The responsibility of national governments to uphold and implement international human rights standards is not in doubt. International human rights law is a subset of public international law, and as such, it engages the commitment of nation states.
The applicability of international human rights treaties to ratifying states is not controversial and there is no ambiguity about the general principle that governments are accountable for human rights standards. There is, however, considerably less clarity about the nature of government obligations. As political philosophers regularly observe, the notion that some actors hold rights implies that others have duties. Within a universal and global human rights framework, individual human beings are the named rights holders and governments are considered the principal duty bearers. But what is the nature of that duty?
This question has been considered in different contexts, including the International Law Commission’s (ILC) work on the Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts and in conjunction with implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Over the past two decades a consensus has emerged that with respect to international human rights states have a threefold responsibility: to respect, to protect, and to fulfill their obligations. As expounded by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,
- The obligation to respect means that States must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights.
- The obligation to protect requires States to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses.
- The obligation to fulfill means that States must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights.
Policy analysis based on this tripartite understanding of duty bearer responsibilities is commonly known as a “human rights based approach” (HRBA).
International Standards — Treaties and Other Human Rights Instruments
- International Law Commission, 53rd Session. “Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts.” United Nations, 2001. (Note: Adopted by the International Law Commission and submitted to the UN General Assembly, 2001.)
- Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “International Human Rights Law.” (Note: Short commentary on state obligations.)
- “Maastrict Guidelines on Violations of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,” 1997. (Note: See Article II.6.)
- Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “ESCR Committee, General Comment 3.”
- UN Treaty Collection. “Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.”
Mechanisms for Implementation of Legal Standards and International Policy
- United Nations Human Rights Development Group. “Human Rights Based Approach Portal.”
- United Nations Human Rights Development Group. “Human Rights Mainstreaming Mechanism (UNDG-HRM).”
- Alston, Phillip. “Out of the Abyss: Challenges Confronting the New U.N. Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.” Human Rights Quarterly, 1987, Vol 9, No. 3 (1987): 332-381.
- Fagan, Andrew. “Human Rights,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Updated July, 2005.
- Nelson, Paul J. and Ellen Dorsey. New Rights Advocacy: Changing Strategies of Development and Human Rights NGOs. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2008.
Advocacy for a Human Rights Based Approach (HRBA) and Mainstreaming Human Rights
- Amnesty International. “HRBA and Women’s Rights.” (IOR/ 50/01/00). September, 2000.
- Amnesty International. “From Promises to Delivery: Putting Human Rights at the Heart of the Millennium Development Goals.” 2010.
- Human Rights Watch. “Letter to the High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda.“ 24 March, 2013.
Training Materials, Human Rights Based Approach
Human Rights Educational Associates. “ESC Rights in Practice.”
Case Studies and Application
- United Nations Development Programme. “Human Rights Based approach to Millennium Development Goals.” Oslo: Oslo Governance Center.
- UN Office on Drugs and Crimes. “UNODOC and the Protection and Enforcement of Human Rights.” 2012. (Note: This 2012 informal “position paper” sets forth general responsibilities of states and other bodies for controlling narcotics, with reference to due diligence standard and the respect-protect-fulfill framework.)
- CARE. “Incorporation of a Rights-Based Approach into CARE’s Program Cycle A Discussion Paper for CARE’s Program Staff.” 2001.
- The Brookings Institution. “Human Rights and Natural Disasters: Operational Guidelines and Field Manual on Human Rights Protection in Situations of Natural Disaster.” Spring 2008.