Reform (1997), and its second phase, An Agenda for Further Change (2001), called upon UN Agencies to make human rights a cross-cutting priority for the UN system. In 2003, a group of UN agencies committed to integrating human rights into their national development cooperation programmes by adopting the Common Understanding on a rights-based approach.

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.

There is a critical distinction: A need not fulfilled leads to dissatisfaction. In contrast, a right that is not respected leads to a violation, and its redress or reparation can be legally and legitimately claimed. A human rights-based approach to programming differs from the basic needs approach in that it recognizes the existence of rights. It also reinforces capacities of duty bearers (usually governments) to respect, protect and guarantee these 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 the right means enacting laws that create mechanisms to prevent violation of the right by state authorities or by non-state actors. This protection is to be granted equally to all.
  • To fulfil the right means to take active steps to put in place institutions and procedures, including the allocation of resources to enable people to enjoy the right. A rights-based approach develops the capacity of duty-bearers to meet their obligations and encourages rights holders to claim their rights.

Rights are indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. The human rights-based approach focuses on those who are most vulnerable, excluded or discriminated against.

The human rights-based approach constitutes a framework of action as well as a methodological tool in the context of reforms in a changing world. This approach is also expected to achieve results: sustained progress towards respect of human rights, development, peace, security, eradication of poverty, and achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.


Rights-based Approach in Development (FAQ)

What are rights in development?

People are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. The international community has therefore pledged to eradicate poverty, to promote full and productive employment, and to foster social integration to achieve stable, safe and just societies for all.

What is development from a human rights perspective?

The rights-based definition of development in the Declaration on the Right to Development sees it as a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process.

What is a rights-based approach to development?

A rights-based approach to development is a conceptual framework for the process of human development that is normatively based on international human rights standards and operationally directed to promoting and protecting human rights.

Is there only one rights-based approach?

There is no single, universally agreed rights-based approach, although there may be an emerging consensus on the basic constituent elements.

Are rights-based approaches new?

While it has recently received unprecedented attention, the idea of rights-based approaches is not a new concept. Many of its elements have been tried and tested for years.

How do rights-based approaches differ and what is the value added?

Rights-based approaches bring the promise of more effective, more sustainable, more rational and more genuine development processes.

What are the main development concerns of indigenous peoples?

National development processes have often failed to include the free and meaningful participation of indigenous peoples.

What about the gender dimension of development?

Rights-based approaches to development emphasize non-discrimination, attention to vulnerability and empowerment. Women and girls are among the first victims of discrimination. In fact, it is consider also the inclusion of person with special needs, including person with disabilities to realize equal rights.


Rights Based Approach Society (Delhi) has adopted Rights Based Approaches to strive for a sustainable development of underdeveloped part of the Community.