«Development is a human right»

Article, 10.01.2014

The Asia Brief from December 2013 on the SDC’s programmes in South Asia shows that a human rights approach is important for development. What is the basic premise of the human rights approach and how is it applied? The ethnologist Pia Lignell, who worked from 2011 to 2013 as SDC deputy country director in the Afghan capital, Kabul, answers our questions.

Pia Lignell, who worked as SDC deputy country director in Kabul, Afghanistan, between 2011 and 2013, explains the concept of the human rights approach and how to work with it.

What are the core elements of the human rights approach?
The human rights approach places people’s rights centre stage. It is about tackling the underlying causes of poverty and helping to reduce it by improving people’s human rights situation. In this way, development becomes a right and not just a ’need’. Development programmes applying the human rights approach stem from international and national legal frameworks which make the state aware of its obligations as duty bearer, and help citizens to know and demand their rights as rights holders. The SDC ensures that duty bearers and rights holders take part in all project phases of such programmes and encourages both groups to know their rights and advocate for them. It also promotes cooperation between the state and its citizens. The SDC pays particular attention that the poorest and most vulnerable groups such as women, children, people with disabilities and minorities, are not discriminated against.

How can rights help change behaviour?
The human rights approach does not just put results centre stage, but the process as well. Citizens have an active role to play. The SDC focuses its efforts on the most vulnerable groups whose rights are often not known and are the least implemented. In so doing, it tackles inequalities at all levels.

Human rights situations improve when there is a change in behaviour. In Afghanistan for example, a recent study by the Afghan Human Rights Commission on honour killings and sexual crimes showed a change in awareness of the issues. Victims spoke openly of their rights having been violated in these areas which until now have been seen as taboo. Against the backdrop of gaps in the judicial system and a lack of legislative hierarchy between formal law, Sharia law and traditional practices, which are often legitimised by the Islamic religion, the study showed that awareness – by people of their rights on the one hand, and by some public authorities of their obligations on the other – had improved over the past few years.

What partners does the SDC support in the human rights field in Afghanistan?
Supporting the Afghan Human Rights Commission, which plays a key role between the government and its citizens, is a focal point of our programme. The commission was established in 2002 and is anchored in the Afghan constitution as an independent human rights institution. It is the second largest commission for the protection and promotion of human rights in the world.

The SDC has also analysed – together with the Afghan Ministry of Justice – discrepancies between national legislation and conventions signed by Afghanistan such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. This resulted in an action plan to promote national laws at the government level.

Among civil society NGOs, the SDC supports two network organisations and a trust fund working to empower citizens and create platforms to enable discussion between the state and civil society.

What role do human rights play in state- and peace-building in fragile contexts?
The human rights approach is particularly important in fragile states such as Afghanistan where the rule of law, legislative hierarchy and security are lacking, and where corruption, domestic violence and poverty prevail. The approach is applied in a conflict-sensitive way which means that those working in the development field know the conflict, its context and the various actors particularly well.

Greater civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights in peacebuilding are also important. The example of Afghanistan shows explicitly that all rights must be strengthened to promote the rule of law, political participation and security, as well as to combat poverty, gender inequality and violence.

Can it be delicate or even dangerous to insist on human rights in a country where tensions abound?
One of the strengths of the human rights approach is its universality – human rights apply everywhere. Many fragile states have ratified and codified the most important human rights conventions. As long as governments count as legitimate partners of the international community, it makes sense to insist on rights that have been ratified and the obligations involved at government level.

At the regional and local level however, where traditional laws often apply and the formal legal system is not recognised, insisting on human rights can lead to their being even more opposed.

To give an example, the SDC office in Kabul spoke publicly against the death penalty together with the EU after a week in which 14 executions were carried out. As the death penalty in Afghanistan is anchored in both the constitution and Islam, civil society did not defend its position out of fear.

Traditional and cultural practices are often explained and justified by the Islamic religion. Traditional laws can help make people understand that the values of human rights – dignity, freedom, equality and justice – are also anchored in Islam. Such an approach is, however, only a connecting point to link traditional and formal legal structures together. Sound knowledge of the context and the actors involved is important.

Pia Lignell was SDC deputy country director in Kabul, Afghanistan, from 2011 to 2013. Her responsibilities included Switzerland’s human rights programme in Afghanistan. The ethnologist had previously worked as a consultant for the Afghan Human Rights Commission in Kabul. As of 2014, she is the person responsible for human rights at the Embassy in Nepal.
The human rights approach is based on the understanding that in order to eradicate poverty, tackling its underlying causes is central.

Additional Information and Documents

  • Asia Brief
    The Asia Briefing Papers aims to inform the development practitioners and the public about new innov...