An orphanage is
no place for a child

Campaign Resources

Rights Based Approach

A 'Rights-based approach' is the foundation of, and gives legitimacy to, the REPLACE Campaign. This section explains:

  • what are our rights
  • who is responsible for them
  • why children's rights are a particular concern for all of us

Download: An Introduction to the Rights Based Approach pdf 500 KB, including an analysis of the Needs Based Approach and the Charity Model.

Rights and the law

At a most basic level, our rights are defined by the laws of the country, or of the society, in which we live. For example, a national law may state that it is illegal to force others to believe in or follow a particular religion. This law gives everyone the right of freedom of religion.

One of the problems that we find when we discuss rights is that many laws differ from country to country; especially those relating to social issues such as ages of consent, marriage and divorce, abortion, freedom of information, freedom of speech and sexual behaviour.

For example, in some countries a person is allowed (has a right) to be married to two or more people at the same time, while in other countries this is a criminal offence that can lead to jail.

Because of this confusion, there have been efforts to gather the best laws from each country and from each society, and bring them together to form an agreed set of international laws, or rights, that apply to all human beings.

International law

Since 1945, the United Nations is the main international organisation and one of its aims is to promote the rule of law at national and international level. The principle that everyone, individuals and governments, must abide by the rule of law is a fundamental concept of the United Nations.

There are many Treaties, Conventions and Declarations that all the countries that are members of the United Nations have agreed to abide by. There is some wriggle room on some of the agreements for some countries, but broadly speaking, these Treaties, Conventions and Declarations form the basis of international law today. They give us our universal rights.

Below are some of the main, or substantive, rights. For a more detailed list, refer to the Conventions and Agreements in the Resources section.

  • Right to life
  • Freedom from torture
  • Freedom from slavery
  • Right to a fair trial
  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
  • Right to equal protection under the law
  • Freedom of association
  • Freedom of movement within the country
  • Right to vote in general election
  • Right to property

Conflicting rights

It is inevitable that some rights clash with other rights and as a consequence a degree of compromise is needed. We have a right of freedom of speech to say anything we want to anyone, but we also have a right not to suffer from aggressive hate-speech from others.

One of the most difficult conflicts of rights is the clash between the rights of parents (to bring up children as they please) and the rights of children to be protected from abuse (physical, emotional or mental) even from their parents.


When national governments sign-up to UN Conventions, they are also agreeing to accept the responsibility, the duty, to ensure that individuals in their countries can live their lives according to those rights. It is also the duty of governments to prevent anyone or any organisation from interfering with an individual's rights.

In Rights-based terminology, governments are regarded as the primary duty-bearers, responsible for making sure that individuals can enjoy their rights, as defined in international law.

Other duty-bearers

Government are not the only duty bearers, most of us are duty-bearers, to varying degrees. Parents have a duty to feed and protect their children. Teachers have a duty to their pupils, doctors and nurses to patients, employers to employees and so on. As individuals, we all have a duty to respect each other's rights; for example, not to steal or murder.

About the only people in society who are not duty-bearers in any practical way are babies, very young children and the disabled, because their ability to carry out duties is limited.

As duty-bearers we are responsible for other people's rights. We must not stand in the way of them and we have to do what is in our power to make them possible. It is fairly evident that we should not hinder other people's rights, but it is less clear what we should be doing to assist others in their rights.

Most people would agree that if we witness an accident, we should offer our assistance. If we see someone breaking into a neighbour's house, we should call the police. If we see someone abusing a child, we should do what we can to stop that abuse. Our power to assist other people's rights varies enormously and depends on our position or role in society.

Many people choose to put themselves into positions of duty, beyond that which is normal for most individuals. For example, a person may choose to visit and comfort the old or disabled, or a person may volunteer to run a youth group. Many people become duty-bearers by proxy, through supporting organisations like the Red Cross.

Other humanitarian organisations, such as UNICEF, are also duty-bearers and have a responsibility to protect and care for others.

How to help

For thousands of years giving charity was the normal way to provide help. Charity is usually defined as giving money or materials to the poor and needy. Unfortunately, this usually left the poor and needy still in need of help. Also, charity usually meant that the donor decided what and how much to give.

If one donor decided that needy children should live in an orphanage, that was their decision. If another donor decided to help a child stay with her or his family, that was also fine. Charity was sometimes regarded as a duty, but it was mainly given through a sense of generosity and benevolence by those who could afford it.

Needs-based approach

In the middle of the 20th century, development programmes embraced the Needs-based approach. This looked at the needs of the poor and channelled help with the guidance of the needy. The Needs-based approach still relied on generosity and benevolence, but it started to include the views of the needy as to how help was given.

One of the problems with the Needs-based approach was that it still maintained the relationship of the generous giver and the needy recipient. It also included the problem of help being given as and when it could be afforded. It placed little or no responsibility on the primary duty-bearers; governments.

Rights-based approach

One of the biggest changes in our social structure is the introduction of the Rights-based approach. Central to the Rights-based approach is the accountability and responsibilities of the duty-bearers.

Development is not regarded as an optional activity, it is deeply embedded in the responsibility of the duty-bearers. Governments and other duty-bearers have a mandatory duty to provide for the rights of individuals. When those rights include such things as education, governments must provide schools and teachers.

The Rights-based approach does not regard schools as an optional facility donated through generosity, it regards education as a right (as agreed by the government) and it must be provided by the government as a mandatory duty.

Other duty-bearers may assist governments, but not in such a way that interferes with people's rights. For example, other duty-bearers may help governments with child welfare, but not in a way that ignores the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines children's rights.

Much of the theory of development today focuses on the accountability of duty-bearers and the education of people about their rights, even going as far to help people demand their rights from governments. This approach works well for adults, but fails when dealing with babies and young children. They are rarely in the position to understand their rights or do anything about them.

Children's rights

It is especially important in today's society that we all feel a sense of responsibility for children's rights as children less able that any other sector of society to look after themselves, especially babies and the very young. By virtue of being adults, we inherently take on the responsibility as duty-bearers to all children, not just our own.

Long-term, positive development

One of the best aspects of a Rights-based approach is the fact that development follows a structured path, creating systemic changes; changes that last. Once-off interventions, based on generosity, mean that the situation can revert back into poverty and need. For example, build an orphanage and it needs to be maintained remains forever. By taking a Rights-based approach, we can tackle the causes of destitution, rather simply deal with the outcomes.

More info about the rights-based approach

The REPLACE Campaign is supported by International Child Campaign

Child Protection Policy in Relation to Campaigning and Website Images (pdf 370 KB)