The Rights-Based Approach

Peter Harney, Edmund Rice International, 2013

The Rights-Based Approach (RBA) to advocacy and community development begins with a different question than a more traditional needs-based approach.   The latter begins: ‘What are the presenting issues and needs in a particular community?’  While the RBA approach asks: ‘What rights are being neglected or trampled in this situation?’

The particular community concerned and those who want to empower the community in addressing the injustice need to think and respond differently if the source of the issue is to be addressed.

Traditionally the response has been to identify ‘the need’ and to seek ways in collaboration with the community to address the situation through providing service, support and assistance where necessary. 

However, if the first question asked is: ‘What rights are not being respected here?’ then the starting point is the challenging task of naming the inherent rights that are not being respected of those who are experiencing the injustice.  Another question arises ‘Why is it these people can’t enjoy their rights?’ and so an inquiry into the reasons for disempowerment is instigated. 

It is in the act of struggling by those made poor by unjust oppressive systems that rights are gradually articulated and came to be recognised and written into internal law.

Gradually the rights-holders (those being disregarded), having named and expressed a desire to claim their rights, are encouraged to find their voice and assert their communal and individual authority, challenging the duty-bearers (those who hold power) to change the unjust structures that hold them in bondage and deny them their capacity to live fully human lives.  This journey of the ordinary people claiming their rights is the self-empowering path of RBA to advocacy that begins and ends with those who experience exclusion and marginalisation finding agency, dignity and self-worth through coming to an understanding of their human rights and claiming space in which to enact and enjoy them.

What are the main steps in applying the Rights-Based Approach to a problem? 

  1. See the problem as a human rights issue - what rights are being violated? Who are the rights holders? Who is the duty bearer?
  2. Think, plan and decide about the problem as a human rights issue by involving the most vulnerable, consulting with all stakeholders without discrimination, building an inclusive network or coalition of human rights defenders, encouraging and enabling local decision making, ensuring no one is left behind, holding duty bearers to account and aiming to change relevant laws, policies, procedures or practices
  3. Review your progress towards your goal

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