The Rights-based Approach to Advocacy

Human Rights are inscribed in the heart of people; they were there long before lawmakers drafted their proclamation.  

(Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights)

Fundamentals of a Rights-based Approach to Advocacy

The Rights-Based Approach (RBA) to advocacy and community development begins with a different question than a more traditional needs-based approach.   The latter begins: ‘What are the presenting issues and needs in a particular community?’  While the RBA approach asks: ‘What rights are being neglected or trampled in this situation?’ The particular community concerned and those who want to empower the community in addressing the injustice need to think and respond differently if the source of the issue is to be addressed.

Traditionally the response has been to identify ‘the need’ and to seek ways in collaboration with the community to address the situation through providing service, support and assistance where necessary.  However if the first question asked is: ‘What rights are not being respected here?’ then the starting point is the challenging task of naming the inherent rights that are not being respected of those who are experiencing the injustice.  Another question arises ‘Why is it these people can’t enjoy their rights?’ and so an inquiry into the reasons for disempowerment is instigated.  It is in the act of struggling by those made poor by unjust oppressive systems that rights are gradually articulated and came to be recognized and written into internal law (Mamdani 1996; Manji 1998; Nyamu-Musembi 2002).

Gradually the rights-holders (those being disregarded), having named and expressed a desire to claim their rights, are encouraged to find their voice and assert their communal and individual authority, challenging the duty-bearers (those who hold power) to change the unjust structures that hold them in bondage and deny them their capacity to live fully human lives.  This journey of the ordinary people claiming their rights is the self-empowering path of RBA to advocacy that begins and ends with those who experience exclusion and marginalization finding agency, dignity and self-worth through coming to an understanding of their human rights and claiming space in which to enact and enjoy them.

Yet human rights should be understood within the wider context of the rights of earth that gave birth to Homo Sapiens.  Humans are indeed integral to the earth community of life because they find their origins and sustenance in the life giving energy of the evolving life forms of this planet.  Genuine human rights are not separate from earth rights but are the way humanity expresses their place in ‘the family of things’ as Mary Oliver expresses it.

Colin Tudge writes ‘Once we see, as is so obvious, that our knowledge is always partial and horrendously incomplete, we begin to perceive how very arrogant and dangerous (our human) confidence really is. The notion that the universe really is weird and is forever beyond our ken suggests that the only reasonable attitude towards it is absolutely not one of lordliness, but one of reverence.  This is an ethical insight; and it comes from science as powerfully as from religion.  They should be at one on this.’

Some Spiritual Underpinning

God’s diversity and depth of being is reflected in the diversity of gifts found on planet-earth – the air, the water, the fruits of the forest, the rocks and soils and the beauty in every flower and blade of grass.  These are free gifts, not earned or demanded.  As ever emerging and conscious beings, we give thanks for these blessings of Pachamama (mother earth), do them no harm and care for them as expressions of the ‘embodiment of a creative lover’.  Mary Robinson says that human rights, which have universality for all human-kin, are inscribed in the heart of every person.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) declares in Article 1: ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’  So life, as the diverse gift of the evolving earth, is given freely and creatively to an ever-aware and responsive world community.  The gift of human rights is inherent written into the heart of humanity as one of these freely given gifts.  These rights, inscribed by the Creator, are evidence of the graced presence of the Spirit in our lives.  St Paul in Chapter 8 of Romans sees all creation, including humanity, manifesting this inherent giftedness that is integral to living a full and flourishing life.  It is the fruit of changing the death of un-freedoms into the liberation-of-transfiguration.  So the deepest markings in the human heart ensures that every person, and indeed every creature, reflects the divine presence and is of inestimable worth and deserves to live in a life giving community that is characterized by fair and just political, economic, social, civil and cultural systems and structures.

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that the widow may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey!

(Isaiah 10: 1-2)

Telling the Stories of Our Time in the Halls of Power

The mission of Edmund Rice international is to take the stories of those who cry out and make claim to their rights, to the tables of international agencies such as the Human Rights Council of the United Nations that have the power to challenge unjust regimes and governments.  These agencies in turn bring pressure to bear on the offending nation-states that can change the oppressive political, economic and civic regimes that hold citizens in bondage.  These regimes deny dignity, respect and the enjoyment of a full and fruitful life to those who are made poor through unjust and inequitable economic, social, cultural and political systems and are kept in place by those who are the beneficiaries of these systems.

If these stories and data are to have credibility and agency with those holding power and influence, they need to be grounded in the lives of those who suffer oppression, marginalization, poverty and exclusion.  Real life stories backed by factual data and evidence do change the attitudes and perspectives of the international community, national and local governments.

ERI is now established with recognition with the United Nations structure having gained Status as an NGO with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 2012.  The Edmund Rice Movement has a voice in Geneva and New York and partner like-mined NGOs to bring the stories of denial and violation of earth, child and human rights to the Human Rights Council and Treaty Bodies.

Please visit the ERI website watch the video of ERI’s mission and enroll in the 0n-line course in earth and human rights and advocacy.

Peter Harney (20/07/2013)




Colin Tudge, The Variety of Life:  A Survey and a Celebration of All the Creatures that Have Ever Lived (Oxford Uni Press, 2000).


Mamdani, M., 1996, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, Princeton:

Princeton University Press
Manji, F., 1998, ‘The Depoliticisation of Poverty’, in D. Eade (ed.), Development and Rights, Oxford: Oxfam

Nyamu-Musembi, C., 2002, ‘Toward an actor-oriented perspective on human rights’, IDS Working Paper 169, Brighton: Institute of Development Studies

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