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Applying a Human Rights-Based Approach (HRBA) in the Civic Space

A Seminar by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

By Raymond Andaya

On 15 December 2023, the OHCHR-Seoul Office delivered a seminar on the ‘Human Rights-based Approach in Humanitarian Setting’ specifically targeting civil society actors working in humanitarian and development environments. Professor Ai Kihara-Hunt, Director of the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Sustainable Peace (RCSP), organized the seminar especially for partners of the RCSP’s Toyota Foundation-funded (2021) project: ‘Research, Mutual Learning and Network Formation on Human Rights Best Practices by Non-State Actors in COVID Responses’. These project partners include non-State actors from different segments of the civic space: migrant assistance, education, student-led initiatives, and resilience and community-centered humanitarian response to natural disasters. The objective of the seminar is to introduce the Human Rights-based approach used by the UN to provide responses in humanitarian and development environments. It hopes to encourage civil society actors to emulate these approaches in their planning and implementation of their various activities.

Professor Kihara-Hunt opened the seminar by explaining the relevance of using a human rights-based approach. Various contexts exacerbate the vulnerability of certain segments of society such as women, nursing mothers, children, foreigners, low-income households, and societies recovering from different types of emergencies and crises. While States are known to be primary duty-bearers of rights protection for these groups, authorities are often faced with limitations on upholding their obligations to fulfill these rights. Thus, the role of actors in the civic space becomes crucial, filling gaps in human rights fulfillment and helping State actors address concerns on human dignity in vulnerable and marginalized sectors. It is the objective of the RCSP’s project to highlight adaptations on human rights protection in the civic space. Through this seminar, project partners can acquire a better understanding of how their practices fit into a broader human rights agenda.

Opening Remarks by Professor Ai Kihara-Hunt
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Next, representatives from the OHCHR-Seoul Office facilitated the seminar’s three-segment agenda: (1) a background on the legal framework that governs the human rights-based approach (HRBA), (2) an explanation of HRBA as a conceptual framework which can regulate and guide activities of various actors, and (3) a brief discussion of how project partners have adapted their work in consideration of how they view themselves as agents in the broader rights-oriented civic space.

First, HRBA has strong foundations in international normative and legal instruments, including the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, international human rights law treaties, International Humanitarian Law, and International Refugee Law, and enforcement mechanisms within the UN framework such as the Universal Periodic Review and various treaty bodies.

Second, HRBA provides a roadmap for mechanisms through which the UN approaches humanitarian emergencies and problems related to development. These mechanisms include the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), the UN Cluster System, and other human rights protection systems. HRBA is used in every step of the UN’s humanitarian and development work. Crucially, it ensures that providers applying the framework, including the UN, are accountable to rights holders. HRBA involves the use of quantitative and qualitative human rights indicators that bridge the gap between the concept and its implementation.

Finally, the seminar provided space for discussing the ways in which the project partners filled implementation gaps as agents supporting human rights fulfillment in humanitarian and development settings. As civil society actors, the partners conduct important relief, assistance, and development work at the community level. While they are not regarded as duty bearers of the obligation to uphold human rights, activities by civil society actors operate most effectively (1) when they have great knowledge of the context of vulnerability, (2) when they work closely with individuals and societies that need protection and empowerment, and (3) when they regard rights-holders as partners in the implementation of humanitarian, development, and human rights protection activities.

The seminar was concluded by a moderated discussion among project partners and sub-partners on their activity updates and their views on how HRBA could guide their activities. A participant raised a point that the term human rights is considered to be too difficult for the people involved in their activities in their geographic area of work. Another participant mentioned that, while actually working for human rights, they had never had an opportunity to learn about human rights. 

Through this seminar, the Project Team hopes to impart HRBA as a potentially useful tool for further enhancing the important work that civil society partners are doing in support of human rights protection. While the language of human rights is not often used in the conduct of their activities, as one partner noted, their contributions have been crucial towards ensuring human dignity and rights are upheld especially in the most difficult conditions.

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