The Approach to Human Rights

What is a human rights-based approach to advocacy, litigation, and programming?

What is a human rights-based approach?

“Human rights are conceived as tools that allow people to live lives of dignity, to be free and equal citizens, to exercise meaningful choices, and to pursue their life plans.”1

A human rights-based approach (HRBA) is a conceptual framework that can be applied to advocacy, litigation, and programming and is explicitly shaped by international human rights law. This approach can be integrated into a broad range of program areas, including health, education, law, governance, employment, and social and economic security. While there is no one definition or model of a HRBA, the United Nations has articulated several common principles to guide the mainstreaming of human rights into program and advocacy work:

The integration of human rights law and principles should be visible in all work, and the aim of all programs and activities should be to contribute directly to the realization of one or more human rights.

Human rights principles include: “universality and inalienability; indivisibility; interdependence and interrelatedness; non-discrimination and equality; participation and inclusion; accountability and the rule of law.”2 They should inform all stages of programming and advocacy work, including assessment, design and planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.

Human rights principles should also be embodied in the processes of work to strengthen rights-related outcomes. Participation and transparency should be incorporated at all stages and all actors must be accountable for their participation.

A HRBA specifically calls for human rights to guide relationships between rights-holders (individuals and groups with rights) and the duty-bearers (actors with an obligation to fulfill those rights, such as States).3 With respect to programming, this requires “[a]ssessment and analysis in order to identify the human rights claims of rights-holders and the corresponding human rights obligations of duty-bearers as well as the immediate, underlying, and structural causes of the non-realization of rights.”4

A HRBA is intended to strengthen the capacities of rights-holders to claims their entitlements and to enable duty-bearers to meet their obligations, as defined by international human rights law. A HRBA also draws attention to marginalized, disadvantaged and excluded populations, ensuring that they are considered both rights-holders and duty-bearers, and endowing all populations with the ability to participate in the process and outcomes.

What are key elements of a human rights-based approach?

Human rights standards and principles derived from international human rights instrument should guide the process and outcomes of advocacy and programming. The list below contains several principles and questions that may guide you in considering the strength and efficacy of human rights within your own programs or advocacy work. Together these principles form the acronym PANELS.

Participation: Does the activity include participation by all stakeholders, including affected communities, civil society, and marginalized, disadvantaged or excluded groups? Is it situated in close proximity to its intended beneficiaries? Is participation both a means and a goal of the program?

Accountability: Does the activity identify both the entitlements of claim-holders and the obligations of duty-bearers? Does it create mechanisms of accountability for violations of rights? Are all actors involved held accountable for their actions? Are both outcomes and processes monitored and evaluated?

Non-discrimination: Does the activity identify who is most vulnerable, marginalized and excluded? Does it pay particular attention to the needs of vulnerable groups such as women, minorities, indigenous peoples, disabled persons and prisoners?

Empowerment: Does the activity give its rights-holders the power, capacity, and access to bring about a change in their own lives? Does it place them at the center of the process rather than treating them as objects of charity?

Linkage to rights: Does the activity define its objectives in terms of legally enforceable rights, with links to international, regional, and national laws? Does it address the full range of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights?

Sustainability: Is the development process of the activity locally owned? Does it aim to reduce disparity? Does it include both top-down and bottom-up approaches? Does it identify immediate, underlying and root causes of problems? Does it include measurable goals and targets? Does it develop and strengthen strategic partnerships among stakeholders?

Why use a human rights-based approach?

There are many benefits to using a human rights-based approach to programming, litigation and advocacy. It lends legitimacy to the activity because a HRBA is based upon international law and accepted globally. A HRBA highlights marginalized and vulnerable populations. A HRBA is effective in reinforcing both human rights and public health objectives, particularly with respect to highly stigmatizing health issues.5 Other benefits to implementing a human rights-based approach include:

Participation: Increases and strengthens the participation of the local community.

Accountability: Improves transparency and accountability.

Non-discrimination: Reduces vulnerabilities by focusing on the most marginalized and
excluded in society.

Empowerment: Capacity building.

Linkage to rights: Promotes the realization of human rights and greater impact on policy
and practice.

Sustainability: Promotes sustainable results and sustained change.

How can a human rights-based approach be used?

A variety of human rights standards at the international and regional levels applies to patient care. These standards can be used for many purposes including to:

    • Document violations of the rights of patients and advocate for the cessation of these violations.
    • Name and shame governments into addressing issues.
    • Sue governments for violations of national human rights laws.
    • File complaints with national, regional and international human rights bodies.
    • Use human rights for strategic organizational development and situational analysis.
    • Obtain recognition of the issue from non-governmental organizations, governments or international audiences. Recognition by the UN can offer credibility to an issue and move a government to take that issue more seriously.
    • Form alliances with other activists and groups and develop networks.
    • Organize and mobilize communities.
    • Develop media campaigns.
    • Push for law reform.
    • Develop guidelines and standards.
    • Conduct human rights training and capacity building
    • Integrate legal services into health care to increase access to justice and to provide holistic care.
    • Integrate a human rights approach in health services delivery.


1 Yamin AE, “Will we take suffering seriously? Reflections on what applying a human rights framework to health means and why we should care,” Health and Human Rights 10, no. 1 (2008).

2 For a brief explanation of these principles, see UN Development Group (UNDG), The Human Rights Based Approach to Development Cooperation Towards a Common Understanding Among UN Agencies (May 2003), available at:

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Gauri V & Gloppen S, Human Rights Based Approaches to Development: Concepts, Evidence, and Policy, World Bank Policy Research
Working Paper 5938 (Jan. 2012).