Words and Power: Language on Human Rights

by Kristen Dunphey //

Being a first time observer of the Civil Society Mechanism and the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Committee on World Food Security (CFS) has been a mind boggling experience. After about twenty minutes in a CSM plenary I came to the conclusion that very little would be accomplished.  And I couldn’t imagine how anything could be accomplished when CSM was thrown into a pool with a high number of member states as well as the Private Sector Mechanism.

When you take into account the quality of words used in these documents, however, stakeholders stand to gain or lose much more then what meets the eye. Additionally, contention comes not only from the specific words chosen, but also the order in which they are read.  Tuesday night (10/14/2014), for example, in the Friends of the Chair negotiation on the Right to Food Decision Box nearly two and a half hours were spent debating the use and arrangement of the four words human rights-based approach.  This is the boiled-down version of events;  for those human rights gurus out there, there is obviously way more to this argument then I am about to go into.

Let’s quickly examine these two statements:

  1. Human rights-based approach; and
  2. Approaches that respect, protect, promote and facilitate  human rights

They seem pretty similar in meaning, right? Not entirely.  When you pick each statement apart there is a vast difference between the two.  While both statements contain the relevant buzzwords, the structure of each has a different significance.

A human rights-based approach is a framework that policy makers can use to ensure the development of policies at the national level that are consistent with internationally agreed basic human rights.  Alternatively, the phrase approaches that respect, protect, promote, and facilitate human rights both recognizes basic rights all humans command, but also validates that other means can be utilized to recognize these rights.  The latter of the two statements in the eyes of many is a watered-down version of the former.

So herein lies the question – what makes one statement better or worse than the other?

A human rights-based approach guarantees that all policies are developed within the human rights framework and that all basic human rights will be respected, protected, and fulfilled.  The alternative only ensures that the concept of human rights has been acknowledged.  There is nothing that definitively glues these policies to human rights.

It has been argued (and I will not name names) that a human right-based approach is not the most efficient way to employ policies and that there are other ways to ensure that human rights are being protected through policy.  I’d argue that policy development especially when it comes to human rights should not be inherently efficient.  Obviously quick and efficient policy making would be ideal, but I fear that rights and thoughtful deliberations will get cut for the sake of efficiency.  There is a reason that policy makers deliberate and argue over the meaning of a single word and even the arrangement of several words.  Intense debate, particularly over things like human rights, is necessary to ensure that all stakeholders are protected and represented in established policy.  Alas, this does not always happen.

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