The Isolation of Human Rights and an Appeal for the Human Rights Based Approach

Despite the remarkable rise of international human rights law and institutions over the past 70 years, has the global UDHR-based human rights regime proved to be fragile and easily retractable?

Seventy years ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted one of the most important documents of the post-WWII global order – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The document proclaimed a new epoch in humankind’s view of the world – an epoch of positioning individual humans centrally and of making states accountable for a full and effective realization of human rights.

Over the past 70 years international human rights saw an unprecedented progress. The United Nations developed a complex and comprehensive body of international human rights standards, inclusive of nine core treaties, seven of which ratified by at least 165 states each, as well as of many declarations, guidelines and other instruments of “soft law”. The last several decades saw the establishment of the UN Human Rights Council, the Universal Periodic Review mechanism, the International Criminal Court and other ad hoc international criminal tribunals.

Yet, despite these outstanding normative and institutional achievements, the global human rights situation experienced uneven and fragmented progress, a lot of which proved fragile.

At the completion of his mandate in 2018, Zeid Ra’ad Hussein, the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that human rights were in retreat in every region of the world – and that they were no longer a priority, but rather “a pariah”[1]. The same assessment was provided by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in February 2019 – “the human rights agenda is losing ground in many parts of the world”, he said at the opening of the 40th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.[2] Global democracy indexes exemplify the fragility of human rights progress – only 20 countries of the world are rated as full democracies in the 2018 Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit; 55 countries are rated as flawed democracies and the remaining 92 assessed countries are rated as either hybrid or authoritarian regimes.[3]

At the venerable 70th anniversary of the UDHR, a fundamental question needs to be asked: Why, despite the remarkable rise of international human rights law and institutions over the past 70 years, has the global UDHR-based human rights regime proved to be so fragile and easily retractable?

Several reasons could be behind this global human rights crisis, but one stands out particularly prominently – the isolation of human rights and lack of an affirmative human rights-based approach.

The Isolation of Human Rights

Despite this unprecedented expansion of international human rights law, over the past 70 years human rights have not achieved the place they ought to have achieved. For many decades, the human rights framework was seen not as the basis and foundation for peace and development both globally and locally, but rather as a body of legal provisions with little connection to mainstream global topics – development, peace, economic growth, democracy, governance, etc. Until fairly recently human rights essentially lived a life of isolation in relation to global affairs and the broader structure of international law.

Take economic development, the major topic of global debates and international relations in the 20th and 21st centuries. Instead of creating a strong and robust nexus between economic development and human rights, the global community for decades kept the two apart. In 2015 the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, concluded that the World Bank – the main post-WWII global economic development institution – was “a human rights-free zone” treating human rights “more like an infectious disease than universal values and obligations”.[4]

The same is true for many other areas. During the decades that followed 1948, democracy and good governance were predominantly planned and measured in number of established democratic institutions, rule of law – in number of adopted constitutions, national development – in terms of GDP per capita, municipal development – in terms of kilometers of roads built. In other words, not in number of individuals happily enjoying their fundamental human rights and having a life of dignity and fulfillment, but in number of institutions, documents, buildings and kilometers of road. During these decades, the record-keeping of human rights was reserved for separate departments of lawyers largely detached from the departments of economists, education and healthcare policy-makers, or municipal development specialists.

A similar account can be made about the global fight for gender equality. Despite decades of earlier work and still limited progress, it was only in 1985-1995 that the global community came to the realization that gender was everywhere, and that therefore it had to be mainstreamed everywhere. As the UN Economic and Social Council put it, gender had to be included “[into] any planned action, including legislation, policies or programs, in all areas and at all levels”[5]. Or, as the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions put it in its groundbreaking video about gender mainstreaming into municipal development, gender equality had to be brought “from the garden shed into the [main] house”.[6]

Towards the Human Rights-Based Approach

It was only in the late 1990s and early 2000s that the concept of Human Rights Based Approach (HRBA) entered the arena of high-level discussions and decision-making. Following the call of the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to mainstream human rights into the UN’s activities and programs, in 2003, the United Nations Development Group adopted the so-called UN Statement of Common Understanding on Human Rights-Based Approaches to Development Cooperation and Programming to guide UN development planning and programming.[7] As per this document, the HRBA could be summed-up in the following key ideas:

  • All humans are born free and equal to pursue a life of dignity and self-fulfillment, hence the primary goal of states is to provide people with effective opportunities and choices for a life of dignity and self-fulfillment. Human rights are the embodiment of effective opportunities and choices for a life of dignity and self-fulfillment, hence full achievement of human rights shall be the primary priority and objective in planning, programming and policy-making;
  • Humans are equal, but different, with some groups being historically and systemically marginalized and discriminated. Hence planning, policy-making and programmatic actions have to target equality for diverse groups in a disaggregated manner with due regard to history and social context, in order to produce truly and systemically non-discriminatory outcomes;
  • Principles of inherent human dignity, freedom and equality require that all planning, policy-making and programmatic actions be done through primary agency of the very beneficiaries (rights-holders) based on the principles of transparency, participation and accountability. “Nothing about us, without us!” is the embodiment of this important human rights principle.

The Human Rights-Based Approach in Practice

It was natural to expect that this powerful approach would infuse the main global development framework of that time, the 2000-2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Yet, most human rights assessments of MDGs outcomes found that was not the case; the MDGs left human rights largely at the outskirts of the process, and the impact of the MDGs implementation on human rights globally was rather modest. At the same time, certain MDGs were arguably achieved in such a manner that, for instance, minorities and Indigenous peoples did not share the aggregate development gains, and sometimes even incurred losses only to benefit the others.

The new opportunity at the global level arrived in 2015 with the adoption of the MDGs’ successor – the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (the “2030 Agenda”), which became the main development paradigm of the contemporary world. Unanimously endorsed by UN Member-States, the 2030 Agenda aspires to “Leave No One Behind” and claims to be “grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [and] international human rights treaties”.[8]

There are many concerns around this claim, such as the non-inclusion of important human rights into the SDGs’ design, the limited disaggregation of most of Agenda’s indicators and targets along essential criteria (disability status, Indigenous status, age, etc.), the fundamental lack of duty-bearer / right-holder relation in the design of the Agenda, and the resulting very weak accountability structure for the Agenda’s implementers vis-à-vis its intended beneficiaries.

Despite these serious flaws, there is space and hope for remediation. Since we are still at the beginning of the 2030 Agenda’s lifespan with major reviews lying ahead, the global community will have a chance to address these gaps, should there be sufficient understanding and will. In February 2019, the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet (photo at top), emphasized that “Human rights-based policies are effective. They deliver better outcomes for people” Hopefully this message will be widely heard.

The same is true for the national and local levels. Indeed, if human rights remain in isolation from mainstream policy-making, planning and programming, continuing a life in the “reserves” of separate and “special” documents, then the 70 years old “great promise” of the UDHR may never materialize. In order to attain their full life and potential, human rights have to be mainstreamed into the general public policy- and law-making, planning and programming “in all areas and at all levels”, and actually become the foundational basis for all these processes.

Rays of hope in this regard can be seen in a number of places. Sweden has successfully championed intense gender+ mainstreaming across national and municipal policy-making and programming for over a decade. Costa Rica and Uruguay have placed HRBA at the basis of their care system reforms. The new Chief Human Rights Commissioner of New Zealand, Paul Hunt, on January 24th of this year (2019) declared at his entering into the mandate that “human rights place the well-being, dignity and equality of individuals and communities at the center of all law, policy and practice”[10], and demanded that the government fully adopts the HRBA. In 2017, Canada adopted its Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP). In November 2018, the City of Montreal adopted Gender-Based Analysis+ approach into its decision-making and programming to put an end to all forms of discrimination in the city.

The progressive countries and municipalities of the world are taking the lead in the process of global adoption of HRBA. While “old” world leaders – the United States, United Kingdom, France – rapidly lose the moral authority and the grasp on human rights, “new” champions like Canada, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Costa Rica and several others are developing their moral authority and can lead the way. They must not shy from doing so in clear, effective and sustained way.


About the author

Slava BalanVeaceslav (Slava) Balan is a human rights researcher and practitioner. Originally from Moldova, where he led the work of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, he is now settled in Canada, and a PhD Candidate at the University of Ottawa. His current areas of professional and academic interest include Human Rights- and Gender-Based Approaches to development and law, United Nations human rights system, protection of minorities.


[1] Statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein “Human rights no longer treated as a priority, but as a pariah,” Zeid tells 25th anniversary gathering in Vienna, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights [OHCHR] (22 May 2018), online: Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages...;

[2] Statement by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, UN Human Rights Council, 40th Session (25 February 2019), online: United Nations Twitter.com/UNGeneva/status/1099947689352024065;

[3] Democracy Index 2018, The Economist Intelligence Unit (2019), online: The Economist Intelligence Unit www.eiu.com/topic/democracy-index;

[4] Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights , Philip Alston,UN General Assembly, 70th Session, UN Doc A/70/274 (2015);

[5] Report of the Economic and Social Council for 1997, United Nations, A/52/3 (18 September 1997);

[6] Starter Kit for Sustainable Gender Equality [video], Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (27 September 2012), online: Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xYikioYiilU at 7:58;

[7] The UN Statement of Common Understanding on Human Rights-Based Approaches to Development Cooperation and Programming, United Nations Development Group (2003), online: United Nations Development Group undg.org/document/the-human-rights-based-approach;

[8] UN General Assembly Resolution 70/1 Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (25 September 2015), UN General Assembly, 70th Session, UN Doc A/RES/70/1 (2015) at point 10;

[9] Opening Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet at the 40th session of the Human Rights Council, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights [OHCHR] (25 February 2019), online: OHCHR ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/...;

[10] Statement by the Chief Human Rights Commissioner of New Zealand Paul Hunt Chief Human Rights Commissioner urges Government to treat poverty as a human rights issue (24 January 2019), online: Human Rights Commission of New Zealand hrc.co.nz/news/chief-human-rights-commissioner-urges-government...