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rights approach

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What is a rights-based approach to development?

In all regions and cultures there have always been struggles for human dignity and freedom and against oppression, injustice and discrimination.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 - acknowledging human rights as a global responsibility.

The human rights approach to development being promoted today takes a holistic view of human rights recognising the indivisibility of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.

competing discourses

In the 1950s, with the Cold War, debates were polarized between the human rights and human development perspectives (see text right)

  • Human rights promoted by political activists, lawyers and philosophers through political pressure, legal reform and ethical questioning. The rights perspective focused on deprivations because of discrimination and civil and political rights as integral parts of the development process. These arguments were particularly prominent in the Western critique of communism the West prioritising civil and political rights.
  • Human development promoted by economists, social scientists and policy-makers focusing on economic and social progress. This directed attention to the socio-economic context in which rights can be realized- or threatened. These arguments were particularly prominent in the communist critique of Western liberal democracy prioritising economic and social rights.

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emerging consensus

Finally, from about the mid-1980s and particularly following the ending of the Cold War, these two competing discourses have become increasingly merged in both political and academic debate. An important factor were the many grassroots and international movements of the 1970s and 1980s, including the women's movement, the children's movement and the growing advocacy for rights internationally and nationally.

All but one of the six core covenants and conventions on civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights have each been ratified by 140 or more countries. All but one of the seven core labour rights conventions have been ratified by 125 or more countries.

An increasing number of bilateral and multilateral development agencies have also adopted a rights based approach, including DFID, SIDA,UNDP and ILO and more recently by World Bank and the International Development Banks.

The consensus is based on a number of operational principles:
  • participation
  • equity
  • inclusion
  • accountability
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Human rights necessary for survival and dignified living including:
  • the rights to life and liberty
  • the right to a standard of living adequate for health and wellbeing of the individual and his/her family, including food and housing, and the right to the continuous improvements of living conditions
  • the right to social protection in times of need
  • the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health
  • the right to work and to just and favourable conditions of work
  • the rights to privacy and to family life

Human rights and freedoms necessary for human dignity, creativity and intellectual and spiritual development including.

  • the right to education and to access to information
  • freedoms of religion, opinion, speech, expression and association
  • the right to participate in the political process
  • the right to participate in cultural life

Human rights necessary for liberty and physical security including:

  • freedom from slavery or servitude
    the right to security of person (physical integrity)
  • the right to be free from arbitrary arrest or imprisonment
  • freedom from torture and from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

Sources: Hauserman 1998; DFID 2000

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The largest US-based human rights organization. Set up in 1978 as Helsinki Watch to monitor compliance of the Soviet bloc countries with the provision of the Helsinki Accords. In 1980s Americas Watch was set up to monitor human rights abuses in Central America. HRW now tracks human rights in more than 70 countries, including women's rights, children's rights and flow of arms to abusinve forces. Other projects include academic freedom, humen rights responsibilities of corporations, international justice, prisons, drugs and refugees.More

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Founded in 1961 in UK by Peter Benenson in response to abuses in Portgual. Amnesty I is 'independent of any government, political interest or is concerned solely with the impartial protection of human rights.' At the latest count there were more than 1.8 million members, supporters and subscribers in over 150 countries. More

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  • Individual versus collective rights?
  • Rights or responsibilities?
  • Relationship between rights, needs and poverty?
  • Formal legal rights versus customary rights?
  • Universal rights versus cultural diversity?
  • Who defines rights in whose interests?

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