Human Rights in Humanitarian Action and Development Cooperation and the Implications of Rights-Based Approaches in the Field

Brief Author: 
Prisca Benelli

This brief explores the implications of the rights-based approach, or approaches, (RBA) in development cooperation and humanitarian assistance. It reviews the history of the rights-based approach, and addresses the question of whether it has the potential to empower the recipients of aid, ensure accountability and improve their protection, or whether the risks inherent in the approach surpass the potential benefits. The brief thus compares and contrasts the possible added value of a human rights based approach to development cooperation and to humanitarian assistance with the risks and challenges stemming from it. It also includes the examination of three cases – drought affected Ethiopia, Darfur, and the response to hurricane Katrina in the United States – as examples of the dangers and advantages involved with such an approach. This brief suggests that it is be necessary for an organization to ‘embrace the full RBA package’: on the contrary, a ‘cherry-picking’ attitude, adopting those aspects of RBA that make more sense in a specific context and for a specific purpose, may prove beneficial by ensuring modularity and context sensitivity. This brief is based on a review of the literature on rights based approaches, produced by scholars as well as aid organizations. The paper also draws on interviews conducted by the author with humanitarian, development and human rights practitioners and on the writer’s personal experience.

Pages

This brief explores the implications of the rights-based approach, or approaches, (RBA) in development cooperation and humanitarian assistance. It reviews the history of the rights-based approach, and addresses the question of whether it has the potential to empower the recipients of aid, ensure accountability and improve their protection, or whether the risks inherent in the approach surpass the potential benefits. The brief thus compares and contrasts the possible added value of a human rights based approach to development cooperation and to humanitarian assistance with the risks and challenges stemming from it. It also includes the examination of three cases – drought affected Ethiopia, Darfur, and the response to hurricane Katrina in the United States – as examples of the dangers and advantages involved with such an approach. This brief suggests that it is be necessary for an organization to ‘embrace the full RBA package’: on the contrary, a ‘cherry-picking’ attitude, adopting those aspects of RBA that make more sense in a specific context and for a specific purpose, may prove beneficial by ensuring modularity and context sensitivity. This brief is based on a review of the literature on rights based approaches, produced by scholars as well as aid organizations. The paper also draws on interviews conducted by the author with humanitarian, development and human rights practitioners and on the writer’s personal experience.

Intoduction and Definition

When examining the ‘Human Rights-Based Approach(es)’ – often shortened to ‘rights-based approach(es)’, or ‘RBA’ – to development, it quickly becomes apparent that there is no common definition of what constitutes RBA. Some scholars suggest that, despite the talk of a RBA, “there rather are plural rights-based approaches, with different starting points and rather different implications for development practice.”1 Despite the lack of definitive agreement on the meaning of term, some common denominators exist,2 as listed in the next paragraph. 3

According to RBA scholars, these approaches are the product of the nexus of the fields of development and human rights, which were perceived to be clearly distinguished,4 and were disconnected, ”with little awareness that the other is there, and with little if any sustained engagement with one another”5. Human rights-based approaches generally anchored the plans, policies and processes of development (and humanitarian) aid in a system of rights and corresponding obligations established by a series of international treaties (listed in Box 1). A number of United Nations agencies have agreed to a set of essential attributes to characterize rights-based approaches, namely (a) the fulfillment of human rights as an essential goal of development policies and programs; (b) the identification of rights-holders and their entitlements and corresponding duty-bearers and their obligations; (c) the promotion of efforts to strengthen the capacities of rights-holders to make their claims and of duty-bearers to meet their obligations; and (d) the centrality of principles and standards derived from international human rights treaties in development (and humanitarian) program design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.6

While these attributes appear unproblematic, a challenge arises when one attempts to translate them in practice. Examine, for example, the second attribute: the very idea of rights implies two different actors, a duty-bearer and a right-holder, with the former being accountable towards the latter, and the latter having the capacity to claim the rights (depicted in Figure 1). Therefore, when considering RBA, a primary question is: who should be considered the duty-bearer. Here, there are two possible interpretations. In what we could call a legalist/formal view, the only duty-bearers are states, and states only, in accordance with international human rights treaties’ standards. In a broader, realist/pragmatic view, however, what really matters is power: everyone in a position of power is therefore a potential duty-bearer, and should acknowledge that role and its responsibilities. If an organization adopts the first view, then its self-perceived role in RBA is to raise awareness among rights holders of what they should expect, and how to achieve it, vis-à-vis the state. In contrast, if aid organizations and agencies perceive themselves as duty-bearers, then implications of adopting RBA include that accountability mechanisms be established and that the delivery of high quality assistance emphasize the participation of the intended beneficiaries/rights holders. Aid organizations generally embrace the second perspective, including themselves, together with the state, among the duty-bearers. While apparently solid on paper, this idea of ‘self-monitoring’ and ‘self-imposed downward accountability’ poses some practical problems: “If claims exist, methods for holding those who violate claims accountable must exist as well. If not, the claims lose meaning.”

An analytical lens to focus on inequalities, discrimination and power relationships;

  • The rights-based approach can be said to be in opposition to a charity-based, welfare type of approach. However, some warn that it is incorrect to view RBA in opposition to a need-based understanding of aid; while different in kind the two are in no sense incompatible: needs tend to define the ‘what’ of programming, and to be value-neutral (i.e.: not a moral statement), while rights “involve a moral (and perhaps a legal) claim about entitlements, and [are] as significant for its identification of related responsibilities as for the rights claim itself.” Finally, some claim that the RBA has many dimensions, representing simultaneously:
  • A legal foundation to policy and practice, based on a framework of international law voluntarily accepted by the vast majority of states;
  • A process of implementation and service delivery that ensures accountability and respect for human dignity; and, finally,
  • A desired outcome11.

Rights-based approaches emerged during the 1990’s and, in the course of their adoption and adaptation, have influenced the way in which development cooperation and humanitarian aid are conducted. The following section briefly explores this evolution.


  1. Cornwall, Andrea, and Celestine Nyamu-­‐Musembi. "Putting the ‘rights-­‐based approach’ to development into perspective." Third World Quarterly 25.8 (2004): 1415-­‐1437, p. 1415. Over the course of this brief, the singular form, RBA, and the plural form, RBAs, are used interchangeably.
  2. Harsh Mander “Rights as struggle – towards a more just and humane world, in: Paul Gready and Jonathan Enso (eds.), Reinventing Development? Translating rights-­‐based approaches from theory into practice, (London: Zed Books 2005), pp. 233-­‐278 at p. 239.
  3. Harsh Mander, “Rights as struggle – towards a more just and humane world,in: Paul Gready and Jonathan Ensor(eds.), Reinventing Development? Translating rights-­‐based approaches from theory into practice,(London: Zed Books 2005), pp. 233-­‐278 at p. 239, cited in Päivi Koskinen, Human rights-­‐based approach to humanitarian assistance – a tool to empower internally displaced women? International Conference on Refugees and International Law: The Challenge of Protection, 15. -­‐16.12.2006, Oxford, Refugee Studies Centre.
  4. Nelson, Paul J. and Ellen Dorsey. “At the Nexus of Human Rights and Development: New Methods and Strategies of Global NGOs,” World Development 31/12: 2013-­‐36.
  5. Allston, Philip. “Ships passing in the night: the current state of the human rights and development debate seen through the lens of the millennium development goals” in Human Rights Quarterly, Vol.27, pp. 755-­‐829, at p.825
  6. Office Of The United Nations High Commissioner For Human Rights, (OHCHR), Frequently Asked Questions On A Human Rights-­‐Based Approach To Development Cooperation (2006), P. 15
  7. Ashley Tsongas, Lecturer on RB Approaches to Monitoring and Evaluation at the Fletcher School and Change Manager at Oxfam America, interview with the author, Medford, April 10th, 2013. The opinion expressed by Ms Tsongas are those of the individual only. They do not represent the official views of any of the organizations she works for or is associated with.
  8. Peter Uvin, Peter. Human Rights and Development, Bloomfield: Kumarian, 2004, p 131.
  9. Darcy, James and Hofmann Charles-­‐Antoine. 2003. According to Need? Needs Assessment and Decision Making in the Humanitarian Sector. Humanitarian Policy Group Report #15. London: ODI
  10. Ibid
  11. Julia Häusermann, Implementing a Human Rights Approach to Development: An Opportunity and Challenge for the UN Presentation by Julia Häusermann, at 59th Annual General Meeting of Ipswich and District United Nations Association, Ipswich, 29th April, 2005 IS/Dev/Publ.51/2004

Recent Tweets

Follow Us

Twitter icon
Facebook icon
LinkedIn icon
Vimeo icon
YouTube icon

Our Sponsor


A Program Of




All materials © 2014 Harvard University


Back to Top

Back to Top