1.6 Population and Individual Rights in the PSA

Population behaviours have direct links with the fundamental rights and freedoms established in international instruments governing human rights. These links have their roots in the capacity of individuals to act freely and judiciously with regard to particularly critical issues such as reproduction, survival and mobility; and on the other hand, in the way that the state, through public policies, addresses the intersections between population and development. Another way to look at human rights issues is from the perspective of social inequality. While some forms of social inequality are acceptable and may even have positive effects on individual behaviours, others are unjust and/or violate basic human rights. The distinction between the two is usually expressed as inequalities versus inequities. Care should be taken not to assume that these are the same as the first is a statistical concept, whereas the second calls for an analysis in terms of human rights. Nor should human rights be confused with particular rights derived from existing national legislation or with any public policy goal that is simply considered desirable. For example, while it is certainly desirable for the health system of a country to be designed in such a way that patients can be cared for as close as possible to their usual residences, this is ultimately an issue that has to be decided on the basis of the rationality of the use of resources, rather than a human rights issue. When in doubt, it is best to explicitly identify the appropriate human rights instruments.

In order to achieve a common approach to the incorporation of human rights into programming, the UN System has developed the so-called UN Common Understanding of the human rights-based approach to programming, which is based on the following principles:

a)     All programmes of development cooperation, policies and technical assistance should further the realization of human rights as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments;
b)     Human rights standards contained in, and principles derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments guide all development cooperation and programming in all sectors and in all stages of the programming process;
c)     Development cooperation contributes to the development of the capacities of ‘duty-bearers’ to meet their obligations and/or of ‘rights-holders’ to claim their rights.

When working from a human-rights based approach, the following practical guidelines apply to the analysis:

  • Safeguarding human dignity;
  • Paying attention to the most vulnerable populations;
  • Ensuring that services are accessible, especially for the most vulnerable populations;
  • Using a gender perspective;
  • Ensuring equity and freedom from discrimination in the design;
  • Disaggregating data to identify inequalities and inequities;
  • Guaranteeing the equality and integrity of all legitimate rights claims.

Further principles apply to the design of interventions, such as ensuring an optimal balance between public outcomes and the protection of human rights.

The human rights approach applied to population and development should ensure that the measures implemented consider the specific situation of individuals and groups that are vulnerable, marginal, at a disadvantage or socially excluded.8 This emphasis seeks to transcend the reliance on conceptual and normative frameworks that underlie certain public policies in which the specificities of groups on focus, such as women, indigenous peoples, the disabled or older people, for example, have tended to be overlooked, thus creating or exacerbating inequities. The rights-based approach extends the entitlement to human rights to all groups of the population and helps to achieve that those who were
formerly excluded are now being treated on the basis of equality and with due regard for human dignity, in the interests of social cohesion.9 This, in turn, leads to the adoption of specific conventions with regard to particular groups of rights, so as to reaffirm those rights already recognized in general in other international instruments, such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), the Convention of the Rights of the Child (1989), and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006). Usually, when constructing a political dialogue on population and development issues, one of the topics that need to be addressed is the relationship between social cohesion and poverty, inequality and states of vulnerability. Unprecedented demographic changes call for a fresh approach toward the formulation of public policies and their implementation. For example, it is important to highlight the concept of a society for all ages which originates from the Action Programme adopted by the World Summit for Social Development held in Copenhagen in 1995. At this Summit, the Member States declared that the main objective of social integration is the creation of a “society for all” in which “each person, with his or her own rights and responsibilities, has an active role to play”.10

Many international human rights instruments11 relate to reproductive rights, such as decisions concerning the number and the timing at which to have children, or the right of women to a life free of discrimination and gender-based violence. At the same time, this relationship is implicit in a civil right set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that directly refers to internal migration (the right to freedom of movement throughout the national territory) and more recently to the rights of migrant workers and their families as contained in the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

Moreover, social participation and exercise of political power are affected by a number of conditioning factors related to international migration, age and sex, which entail the violation or limitation of rights. Population behaviours are also involved, in practical terms, in certain rights, such as access to employment, due to the difficulties entailed by the inability to combine reproduction and employment; to education, as the result of discriminatory treatment and the objective obstacles faced by adolescent mothers seeking to continue their studies; and health, given the complications resulting from the lack of knowledge or inability to regulate fertility, in accordance with preferences regarding the number and spacing of births desired.

Finally, population trends also have an impact on compliance with rights, either because the location of individuals is an obstacle in terms of their access to services, or because the growth of the population or specific sub-groups generates pressures that are hard to attend, for increased resources for social programmes or for services that affect environmental sustainability. Both population behaviours and aggregate population trends are important in reducing poverty and inequality and for the exercise of fundamental rights and liberties. As a consequence, they constitute an important condition to be taken into account in order to advance in the achievement of the goals and targets agreed on by the international community, enshrined in the Millennium Development Goals.

Whenever possible, the human rights implications of behaviours and policies relating to population and reproductive health should not only be identified in abstract terms, but the actual policy and budgetary choices that they entail should be made explicit. It is not sufficient to point out that existing public policies with respect to, for instance, the prevention of maternal mortality are characterized by certain inequities, without indicating what alternatives for redressing these inequities are available, how they would alter the distribution of resources and how they would affect the overall efficiency of the respective public policies. After all, clearly describing policy choices and their implications is what makes the analysis useful to national governments.


  • United Nations. The Human Rights-Based Approach to Development Cooperation: Towards a Common Understanding Among the UN Agencies. Available at: www.hreoc.gov.au/social_justice/conference/engaging_communities/ un_common_understanding_rba.pdf. For more information on this history, see Action 2 Learning Draft Resource Guide, pp. 51-52;
  • UNFPA and Harvard School of Public Health (2010). A Human Rights-Based Approach to
  • Programming. Practical Information and Training Materials. New York, UNFPA.

7 For more information about the importance of the rights focus for public policy see Appendix 1.
8 OHCHR (2004). Human rights and poverty reduction. A conceptual framework. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations, New York and Geneva, 2004. ECLAC (2006). Social Panorama 2006. Santiago, LC/G.2326-P/E, especially the chapters on population and health/reproductive rights.
9 See United Nations (1995). World Summit Report on Social Development, Copenhagen, 6th to 12th of March 1995. A/CF166/9, 19th of April.
10 See Economic and Social Council: Follow-up to the World Summit: emerging issues, trends and new approaches, and programme activities of the Secretariat and the regional commissions relating to social development, including the situation
of specific groups. Report of the Secretary-General, E/CN.5/1997/5, 16 January 1997.
11 The most important international legal instruments providing support are the following: Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948); International Pact of Civil and Political Rights (1966); International Pact of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976); International Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (1981); Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990); Declaration and Action Programme of the World Conference of Human Rights, Vienna (1993); Action Programme of the International Conference on Population and Development, Cairo (1994), Action
Programme of the World Conference on Women, Beijing (1995).