8. What Does the New UN Human Rights Approach bring to the Struggle of the Poor? – IV

Writing Human Rights into Law

  1. In all honesty, many governments (if not most) continue to take a soft approach to the implementation of Human Rights. Human Rights actually require a people-oriented state — a fact that superficially may seem obvious, but of course isn’t. (3, 32)
  2. There are at least two challenges in this front to which they are not living up to. On the one hand, we need to adopt corrective legislation and take administrative measures to amend and abolish dispositions that are now contrary to Human Rights. On the other hand, new legislation needs to be put in place.
  3. The new national legislation on Human Rights will have to contain specific targets and corresponding time frames/deadlines which can be monitored. (33)
  4. In an ideal situation, the mere reference to Human Rights should create legal pressures towards the implementation of those rights. But, being very realistic, Human Rights enforcement and accountability still are key remaining unanswered questions in this struggle. (11, 20)
  5. Because of the acute current monitoring needs, it is important to establish national Human Rights Commissions whose funding is independent of government bodies. When laws are then promulgated, states will simply have to respect the work of these Human Rights advocates and other watchdog groups — including the work of non-nationals involved in taking steps to foster the respect of universal Human Rights; there should be no fear of harassment or persecution for them. (11. 16)
  6. Very early drafts of proposed legislation must be forwarded to civil society movements, labor unions, academic and scientific associations, private sector representatives, relevant government bodies and international organizations for review. (5)
  7. Later on, a powerful measure that could be implemented is for victims of Human Rights violations to be entitled to adequate reparation. For this, one could conceive of nationally respected ombudsmen or national Human Rights Commissions being put in charge of holding hearings for victims of poverty and Human Rights violations. (16, 28)
  8. In their reporting on Human Rights to the UN, Party States have to acknowledge: implementation problems, existing relevant national legislation and rules, regularity of monitoring (open to public scrutiny), priorities established and how the administration makes sure these rights have been implemented, how progress is being evaluated and the specific measures taken to achieve the realization of each of the rights.

This is already written into state obligations. Civil society now just has to sign off on these reports to keep them truthful.

  1. Adding another perspective, it is not a well known fact that the right to ensure international fair trade between nations is also explicitly mentioned in the Human Rights legal documentation. The latter calls for no restrictions in the access to markets and no trade embargoes which may jeopardize a state’s population. It clearly emphasizes fair trade over free trade. This, of course, is another vast area begging for more worldwide activism. (9, 2)
  2. In sum here, let us agree that without enshrining civil and political rights into explicit legislation, there is no guarantee that other rights, even when inscribed in laws and constitutions, can be made effective. The absence of powers to make governments accountable and responsible to their citizen on these fundamental rights is one of the greatest obstacles to rights-based agendas.

Training in Human Rights

  1. Having a Human Rights framework does not automatically change the way managers working in the development sector think about benefits. Only through a long process of incorporation of these politico-legal and other principles into everyday norms and directives and into service training programs will it be possible to progressively change deeply rooted Human Rights-neutral or Human Rights-opposed attitudes. (5)
  2. Nobody suggests that we begin each day by reciting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights! National and international development and social services delivery staff should be appropriately trained and be challenged to, by themselves, explore the effective use of Human Rights in their everyday work. For sure not a small task, but one we need to tackle with a sense of urgency. (4)
  3. Human Rights standards have thus to be incorporated into personnel training, because by using these standards they will gain an additional degree of authority and power, at the same time becoming more accountable. (31)

Some Conclusions

Betting on the invisible hand and ignoring the rights of the socially excluded is immoral; it is the issue of a deliberate collective social exclusion that we are out to combat. (22)

  1. Borrowing a term from sub-comandante Marcos of Chiapas fame, the first challenge we face in Human Rights work is to bring the Human Rights issue to a level of “impertinent consciousness” where it bothers us not to get involved.
  2. In the strategy of imposing the new Human Rights paradigm over the old and obsolete development paradigm, we have to get involved in a long haul capacity building, advocacy, social mobilization and people’s empowerment effort so as to influence short, medium and long term outcomes.
  3. We are ultimately fighting for a development that is anchored in the dyad Human Rights-Human Needs. And because to succeed in this field we need to change current realities in a socially and politically relevant manner, our actions will have to be based on a very strong political discourse. (22, 5)
  4. Normatively, this means we need to go from declarations (UN Declaration of Human Rights, Convention of the Rights of the Child, Convention on Eliminating Discrimination Against Women) to national plans of action, and to national legislation on these rights.

Operationally, it means we actually need to go from people articulating their needs into specific claims and then targeting them to specific duty bearers who already have clearly stipulated obligations. These claims have to then become enshrined in laws that are enforceable in practice; in the enforcing of these laws, we need to make full use of existing facilitating factors and join hands with all strategic allies to tackle all possible obstacles and face all strategic enemies. (34, 12)

  1. We all know that it is easier to fight for one’s principles than to live up to them (Alfred Adler 1875-1937).

At every step of the fight you commit yourself to embark on, just keep in mind that the actual issues you will be fighting for together with the people, are important, but not crucial: The process is!

More impact does not require just more inputs… It is not about doing the things right; it is about doing the right things and accessing the right leverage points that will make the big difference.

  1. The Human Rights approach thus brings to the forefront the point many activists have been making for over 30 years … Previous development initiatives had good intentions in them; we could have gone further with the Basic Human Needs approach or with Primary Health Care, for example… But we did not. Basically, because the political resolve was not there.
  2. A lot will have to be deconstructed before we can start to set up this new Human Rights approach. What may look destructive from outside is a necessary precondition. Resolving the principal contradiction in each country will require identifying the main opponents of the new approach, as well as the right tactics and strategies to forward the noble cause of Human Rights.


(1) Ngongi, N. (1999): The practical challenges of overcoming hunger, SCN News, No. 18, “Adequate Food: A Human Right”, July, pp.30-32 + 80, UN ACC/SCN).

(2) Jonsson, U. Historical summary: Nutrition ethics and Human Rights, SCN News, op.cit., pp.47-49 +73-83.

(2a) Jonsson, U. (1997): Realization of children s rights: Charity or solidarity?,mimeo, UNICEF ROSA, Kathmandu, December 3.

(3) Ramcharan, B. Invited remarks SCN 26th session, SCN News, op.cit., pp.16 + 73-83.

(4) Brundtland, G. H. Nutrition, health and Human Rights, SCN News, op.cit., pp.19-21+73-83.

(5) Costa Coitinho, D. Understanding Human Rights approaches: Food and nutrition security in Brazil, SCN News, op.cit., pp.50-53 + 59-62.

(6) George, S. (1999): The Lugano Report: On preserving Capitalism in the 21st century, Pluto Press, London.

(7) Jolly, R. Opening remarks SCN 26th session, SCN News, op.cit., p.11.

(8) Eide, A. Studying the rights to food and nutrition, SCN News, op.cit., pp.45-47 + 73-83.

(8a) Windfuhr, M. Comment, SCN 26th session, SCN News, op.cit., p.80.

(9) Toebes, B. Human Rights, health and nutrition, SCN News, op.cit., pp.63-70.

(10) Matlon, P. Comment, SCN 26th session, SCN News, op.cit., p.83.

(11) Haddad, L. Synopsis, overview and synthesis, SCN 26th session, SCN News, op.cit., pp.12-15 + 73-83.

(12) Schuftan, C. (2000): Human Rights based planning: The new approach, accepted for publication by SCN News, September.

(13) Lovelace, J.C. Will rights cure malnutrition?,SCN News, op.cit., p.p.25-28 + 73-83.

(14) Kennedy, E. Discussion of country cases, SCN 26th session, SCN News, op.cit., p.59.

(15) Schuftan, C. (2000): The role of Human Rights in politicizing our ethics and praxis in health, submitted for publication to Development and Change, August.

(16) UNHCR, Covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, General comment 12, The right to adequate food, Art. 11, SCN News, op.cit., pp.41-45.

(17) Jenssen-Petersen, S. Food as an integral part of international protection, SCN News, op.cit., pp.32-33.

(18) Barth-Eide, W. and Kracht, U. Towards a definition of the right to food and nutrition, SCN News, op.cit., pp.39-40.

(19) Lewis, S. Malnutrition as a Human Rights violation, SCN News, op.cit., pp.22-25.

(20) FIAN, (1998): Hungry for what is right, Newsletter No.13, August.

(21) Whelan, D. A Human Rights approach for women in development, SCN News, op.cit., p.90.

(22) (2000): UNRISD News, No.22, Spring/Summer.

(23) Sumner, L. W. The Moral Foundations of Rights.

(24) Robinson, M. Keynote address, SCN 26th session, SCN News, op.cit., pp.17-18.

(25) Salama, P. Mainstreaming the Human Rights approach in humanitarian interventions, SCN News, op.cit., pp.87-88.

(26) Uauy, R. Comment, SCN 26th session, SCN News, op.cit., p.74.

(27) Pellett, P. A Human Rights approach to food and nutrition policies and programs, SCN News, op.cit., pp.84-86.

(28) Thipanyane, T. A national framework for the promotion and protection of the rights to food security and nutrition: South Africa, SCN News, op.cit., pp.53-56 + 59-62.

(29) Clay, W. Comments, SCN 26th session, SCN News, op.cit., pp.77+82.

(30) Schuftan, C. (1998): Malnutrition and income: Are we being misled? (A dissenting view), Ecol. of Food and Nutr., 37(2), pp.101-121.

(31) Dandan, V. B. Monitoring, supervision and dialogue in the Human Right system, SCN News, op.cit., pp.34-38.

(32) Stavenhagen, R. (2000): UNRISD News, No.22, Spring/Summer, pp.1-4.

(33) De Haen, H. Summary of statement, 26th session, SCN News, op.cit., pp.28-29 + 73-83.

(34) Schuftan, C. (1999): Sustainable development beyond ethical pronouncements: the role of civil society and networking, Comm. Dev. J., 34(3), July, pp.232-239.

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