Guidance Note: Human Rights and Do No Harm



When practitioners are using the Do No Harm (DNH) frameworks they often encounter issues around human rights. This is not surprising when looking at conflict situations. While DNH is not explicitly a human rights ‘tool’, human rights are implicitly included in the DNH frameworks through the analysis of Dividers and Connectors and in the ABCs. Because human rights violations have a significant effect on the context, their implications for conflict-sensitive programming cannot be ignored. This guidance note lays out the issues of implementing DNH through a human rights lens or in a context where human rights violations have been or are occurring. It is based on more than twenty years of DNH programming experience.

Key Findings:

  • Do No Harm does not mean “do not do advocacy”. Working for rights necessarily requires pointing out abuses and holding abusers accountable. This almost inevitably highlights Dividers. By challenging the status quo, advocacy can raise tensions. Promoting actions that may lead to an increase of conflict seems to run counter to the admonition that we should strive to “do no harm”. However, some actions and efforts are worthwhile and necessary even if there might be a violent response. In a situation where there are human rights abuses, DNH would not want them to be ignored. Ignoring or avoiding real dividers in a situation does not improve programmes, no matter what they are.
  • All societies have basic codes of conduct that support human rights. These are Connectors. All societies have basic codes of conduct for fighters and their interaction with civilians. These can be Connectors. Drawing attention to long-standing local codes of behaviour and reminding people of their own norms can be a powerful connector.
  • Rights-based approaches do not mean “promote violence-provoking activity”. It is often possible to achieve the same end with less tension and less human cost. But this is only possible if the context is understood well enough to see how various options would affect Dividers and Connectors.


  • DNH strongly advises outsiders to allow insiders to make their own choices and identify their own priorities. If the local people feel that the issue of human rights violence is significantly serious and requires intervention, then outsiders can support that decision. Outsiders should never put people at risk. Insiders can put themselves at risk.
  • When performing a standard DNH context analysis, pay special attention to any issues pertaining to human rights, but do not discount other contextual components. Human rights violations may be a response to other factors affecting the context. Find out about the history of human rights abuses in that context. When analysing Dividers and Connectors, examine human rights abuses and the responses to those abuses. Also, look at the groups who claim to be working on human rights.
  • Continually monitor the situation to see whether human rights violations are becoming more or less frequent. Adjust your programming if necessary. Think about the future and how your organisation or programme can build barriers to prevent future human rights abuses.


CDA. (2013). Guidance Note: Human Rights and Do No Harm. Cambridge, MA: CDA