The conventional approach to human rights, emphasising the law and legal process for protecting and attaining rights, has been successful in achieving significant social justice outcomes. However, this approach to human rights is also limited and can paradoxically disempower citizens in their struggle for human rights. The law is essentially a top-down process; laws are drafted, legislated and applied, with citizens having very little say in any of these three stages, apart from often tokenistic programs of consultation. Therefore, while human rights remain largely in the legal arena they will remain out of reach, and it can indeed be argued that this represents a denial of human rights, in that citizens are unable to exercise the right to define their rights.

A legal framework for human rights also limits the role of nonstate actors. The law is defined and applied by the state, and so the state becomes the primary actor with responsibility for maintaining human rights. Nonstate actors may be required by the law to respect rights in certain ways, but primary responsibility remains with the state as the definer and arbiter of rights. Nonstate actors are expected to do what they are told by the law, rather than necessarily taking independent action on their own initiative. While rights are seen as located within jurisdictions, rather than within communities, societies or cultures, the state and the law will retain the primary responsibility for human rights.

One particular problem with this arrangement is that the state may be good at protecting and realising some rights, either through law (e.g., workplace rights) or through policy (e.g., the right to health), but there are other rights which are not so well protected, such as the right to be treated with dignity and respect. Here, the state can only go so far in protecting extreme forms of rights abuse (e.g., through racial vilification legislation), but cannot deal with lower-level on-going abuse of that right, especially in the domestic domain. For this right to be protected fully, individuals, families, communities, employers, teachers, and media all need to take responsibility, well beyond what the law can ever require of them. Protection of this right requires a multiplicity of actors, and will only be achieved if there is a culture of human rights, rather than merely legislation and human rights charters and conventions. The same applies to other rights: the rights to freedom of expression, to education, to safety, to security, to resources, to work and to recreation—all require actions by those other than the state and the processes of the law if they are to be fully realised. A human rights regime that is confined to the law is limited indeed.

This, however, questions the traditional approach to human rights, which typically begins with declarations, conventions and charters, and then moves to legislation and compliance, inevitably leading to the dominance of the legal. An alternative, which I have called human rights from below, starts with the human experience, and sees human rights as embedded not in legislation, but in how we treat each other on a day-to-day basis. This is based on the centrality of community if human rights are to be understood in their full sense of the realisation of our true humanity. The link between rights and responsibilities means that human rights cannot be only individual. The lone person on a desert island can claim rights all they wish, but such rights are meaningless if there is nobody to meet the corresponding responsibilities. It is only because of the presence of others that we have rights, and rights only make sense if they are embedded in some form of human community, a community of rights and responsibilities. Hence human rights require strong communities, and human rights work involves community development work.

A community development approach to human rights can start by examining the way we use shared understandings of rights and responsibilities in our everyday lives: queuing at a bank, interacting in a workplace, on a bus, indeed in any place involving interaction with others. Our shared understanding of our rights and responsibilities, and those of others, are not written in any human rights declarations. Rather, they are part of our cultural understandings, so they are rights embedded in culture rather than in a jurisdiction. This can lead to a discussion of what any group might see as important human rights, for themselves and others. Once this is achieved, attention can focus on whose responsibility it is for those rights to be realised or protected, including individuals, communities, families, civil society, various institutions, and the state. The next step is to see how rights can be realised—whether through legal means, through conventional political processes, through consciousness raising within the community, or through social action—to take rights rather than waiting for them to be given.

It is  important not only to focus on the idea of rights, but on the idea of what it means to be human as well. The dominant western construction of the ideal humanity carries considerable baggage, with its individual, able-bodied, gender and racial connotations. To base “human rights” on such a construction of humanity leads inevitably to the limitations that have been identified by feminist, post-colonial and other critics of conventional human rights. A starting point for human rights from below can be a concentration on the human: what does it mean to be fully human and what does it mean to say we are part of a shared (rather than common) humanity? Such an exploration at the community level can involve not only serious discussion, but also stories, music, art, poetry, theatre, and in fact any medium that seeks to explore humanity and the human condition. When understandings of rights and responsibilities can emerge from such community development activities, a richer, more diverse and more grounded human rights framework can be owned by the community, and become a basis for community action so those rights can be realised.

In such an approach to human rights, any professional that is engaged with the community, and uses a community development perspective, is doing human rights work, even if it is not labelled as such. Professionals such as teachers, health workers, social workers, community arts workers, and so on thus become at least as important as lawyers and advocates in human rights practice. Indeed, if human rights are about our humanity, any worker who engages with the nature of the human, drawing on the knowledge base of the humanities in their broadest sense, can contribute significantly to the articulation and realisation of human rights.

Emeritus Professor Jim Ife is the former Head of the Centre for Human Rights Education at Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia. He has written extensively on community development, social work and human rights, and his most recent book is Human Rights from Below: Achieving Rights Through Community Development (Cambridge University Press, 2010).