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How is a Human Rights Based Approach core for sustainable development?

There is certainly much more to development than just building airports or roads and highways; it gives back to communities, improves opportunities and most importantly promotes the rights of individuals and communities within the process.


So what is an HRBA? In simple terms, it is about empowering people and communities to understand and claim their rights, to ensure that no one is excluded from participating in the decision-making process and to make ‘duty bearers’ accountable in fulfilling their obligations towards humanity. The HRBA emphasises incorporating the human rights aspects into each stage of the development process, from planning and design to operation and decommissioning.

There is certainly a growing effort and urgent demand from international organisations, such as the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SD), to increase equality, justice and also eradicate poverty and hunger in the world. The majority of the 17 sustainable development goals are linked to human rights aspects, from gender equality and quality education to peace and justice.

Yet to what extent are international efforts - supported by businesses- able to integrate human rights aspects into every step of the development? How are human rights policies and standards converted into simple actions to protect the rights of individuals and communities?

In my experience, some of the key characteristics and outcomes of projects that have not considered or implemented the HRBA:

● Poor and limited participation; all too often this created a rift between communities and development, in many cases leading to social unrest resulting in the affected groups’ campaigning

● Discrimination and inequality; this could be triggered as development does not identify structures that impede social equity; for instance, developers fail to communicate labour rights and no effective monitoring is conducted on performance of supply chains (i.e. modern slavery)

● Individuals’ land rights and access Right of Way could be violated if development leads to physical or economic displacement

● Vulnerable groups, particularly women, may feel isolated and insignificant as their needs within development are not addressed; for instance, limited attention has been given to gender dimension in the transport sector, and opportunities that this sector can provide for women (in terms of access, mobility, employment) have not been considered early in the process

● Rights of individuals who depend on informal employment are not recognised, which leads to marginalization of these individuals (e.g. individual waste pickers living on waste management sites) and

● Rights of individuals to a healthy environment is not considered early in the process (i.e. climate change risks)

The Way Forward

It is vital for businesses to understand the key human rights values and actions within the context of their work and the society they operate in.  Societies are diverse and complex in terms of societal needs and structure. So the key message would be first, outline what are the human rights risks associated with your business including supply chains (the Human Rights Compliance Assessment (HRCA) check list developed by the Danish Institute is an effective tool for this purpose) and secondly, use participatory approach to understand stakeholders’ concerns and perceptions; lastly, evaluate issues to target the areas which are most at risk. The HRBA may sound time consuming for projects, but when applied correctly it can transform the development process. 

Bita Rais is WSP principal consultant and social specialist with its Strategic Advisory Services group.