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International Human Rights Day 2007: New challenges

Written by Marta Foresti

Today is International Human Rights Day. ODI is publishing this blog and a new Briefing Paper to mark the anniversary. Click here for quick access to key resources.

Today the UN begins a year long campaign leading to the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on the theme of ‘Dignity and Justice for us all’. Over the years, the Declaration inspired the creation of more than 60 human rights instruments and it is one of the most translated documents of all times. However, 60 years on, these are not easy days for human rights.

The issues that have always been the concern of human rights defenders and activists still exist. Human rights violations are still all too common, particularly in conflict affected areas. Dignity and justice are still not a reality for many people, particularly in poor countries. New challenges and opportunities to the field have also emerged in the post cold war and post 9/11 era. Security concerns are today key issues facing the human rights mainstream. The “war on terror” led to fierce debates about western models of democracy - including the promotion of human rights. It is in this context that human rights activists around the world are confronted with hard won civil liberties being increasingly contested. 

Other emerging topics are the implementation of economic and social rights and the accountability of non-state actors. These present challenges but also key opportunities to improve the practical application of human rights. Innovative ideas and approaches are being tested but key lessons are yet to be learnt and disseminated among practitioners, activists and policy makers.

Meanwhile, human rights have become progressively recognised as a key dimension of the international development discourse. Since the 1990s, an increasing number of agencies have been introducing and implementing ‘human rights based approaches’ in their policies and programmes. Originally grounded in a ‘social development agenda’, concerned with power differentials, inequality and discrimination, human rights are today one of the cornerstones of governance and democratic politics for sustainable development. What is perhaps less clear is the extent to which the resistance towards the operational integration of human rights and development practice has been overcome. Most development agencies have yet to produce a credible evidence base on how, in practice, human rights matter for poverty reduction and how effective/appropriate they are as agents promoting human rights in other countries. Recent research conducted by ODI suggests that despite the favourable policy environment, agencies around the world are still struggling to anchor their policies and strategic objectives in the international human rights framework, with its standards and obligations.

Despite these challenges, human rights have great potential to improve development practice. Recent work from ODI on ‘voice and accountability’, published today as an ODI Briefing Paper, suggests that improved citizen-state relations are central to a realistic agenda on good governance. Citizen-state relations are at the heart of human rights, which considers all individuals (and not just citizens) as rights holders who can place demands on the duty bearers (primarily the state) who have an obligation, not an option, to enforce and protect their rights.

Another key finding of our research is that voice does not automatically lead to accountability: voice without concrete mechanisms to effectively hold the state accountable is not likely to achieve change. Development donors are not currently paying sufficient attention to these accountability mechanisms, legal or otherwise, which are so central to the human rights enterprise and could have a real impact to achieve change in practice.

The research and advisory work conducted by ODI Rights in Action Programme is guided by the following question:  what difference can rights make in the lives of poor people?  In particular, what is the relevance of the rights principles and frameworks to the lives of excluded and vulnerable men and women? In our work, we investigate (and question) the practical value of a rights framework for development action, poverty reduction and humanitarian protection. Recent work includes: 

In the coming year we will hear a lot about the relevance of the Universal Declaration. In the words of Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International: ‘As the countdown towards this significant anniversary approaches, the world has to face the challenge of moving from rights to realisation and to bridge the gap between promise and performance’.