Rights Based and Needs Based Response

The humanitarian aid groups I work with are “needs based.”

The advocacy groups I work with are “rights based.”

These are useful frames which mean different things, and while a person can operate with both of them in mind, it is not possible for an organization to operate under both pretexts. Let me explain.

Rights Based

Rights based groups include the United Nations, Amnesty International, the ACLU, HURIDOCS, Islamic Human Rights Commission, and International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. Find more listed on Wikipedia.1

The UN was born out of the aftermath of WWII. One of the things the UN immediately2 did was to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. These include both freedoms from and freedoms to, such as the right to “rest and leisure,” “life, liberty and security of person,” and “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.”3 Sounds dreamy.

From the UN Populations Fund on why the UN decided to go with a rights based, rather than a needs based approach:

an unfulfilled need leads to dissatisfaction, while a right that is not respected leads to a violation. Redress or reparation can be legally and legitimately claimed.

The rights based approach states a baseline expectation of how humans should be treated. However, if a government, group, or individual is violating that baseline, public opinion are used against the perpetrator to change behavior. While countries may base some of their laws on the UDHR, the international courts use them as customary law, rather than anything more rigid.

But what about in unusual circumstances, such as conflict? Rights based organizations do not care about the unusual circumstance–rights are rights–and so rights based groups are rarely “allowed” access to conflict zones, although they may go regardless.

Needs Based

In war, the Geneva Conventions apply, which

are international treaties that contain the most important rules limiting the barbarity of war. They protect people who do not take part in the fighting (civilians, medics, aid workers) and those who can no longer fight (wounded, sick and shipwrecked troops, prisoners of war).

These are also enforced through a special international court called the International Criminal Court.

While there is a neat and tidy list of rights based organizations on Wikipedia, there is instead a category of humanitarian aid organizations. The only organizations founded on the Geneva conventions are the International Committee of the Red Cross and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies which operate under the full set of humanitarian pricinples, including neutrality.4

Neutrality is the hard one which is often forgone by groups which call themselves “humanitarian”5 because of how difficult it is to maintain. It means laying aside a personal sense of justice (related to rights) in order to provide for human needs. It means fixing up the wounds of a militia with the assumption that the wounds of the civilians and the “other side” will also be fixed up.

This means needs based groups are allowed access to regions which rights based groups are not. But if that neutrality is ever called into question it is hugely detrimental to all people in conflict zones everywhere. A needs based organization can never act as if it is rights based.

Making Choices

It is from this background that I asked a question of Twitter about a project I’ve been working on called Do No Digital Harm.

Should the people who help secure an ICT6 network in use by groups in conflict align/organize themselves with/like a group like Amnesty, or a group like the Red Cross? The first allows for a much broader conversation and pushing of an agenda. The latter allows access to places otherwise inaccessible.

As always, one of the key groups I continue having a massive crush on is Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). Even in their founding is the combining of a rights and needs based approach, and though comprised of many fiercely rights based individuals, the organization itself remains needs based and trusted to be neutral in conflicts of all severities.

I’ve talked before (with the amazing Margaret Killjoy) about how humanitarianism needs to be politicized. But that political action can happen by other groups to those which are needs based, in different arenas. We must be strategic in meeting needs while also increasing access to rights in the future.

Footnotes

  1. Bless you, Wikipedia. Have you donated to them, or called your rep about Net Neutrality? If not, please do so now.
  2. well, for them… it took 3 years
  3. If you’d like to feel inspired and crushed all in one go, visit the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner website to see what they’re up to.
  4. Yes, IFRC and ICRC are different, I’m so sorry.
  5. Also sometimes Proselytism because people gonna people.
  6. information communication technology