Skip to content

The importance of a holistic approach to human rights

To mark International Human Rights Day, we hear about some of A&O’s work on economic, social, cultural and collective human rights.

On Saturday 10 December, we marked International Human Rights Day — the day the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Over the course of the coming year, in the run up to the 75th anniversary, the UN is running a campaign to demonstrate the legacy and continued importance of the Declaration. Even though many human rights have become more secure around the world, in recent years those rights have, as the UN says, been “under a sustained assault”.

Emphasising the connection between all human rights – individual and collective – helps to combat this assault, and is something A&O’s Human Rights Working Group has been involved with for some time, working on a number of projects that lead to a more complete interpretation of human rights.

The evolution of the legal concept of human rights

Broadly, civil and political rights – often referred to as ‘first generation’ human rights – are long established. So-called ‘second generation’ human rights are social, economic and cultural – like the right to an education, employment, a place to live, and freedom from discrimination.

Collective rights are often termed ‘third generation’ rights as they are the most recent area of focus and refer to solidarity and the collective rights of societies and communities – for example indigenous people or those impacted by environmental change.

But the concept of ‘generations’ can risk implying something of a hierarchy, when in reality the effective interpretation of human rights relies on a more holistic approach.

Securing Forest Peoples’ land rights

A&O’s work with the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) is an example of collective rights advocacy creating openings for broader rights protection.

FPP is an organisation that works to secure the rights of forest peoples around the world to their lands and livelihoods. In 2021, the A&O Foundation’s Global Grants Programme awarded FPP £150,000 over three years.

The grant supports the FPP’s Strategic Legal Response Centre. Among other work, the Centre has been offering support to the Ogiek Community of the Mau Forest in Kenya, a 50,000-strong community who have experienced repeated evictions over the last 100 years by the colonial government and now the Kenya Forest Service.

Following a lengthy legal battle, in 2017 the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights passed judgment in favour of the Mau Ogiek and FPP has since been supporting the community in their reparations claim for the persecution they have suffered.

In June 2022, the African Court delivered its reparations judgment, which set a significant precedent in recognising indigenous peoples’ collective title in Africa. It ruled that the protection of rights to land and natural resources includes the right to undisturbed possession, use and control of that property, and requires the Ogiek’s full participation – in accordance with the principle of free, prior and informed consent – in the implementation process.

In addition to the Global Grants funding, an international A&O team, led by London counsel Naomi Briercliffe, has supported the Mau Ogiek case with pro bono research looking into progressive practices for forest conservation and examples of community-owned protected areas. 

Nina Braude, a senior associate in Johannesburg, has also been closely involved with the research. “We were specifically looking for good practice examples of community conservation efforts and forest management on inalienable land owned by indigenous communities, including land subject to indigenous land rights,” Nina says.

“We hope the examples identified will provide a sound basis for FPP’s support of the Ogiek people in the realisation of their rights recognised by the African Court.”

Access to education for girls

Access to education – a key second generation right – has been a focus of A&O’s pro bono and community investment work for many years. Recently, A&O has been working with Malala Fund, the organisation founded by education activist Malala Yousafzai, on access to education for girls around the world.

Through our relationship with the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice in the U.S., a team from eight offices across the U.S., Europe and APAC, together with local firms around the world, has produced a major report into girls’ rights to an education under international law.

Led by Frankfurt partner Anna Masser, the team looked at the extent to which the rights conferred under international law have been implemented in 17 countries where girls’ access to education is limited.

“The report was very useful in highlighting which of the 17 countries Malala Fund could most effectively direct its efforts towards,” Anna says, “to open discussions with governments that might lead to practical steps towards progress.”

One of the countries covered was Afghanistan, which at the time of the research was in the midst of the Taliban takeover. This meant the situation around girls’ education was changing almost daily, Anna says.

During this period, A&O was also actively working with organisations in Afghanistan to find paths to safety for those trying to flee the country (read about A&O’s work in Afghanistan here).

This led the team to think about ways to join up relationships with organisations and individuals on the ground – those staying in the country long term and Afghans who held education-related positions prior to the Taliban takeover – to work together to protect girls’ access to education.

“In many countries it’s very hard for girls to go to school because of conflict, poverty, discrimination, lack of facilities – but Afghanistan is one of a few places where it can literally be a life or death situation,” Anna says.

“We hope that the full report will help to create change in all 17 countries, but we saw an opportunity to collaborate with Malala Fund on Afghanistan, to see what more we can do to help.”

The economic, social and cultural rights of Black people in the UK

Also in the area of second generation rights, A&O has been involved in setting up the Black Equity Organisation (BEO), providing financial support as well pro bono advice around its launch in May 2022.

BEO was founded by a number of influential Black leaders in the UK in an attempt to tackle the racial inequalities highlighted again by the murder of George Floyd, and to advance justice and equity for Black communities.

One of BEO’s first projects has been to respond to a call for evidence from Just Fair, an organisation commissioned by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission to prepare a report on economic, social and cultural rights.

An A&O team in London has supported BEO in gathering evidence outlining the needs and experiences of the UK’s Black population. Published in September, the report raises concerns about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and cost of living crisis on pre-existing poverty and structural inequalities for Black communities.

Compounding this are the multitude of barriers that Black people, including children, face in achieving equity of opportunity and economic empowerment.

As Shameem Ahmad, Director of Advocacy at BEO, says: “Our evidence shows that the UK’s Black population face a real threat to realising their economic, social and cultural rights.

“They experience higher rates of poverty than most other ethnic groups, as well as racial and social class barriers in employment. Students also face high levels of discrimination and mislabelling within the education system – to name just a few findings from our research,” she says.

“A&O’s team – Sarah Morreau (senior associate), Aditi Kapoor (pro bono manager and lawyer) and Makeda Brown (trainee) – reviewed a myriad of material and helped us draft a powerful response to Just Fair’s call for evidence.”

Read more about A&O’s pro bono and community investment work here.