Human rights

This topic guide provides an introduction to the interactions and links between human rights and international development. Human rights are increasingly visible in international development language, policies and programmes. Human rights, and the principles they are based on, are argued to improve the effectiveness of development programmes. But beyond that, a human rights framework is seen as essential for poverty reduction because it seeks to address the multiple rights denials that cause and shape poverty.

Human rights approaches combine international, regional and national legal frameworks with a focus on individuals and context-specific struggles for rights. Human rights can also be defined collectively, most commonly by indigenous peoples. Approaches to promoting human rights can therefore involve both ‘bottom up’ empowerment and ‘top down’ strengthening of accountability institutions. They also necessitate efforts to tackle structural inequalities caused by exclusion, discrimination and unequal power relations.

This guide introduces the international human rights framework, ‘rights-based approaches to development’, and the policies of various donors and NGOs. It explores how human rights can enhance policy and practice in various development sectors, and examines the relationship between rights, social exclusion and discrimination. The guide uses parallel vocabulary. For the legal aspects of human rights, it employs the controlled vocabulary used in international law. For rights-based approaches and development policy, it uses the language of development agencies.

About this Topic Guide

This topic guide was originally prepared by Jo Crichton, updated by Huma Haider (GSDRC, University of Birmingham) in 2011, and further updated by Ellie Chowns (University of Birmingham) and Evie Browne (GSDRC, University of Birmingham) in 2015. The GSDRC appreciates the contributions of Rosalind Eyben at the Institute of Development Studies, Katarina Tomasevski at Lund University, John Spall at the International Development Department, University of Birmingham, and Sylvia Bluck at the Department for International Development.

Suggested citation

Crichton, J., Haider, H., Chowns, E. & Browne, E. (2015). Human rights: Topic guide. (Revised ed.) Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham