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Key Text Enhancing Access to Human Rights

Author: International Council on Human Rights Policy (ICHRP)
Date: 2004
Size: 96 pages (236 KB)

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Why do so many people not enjoy rights to which they are entitled? What needs to be done beyond law and legal reform to ensure that rights and entitlements are accessible to all? This report by the International Council on Human Rights Policy analyses the role that institutions play in alleviating or exacerbating social exclusion. It concludes that human rights organisations need to reposition themselves to become relevant to the very poor and those who suffer systemic discrimination.

Internalised inhibitions such as fear and distrust of official institutions, as well as external factors, contribute to social exclusion. Human rights law and activism have always considered that the state is the principal engine of social protection, but excluded groups distrust state institutions. Many formal state and third sector institutions that exist to protect rights and provide services that are essential to rights’ protection fail to fulfil their responsibilities. Consequences of this are that:

  • Poor people and minorities often fall back on customary institutions to resolve disputes and deal with problems.
  • Traditional systems provide a significant degree of protection, but are usually limited in capacity, suffer from gender bias and cannot protect rights adequately.
  • When invited to claim their rights, excluded groups often face difficult dilemmas. For example, women are often forced to choose between their individual rights and their standing in the community.
  • These dilemmas mean that those who know they have rights often choose not to exercise them.
  • Entire categories of people in many societies do not benefit from their rights and entitlements.
  • Human rights organisations are being forced to broaden their role from a focus on legal reform and advocacy to include social, economic and cultural rights.

The state is the guarantor of individual rights, but informal mechanisms favoured by the excluded deserve closer inspection by human rights practitioners. Despite their deficiencies, they offer cheap, accessible, and legitimate services to the people that use them. To be effective, strategies need to look beyond formal power structures and legal mechanisms and:

  • Examine how excluded and poor people analyse their situation and interests, and assess what would be required for those concerned to assert their rights taking account of costs and risks.
  • Work with traditional systems alongside (not replacing) formal state institutions.
  • Adapt to community realities and work with organisations that are trusted and implanted in target communities, without co-opting them.
  • Assess the level and mix of required confrontation and co-operation with official institutions.
  • Improve state performance in the delivery of services, justice, and physical security to minorities and the poor.

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Source: International Council on Human Rights Policy, 2004, Enhancing Access to Human Rights, ICHRP, Geneva
Author: International Council on Human Rights Policy (ICHRP),