Human Rights

The Human Rights-Based Approach

The Cairo Consensus forged at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) is underpinned by human rights principles. The ICPD and ICPD +5 placed population, reproductive health and gender equality in a human rights-based framework linked to human development and sustained economic growth. UNFPA is committed to integrating human rights standards and principles into its work at the country level.

The UN Secretary-General’s Programme for Reform (1997), and its second phase, An Agenda for Further Change (2001), called upon UN Agencies to make human rights a cross-cutting priority for the UN system. In 2003, a group of UN agencies, including UNFPA, committed to integrating human rights into their national development cooperation programmes by adopting the Common Understanding on a rights-based approach.

Before 1997, most UN development agencies pursued a ‘basic needs’ approach: They identified basic requirements of beneficiaries and either supported initiatives to improve service delivery or advocated for their fulfilment.

UNFPA and its UN partners now work to fulfil the rights of people, rather than the needs of beneficiaries. There is a critical distinction: A need not fulfilled leads to dissatisfaction. In contrast, a right that is not respected leads to a violation, and its redress or reparation can be legally and legitimately claimed. A human rights-based approach to programming differs from the basic needs approach in that it recognizes the existence of rights. It also reinforces capacities of duty bearers (usually governments) to respect, protect and guarantee these rights.

In a rights-based approach, every human being is recognized both as a person and as a right-holder. A rights-based approach strives to secure the freedom, well-being and dignity of all people everywhere, within the framework of essential standards and principles, duties and obligations. The rights-based approach supports mechanisms to ensure that entitlements are attained and safeguarded.

Governments have three levels of obligation: to respect, protect and fulfil every right.

Rights are indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. The human rights-based approach focuses on those who are most vulnerable, excluded or discriminated against. UNFPA is committed to work for the poorest women, men and youth, particularly in the fields of sustainable development and population, reproductive health and rights and HIV prevention, in times of peace or in times of conflict, as well as in response to natural disasters. This often requires an analysis of gender and social exclusion to ensure that programmes reach the most marginalized and vulnerable segments of the population.

The human rights-based approach constitutes a framework of action as well as a methodological tool to fulfil UNFPA’s mandate in the context of reforms in a changing world. This approach is also expected to achieve results: sustained progress towards respect of human rights, development, peace, security, eradication of poverty, and achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

Three strategies are key to applying human rights standards to reproductive health

  • Creating an enabling policy environment that promotes reproductive health and rights, including building capacity to strengthen health systems, partnering with civil society and community-based organizations, and monitoring budgetary appropriations to ensure that reproductive health care is covered.

  • Widening access to comprehensive reproductive health services, with an emphasis on disadvantaged groups.

  • Building awareness of the reproductive rights of women, men and adolescents so that they can claim their rights to reproductive health.

  • Encouraging, involving and building the capacity of individuals and communities to participate in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of reproductive health programmes and services that affect their lives.

In the area of population and development, applying human rights standards includes:

  • Improving utilization of age- and sex-disaggregated data so that governments, UN agencies, and NGOs can target interventions in favour of the most disadvantaged people.

  • Integrating population and development linkages into national, subnational and sectoral policies, plans and strategies, especially to ensure that the rights of poor, disadvantaged or otherwise marginalized groups are protected.

  • Ensuring that development and poverty reduction policies, plans and strategies address critical emerging issues such as migration, urbanization, ageing and HIV and AIDS.

Applying human rights standards to the issues of gender equality and women’s empowerment requires fostering an environment that promotes and enforces gender equality in laws, practices, policies and value systems.


A number of UN mechanisms help UNFPA advance its mandate within the human rights framework. For instance, recommendations of treaty bodies – such as the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Special Rapporteurs and the Working groups of the Commission on Human Rights are invaluable tools in this regard.

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