In this essay I will review different aspects of the human rights system, having my main focus on the global aspect. This is to me the most interesting as the world has become more and more interconnected in several areas. The aspect I will concentrate on most in the global aspect is the deep culture of the West, containing universalism, capitalism as examples. I am usually sceptical to Western global “missions”. It is not difficult to find negative aspects of the practice of globalization, democracy and development. I am more positive to human rights. Galtung (1996) discusses if there is “a common human thing” which could be the secret of cooperation and prosperity for mankind. I will in this essay argue that this is an extremely important question in a global and unequal world which obviously does not respect each others differences. I argue that HR might wake up the feeling of this.I will in my essay contribute with suggestions for a positive development of HR. I will do this by highlighting the strength of the concept, and then address necessary deficits to improve. I will argue that addressing deep culture’s influence in the concept is crucial for improvement. First I will give a general outline of the ABC of the system and its approach to development.

Explanation of the ABC’s of the rights systems

“Human rights reflect a common desire to achieve a particular status in the human condition (Kent 2005, p. 112).”

In his book (2005) Kent has two messages. First, you don’t solve the hunger problem by feeding people; the problems “can be solved only by assuring that people can live in dignity by having decent opportunities to provide for themselves” (Kent 2005, p. 6). The second message is that all of us have obligations to assure the realization of all human rights for all people. Despite the fact that there are poor children this is not a poor world and we must act as one humanity. One way of ensuring this is through a human rights approach, which consists of right-holders, right-bearers and agents of accountability; the ABC of the human rights-system. The most legally binding instrument in the case of food is the ICESCR and more specifically General Comment 12. Below is the description of the ABC’s.

Rightholders; are individuals, with right to feed themselves through a) production and b) purchase. This together with c) the right of labour, and d) transfers are their entitlements, and realization of the rights will realize individuals’ dignity. Moreover human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. As there are interdependence between all rights, realization of food rights is dependent on realization of other rights as well.

  • This is according to ICESCR ensured by the duty-bearers, the ratified states, in the following obligations;
  • realize resources (legal, administrative, financial, social or other measures) for food-progressively,
  • and rights-immediately, to get rid of hunger,
  • cooperate: a) with other countries (so-called extraterritorial obligations)-as states can have difficulties realizing rights if other states takes certain decisions with negative impact, b) one shall ensure that other parties realize rights, and c) provide assistance in emergencies. Governments must ask for international assistance when crisis.
  • non-discriminate-immediately.

As an analytical framework there are three levels of state obligations;

  1. -respect-individuals,
  2. protect-against 3. parties violating rights (also against advertising of unhealthy food),and fulfil (facilitate/create conditions, provide-when emergencies);
  3. Agents– Though states are the only ones with direct legal obligations to realize these rights, other members of society also have responsibility. It is a general principle that all human beings, in addition to rights, have inherent responsibilities towards the society. This also applies to moral persons, such as enterprises, civil society organisations and associations, non-governmental organisations. This has been under discussion as these and international agencies do not apply directly to the law, but some argue that they can still be held directly or indirectly accountable for violations of rights (E-lesson 3).


Human Rights approach to development

Development is about meeting basic needs and values in a reproducible way. Development is also a human right according to the Declaration on the right to Development and the Millennium Declaration, the latter with the following 8 Millennium Goals;

  1. eradicate poverty and hunger
  2. achieve universal primary education
  3. gender equality
  4. reduce child mortality
  5. improve maternal health
  6. combat diseases
  7. environmental sustainability
  8. global partnership of development

The following is the human rights principles for the process-part (PANTHER) to achieve the development goals:

  • Participation by people in policy issues, development and nation-planning
  • Accountability for states, legal and non-legal means
  • Non-discrimination to vulnerable groups, disaggregate data to see who enjoys what rights. Equality in law, opportunities and outcomes
  • State-Transparency in political processes by the media and public
  • Human dignity-respect
  • Empowerment-of people
  • Rule of law-tool for accountability

Its contribution to development programming is:

  • assessment and analysis-power distribution, capacity and root causes
  • programme formulation-set and guide indicators
  • monitoring and evaluation

Using HR to achieve the 8 Millennium goals is argued as the HR approach offers:

  • Enhanced accountability, empowerment and participation
  • Improving situation of the poor
  • Greater clarity of what is needed
  • Easier consensus, increased transparency
  • Safeguards against unintentional harm from development projects
  • More effective and complete analysis
  • A more authoritative basis for advocacy and for claims on resources

Keywords are liberty, equality, and empowerment with a legal dimension.

HR are both a component and tool to achieve development, as it address both process and outcome. “Rights as goals” means the importance of making an appropriate strategy to reach the desired state-a strategy that can achieve along the way, so-called targets. Moreover, rights imply goals for individuals, and realizing rights is the process of pursuing a strategy to reach a goal, as mentioned above. This with citizens as active participators in all processes (Kent 2005, pp. 86-92).

In the traditional approach to development there focus is mainly on outcomes and little attention is given to legal dimension. However, the Human Rights-based approach puts individual first.


  • development programs should further realization of HR
  • HR should guide all sectors for development and planning
  • one shall make duty-bearers meet their obligations

In addition to this it is expected to change unequal power dynamics, by analyse, listen, and document good practices (e-lesson 1).

After the basic overview I will now outline my own views on the strengths and weaknesses in the mentioned part; to improve the HR approach to development.


Strengths of the human rights-system

There are many, for sure. I will tend to focus more on values than practices in this section; as hopefully one will follow the other. And as far as I have understood a solid conceptual basis is crucial for success in practice.

The most important value is the approach to humanity as one; and the focus of people’s participation and empowering the poor (and see the difference of assistance and empowerment!). Highly necessary as the world is otherwise sadly more pursuing “the survival of the fittest”.

Another strength is the clarification of that one must be aware of not only focus on acts, but chronic conditions. This is important for several reasons. One is the distinction of who is to blame and who is to correct, as to blame is not remedy. Human rights are legal rights, but human rights have the principle of constructive dialogue more than justiciability. Right=remedy, and essential element of rights systems. Justiciability is close to violations orientation/naming and shaming. Also, laws do not always entail rights or justice as they can colour the interests of the powerful (Kent 2005, pp. 130-133), and law takes the attention away from the problem-relation and put it on the relation between blamed and the authority (Galtung 1996, p. 109). Constructive dialogue is a core factor of peace studies. In the end the change must come from inside, in this case the state.

Second, focusing on events rather than conditions will not capture the underlying structures. There must be a shift to focus on structures to be able to find the right remedy. And this leads to my third point; the focus on awareness-making, conscientization, of self and other, which is another core focus of human rights and peace studies. In human rights this includes be aware of the means and goals.


Deficits of the human rights system

The deficits I have found so far I put into two categories; the focus and the left out. There is a common factor; they are all a result of being unaware of our own Occidental deep culture.

The focus:

I mentioned the importance of rights vs law, as law can colour the interests of the powerful. According to Galtung law actually, in addition to states, is one of two of the biggest violent features present (Galtung 1996, p. 269). States are number two. While states are a crucial part of the HR-approach, I miss HR having the same awareness regarding to economy and development-which I would assume is even more coloured by the powerful and culture (“Smithian” economics-Galtung 1996). (I view the state-capital couple as the root to evil). To be more specific I refer to the Western definition of development with the emphasis on values of growth/economic and markets; core features of Western mainstream economic theory. The Millennium Development goals recognise explicitly the interdependence between growth, poverty reduction and sustainable development. My question is; how do these three, especially the conditions of growth and sustainable development go together? And growth and needs? Both poverty and environmental degradation are, among other factors, a result of our emphasis on growth. And so heavy focus on economic development? And on markets/international, which is another factor of inequality. Development should be at nobody’s expense (Galtung 1996, pp. 127-129).

The principle of helping people able to feed themselves is central to human rights. Development should entail empowerment and autonomy-for all. Development assistance should shift its focus from growth and rather take form in removing the current structural barriers, through people-people dialogue rather than states, as this is closer to basic needs and there is more openness for reciprocity (Galtung 1996, pp. 134-136).

The same principle should be applied to nature; not to make it dependent on outside assistance (ex seed breeding).

Moreover, should not the word development only be understood in plural form; developments-as we have several cultures (Galtung 1996, p. 130)? As known, imposing will result in violent reactions. The two latter points is influenced by the Western singularism and universalism.

The left out:

Human rights are about a focus on accountability of states-when other entities have more influence in determining developments. There is a discussion on accountability outside states (it is quite obvious that the reason for why they are nor under any law is part of the Western imperialism). There should be a clear accountability of ”development institutions” (WB, IMF etc), not only in current and future developments, but also clean up their mess from the past. Imperialist and colonialist states should of course do the same. In short, as Kent mentions, there should be more focus on Global Obligations for action, or else HR agents will fail to reach the goals (Kent 2005, pp. 25-26).

There should be a strict rule not to go to war “in the name of human rights”, and misuse human rights in any way (except for extreme situations). Force is incompatible with the human rights principle of consent, constructive dialogue, and the universal fact that change comes from inside. Will human rights continuously be misused, they will end up perceived as a threat and lose their potential. Colonialists once upon a time claimed they did the best for their colonialized people too, and I do not have to mention how we view this today. But what has to be mentioned is that we have to be aware of the current power-mechanisms to sustain the Western imperialism.

Next; in HR there is a big emphasis on individuals first. I think, as we are dependent on nature, and cannot live without it, we should stop pursuing individuals first, putting ourselves above nature. Nature can live without us, we are nothing without nature. My point is there are spaces missing, typical for Western development theory. Nature should be more included, for its own sake, not in “sustainable development” for our sake. I miss a principle of holism, and more humility. The same concerning time-space; there should be cyclical thinking, human rights could be viewed as a never-ending process. And according to alternatives if the process goes wrong, I miss a principle of reversibility. This should be the legitimizing factor (Galtung 1996, pp. 127-129).

I will mention maybe the most important point last. I mentioned the positive focus on structures/conditions rather than events. But even more important the focus on what is making the structures; cultures, as cultures make our perspectives and values. In his book Kent put emphasis on being aware of misperceptions, and moreover what really should be the focus. In a discussion concerning population-control one of his comments was why there is absence of population/consuming-control in the North/West, as we are the ones consuming, at the expense of South. The absence of these perceptions in the approach witness either narrow self-awareness and/or (more likely) the consciously keeping of the unequal structures-both a result of cultures. Transformation needs to be deep, and holistic. Thus we must be aware of our own culture, if we are going to succeed in helping others, and we must change our style of living, if we are going to succeed in helping others. I say “we” and “others” because Western democratic states usually are those which have an energy surplus to engage in extern activities because of peace at home (Galtung 1996, p. 56). Moreover I guess the conscientization process discussed would be desirable as well in the states in question.


Conclusion: Adding deep culture considerations to a HR approach

To summarize, awareness of one’s deep culture could be helpful. Knowledge of deep culture is the most crucial in peace studies as it conditions unconscious perceptions on conflict cycles and behaviour, and is especially important in relation to conflict transformation (Galtung 1996, p. 37). Moreover humans are characterized by being able to challenge the “code” of behaviour because of our spirit. Here we talk about a common human code (Galtung 1996, pp. 188-189). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights could be viewed as a draft of such a code. New economic and development theories are required, which make equality, and sustain nature. Then we have succeeded in what Kent stated, a shift of focus away from population numbers to issues relating to the environment and social structure. And when we take a look at the new theory we might realize that it contains more elements from other deep cultures than Western.





Line recently graduated from the Univerisyt of Sydney with a MSc in Peace and Conflict Studies. She currently works as a project assistant in the Norwegian Peace Council, and writes articles for HumanRightsDefence.


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