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.