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Mailman School of Public Health

The Harriet and Robert Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health

intro | relationship to health | key standards, actors & venues | forms of work | role of the US | conclusion

Forms of Human Rights Work

The practice of human rights can take many forms. Many different methods for promoting rights have evolved in different places all over the world, some using formal legal standards, some more focused on informal claims of justice and wrongness, claims derived from the experiences of peoples lives. Some examples are:

  • human rights education (making it possible for people to understand the rights they should have as an element of their sense of being empowered subjects)
  • budget analysis, making public evaluations of whether states have ‘put their money where their obligations are”
  • human rights based service provision: designing services for discriminated populations and/or evaluating the design of those programs under human rights principles
  • individual case work, by legal or informal campaigning on specific cases of abuse, often through reports documenting the actual abuses persons face and the standards they violate
  • law reform, advocacy or litigation aimed at changing the legal framework under which states operate

An excellent directory of internet tools and resources helpful to human rights practitioners can be found at

Two of the most relevant for health are advocacy and rights-based programming.

Advocacy (case, institutional, and policy)

Advocacy can be directed at affecting individual cases, as when social workers advocate for a client in order to get her health benefits restored; at an institution, as when advocates worked to get an NGO, such as Human Rights Watch or the Andean Commission of Jurists, to accept local activists as full partners in rights work, or on policy, such as during the ICPD when advocates sought to get a sexual and reproductive rights framework for the Conference outcomes and then sought to use that victory in changing law and policy at home [see Bolivian case, above]

Human rights advocacy generally involves documentation of rights violations and propagating recommendations for remedying those violations.

Rights-based programming

Rights-based programming uses human rights as a framework in program development, implementation and evaluation.

This means that:

    • the human rights implications of any health policy, program or legislation must be assessed and addressed
    • human rights must be an integral dimension of the design,implementation, monitoring and evaluation of health-related policies and programs in all spheres, including political, economic and social.
    • The persons most affected must participate in the design and evaluation of the program affecting them

From: 25 Questions & Answers on Human Rights

A rights-based approach to programming includes addressing the availability, accessibility and affordability of services to meet people's needs; ensures the access to information provided in a confidential setting, and appropriate technologies and resources necessary for people to make their own decisions and choices regarding their health throughout their lifetimes. Services and education must be based on the right to dignity, respect and self-determination.


continue to... The Role of the US in Human Rights