human rights, non-profit, social change

The power of the human rights framework

Last week, I had the incredible opportunity to attend the National Forum on the Human Right to Housing, held by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Since my work centers around housing and civil rights, it was truly a privilege to be able to hear from homelessness, housing, civil rights and human rights advocates and leaders from across the country.

I learned so much, but the big takeaway was the importance of the ‘human rights framework‘ in advocacy – not just in matters of the human right to adequate housing, but also more broadly. The use of the human rights framework really resonated with me and helped me articulate more clearly what exactly my vision is for the world, and for my life’s work.

While I have been harping on (on this blog and in real life) about ‘holistic’ legal advocacy on behalf of clients – which means taking into account all of a client’s needs rather than just the legal ones – I’ve realized that the human rights framework is just another way of looking at it. And potentially, a more powerful one. When we make a commitment to using a human rights framework, we are essentially promising to look at all the human rights an individual client has. This means we do not simply respect their legal rights or analyze their legal problems – but we look at whether any of the client’s human rights are being violated, according to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The right to be free from torture and slavery. The right to be free from discrimination. The right to a fair trial. The right to consent to marriage. The right to “standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” The right to security in case of unemployment, sickness, or disability. The right to education. The right to free speech and religion. And, many more.

Human rights are by nature holistic; they incorporate almost every aspect of an individual’s life. And they are interdependent; if even one right is violated, then the individual’s human rights as a whole are violated. Human rights are about equality, and human dignity. You cannot live a life of dignity until all your rights are met. And, they are universal. Everyone has human rights.

The human rights framework is powerful because it is a holistic approach; those who drafted the UDHR and those who advocate it’s enforcement on the ground realize that it’s not enough to simply have civil & political rights. We must also work towards economic, social, and cultural rights. All of these are human rights. Not just the ability to speak your mind, but also the right to adequate housing, health care, education. We need to end the divide between the civil, political rights & the economic, social, cultural rights. Why is one considered less important than the other, when in fact, they are deeply interconnected? As MLK once said:

Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know now, that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?
— Martin Luther King, Jr., speech to the striking sanitation workers,  Memphis Tennessee March 18, 1968

This framework is also powerful because it provides a mechanism through which enforcement becomes possible. I think the next step is for non-profit organizations and governments alike to begin adopting and enforcing human rights. For governments, that means slowly incorporating the UDHR and the conventions on civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights into national laws and constitutions, as well as creating mechanisms to enforce these laws. Creating national laws to enforce human rights means governments can actually be held accountable for their policies. For non-profits, it means adopting human rights frameworks to improve their work and to truly ensure the rights of their clients & beneficiaries are protected – in a holistic manner. One organization, Maryland Legal Aid, has adopted this framework:

Maryland Legal Aid recently adopted a human rights framework to guide its mission of finding legal remedies for the problems that afflict the poor—and to advance the recognition and protection of basic human rights.
“Clients tell us they have needs for basic human rights and for us to make lasting changes for them we need to keep human right norms in mind as we look at legal remedies—poor housing, poor remuneration, unaffordable medical treatment,” said Seri Wilpone, chief attorney of Legal Aid’s Southern Maryland office in Hughesville.

And finally, if governments and non-profits adopt the human rights framework, it means that mass movements of affected people – whether it is the poor, the landless, refugees, women, or indigenous people – can rise up and actively demand their rights. People need to be able to demand their rights; this is very different from asking for charity. It would allow the poor and the oppressed to actively challenge power. They would have a legal basis for demanding their rights. They would have a means for holding their political leaders accountable. The human rights framework would thus make peoples social movements worldwide more effective.

So, as I think more and more about what makes an effective non-profit, I’ve realized it boils down to a few things: a human rights framework and a holistic approach to client needs; and the ability to foster and be part of a peoples movement to demand their rights rather than be provided with charity – the ability to truly work with affected people rather than simply work for them.

Sadly, far too few non-profits actually operate this way. For now, I’ll continue my quest to  search for those that do!


6 thoughts on “The power of the human rights framework”

  1. Roxanne says:

    Thank you for drawing the distinction between people being able to demand their rights and charity. It is a valuable, and oft-overlooked, one. I am so happy to be reading your words again 🙂

    1. Akhila says:

      Yes, I too think it is a valuable distinction. Asking for charity and hand outs is vastly different than being able to demand something that is your LEGAL and moral right.
      Glad you enjoyed this post, Roxanne, and as always, thank you for stopping by!

  2. almostclever says:

    Great post!  I am doing field work in a women’s housing complex that provides affordable housing to impoverished women with domestic abuse and mental health concerns.  In social work this holistic approach to people is called systems theory, or the ecological perspective – taking into account all that affects a person’s life, not just whether or not they qualify to live in our residence.  We are actually not allowed (or at least not supposed to) develop a plan for the women we work with, instead they are to develop the plan and we work together to achieve those goals.  When advocates don’t do this (because it is easier just to tell someone what to do instead of working with them from where they are at) it translates to us not actually supporting empowerment and self-determination, hence – human rights.    

    This causes so many ethical dilemmas when working with other professions who also are a part of these women’s lives – who do not have the same ethical values of social justice and do not take the whole person into account (doctors, psychiatrists, lawyers, etc..)  

    1. Akhila says:

      It’s fascinating to learn about social work theories – and hearing that social workers really have this human rights, holistic, systems theory perspective – makes me want to go to social work school all the more. I am slowly starting to think it would be a good idea, especially because social workers seem to have the right ethical values in terms of looking at things truly through the clients’ eyes. Of course, people still need doctors, psychiatrists, lawyers, etc as they encounter problems going through their life — but it does seem that a social worker can at least provide a stable source of assistance and counseling and can help connect the individual to all these specialized services. I think your methodology sounds great and fascinating and I hope to learn more about social work models..

      1. almostclever says:

        How are you doing with your decision making?  Have you narrowed your options?  Is law school still on the table?  

        1. Akhila says:

          Yes, law school is still the primary thing on the table, though I would ideally like to do a double degree with social work. I hope to get into a school that has both a good law & social work school!

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