Protecting Human Rights

Speeches Shim


Sexual survivors support group in the DRC
USAID assists women who are survivors of sexual violence in the South Kivu province of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with a combination of psychological and economic support.

Human rights have been significantly elevated and are now advanced as a foundational part of USAID’s development analysis and programming. The 2013 USAID Democracy, Human Rights and Governance strategy includes human rights as a stand-alone development objective and organizes the work into two overarching streams:

  1. Asserting access to basic services for everyone and countering discrimination that may prohibit access to those services.
  2. Advancing civil and political rights, particularly in closed or closing spaces, through DRG sector programming.

The links between rights and development are many and complex. For example:

  • Individual rights are essential for free markets: Protecting individual rights such as the right to own private property and the right to judicial remedy are prerequisites for fostering entrepreneurship, investment, and economic growth.
  • Exclusion stifles productivity: The economic costs of exclusion are profound when huge segments of society are denied the right to contribute to the work force. The OECD estimates that about $12 trillion, or 16% of the global income, is lost annually due to gender-based discrimination that keeps women from working.
  • Discrimination and the suppression of rights are root causes of instability: For example, the now-complex conflict in Syria was triggered when citizens attempted to express their basic rights to assembly and expression only to be met by lethal force.
  • Discrimination undermines critical public health campaigns: The ability to stop the spread of infectious diseases depends on the ability to reach and serve some of the most marginalized and vulnerable groups. Discrimination and stigma hamper that effort, as USAID has seen in fighting diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Ebola.

The first area of work manifests itself across development sectors and also has a strong role in our empowerment and inclusion activities such as our work with people with disabilities and counter discrimination in access to public services. For example, in a country that guarantees the right to education to all but where girls are often excluded or denied access to school, USAID human rights programming might support organizations that advocate for girls’ education programs, while partnering with the Ministry of Education to ensure that schools have the resources in place to support and ensure girls’ education.

The second area of work manifests in the democracy and governance sector and includes work to protect the right of all citizens to participate in free elections and be elected, freedom of assembly and expression in support of civil society and human rights defenders, assisting local actors to document human rights violations and pursue justice, combating forced labor and human trafficking, as well access to justice, particularly in transitional situations, and enhanced transparency of governance systems to realize and safeguard human rights.

In human rights programs and all its work, USAID maintains a commitment to “do no harm,” meaning that USAID’s efforts should not inadvertently reinforce or strengthen discriminatory practices or place anyone at risk.

USAID’s human rights protection programs generally fit in one of three categories:

Environment-building emphasizes strengthening the domestic laws and policies, institutions, and actors that help safeguard against abuses. Programming areas include:

  • Strengthening the capacity of human rights defenders and National Human Rights Institutions
  • Training justice and security sector personnel on human rights norms and practices
  • Ensuring a country’s national laws and policies reflect their international human rights commitments
  • Advocating for institutional safeguards that prevent development efforts from violating the rights of the poor, vulnerable populations, indigenous peoples, and others

Response focuses on contexts where rights violations are imminent or ongoing, but where there are actions that can be taken to help mitigate the impact of those violations. Programming areas include:

  • Security assistance for frontline activists who are under threat Efforts to improve the safe and secure documentation of rights violations, to potentially support future accountability efforts Raising awareness and understanding of human rights violations in order to prompt a policy response

Remedy emphasizes programs that help individual victims of human rights abuses seek accountability or restitutions, and/or efforts to deter future violations. Programming areas include:

  • Providing legal aid to victims of human trafficking or gender-based violence to prosecute their perpetrators
  • Supporting truth and reconciliation efforts in countries that have experienced mass atrocities
  • Helping indigenous peoples seek compensation through formal legal processes in response to having been forced from their land
  • Providing trauma healing for victims of torture and cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment

To learn more about USAID’s work on human rights, read our “Field Guide: Helping Prevent Mass Atrocities,” which highlights specific program examples for preventing, responding to, and recovering from large-scale violence against civilians; or our “Human Rights Landscape Analysis Tool” which serves as a key reference for diagnosing a country’s human rights challenges and opportunities.