Rethinking a Human Rights-based Approach (HRBA) in Security Sector Reform

by Mirko Daniel Fernandez · June 17th, 2016.

Security Sector Reform (SSR) is an institutional development process with an inherent and inextricable human rights focus. Over the years, substantive progress has been made in promoting a rights-based and gender-responsive SSR process. However, we can do better to incorporate a HRBA[1] into all aspects of the SSR programme design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, as well as do better to coordinate our collected efforts to enhance the participation of all beneficiary actors key to the HRBA process. ISSAT’s HRBA Working Group has accumulated preliminary research and experience in this regard to propose some starting points:

1. Gather HRBA lessons identified and experiences in best practices:

There is an abundance of best practices and lessons identified from tested applications of HRBA in SSR-related work that can be collected and shared. This should include experiences from the political dialogue between key actors on human rights risk mitigation strategies.

2. Focus onworking with the decentralised security governance (DSG)framework and use its mechanisms as vehicles for facilitating the HRBA.

DSG mechanisms such as local security councils (LSC)[2] provide key entry points for broad consultation on security issues. LSCs can also be a means of increasing civilian participation and oversight but their impact on human rights needs further research. By shedding light on what we argue is a symbiotic relationship between a HRBA in SSR and the DSG process, the international community will have more evidence-based guidance for supporting local actors. Saferworld’s experience in Kyrgyzstan is a good example of increased citizen participation via an LSC (  

3. Tap into decades of multidisciplinary contributions to developing international human right norms

Jurisprudence established by regional human rights systems, international criminal courts, and UN instruments is incredibly rich when it comes to clarifying the normative elements and due diligence[3] required from security providers when enforcing human rights obligations. The jurisprudence serves as a critical source of qualitative criteria for programme M&E as it contains a plethora of contributing expertise in criminology, gender, law, sociology, and health amongst many others.

4. Develop an agreed upon set of minimum standards for a HRBA in SSR that incorporates UN human rights monitoring strategies

Synchronising HRBA with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ (OHCHR) monitoring strategies will allow national and international SSR actors to be able to rely on tested methodologies and a common language with UN instruments or processes such as the Universal Periodic Review. One way would be to incorporate a HRBA testing system or checklist for each programme component during the design phase based on human rights risk monitoring criteria. This should also allow for stronger harmonisation with the Common Understanding among UN Agencies on a HRBA (

Currently, there is no single or unique way in which human rights perspectives are being introduced, programmed or mainstreamed into SSR processes. Nonetheless, there are important parallels between major donors that underscore the principles and importance of a HRBA that can benefit from a common agreement on a HRBA tailored for SSR.

For further information please refer to working papers developed by ISSAT’s HRBA Working Group:

  1. Working Paper 1: Human Rights-based Approach to SSR
  2. Working Paper 2: Interpreting International Norms for a more Impactful Human Rights-based Approach (HRBA) in SSR
  3. Working Paper 3: The Role of Local Security Councils in a Human Rights-based Approach (HRBA) to SSR


[1] OHCHR Frequently asked questions on a human rights-based approach to development cooperation (2006),

[2] For a helpful video about LSCs see COGINTA,

[3] See State Obligations Regarding Domestic Violence: The European Court of Human Rights, Due Diligence, And International Legal Minimums of Protection by Lee Hasselbacher (2010).

The views and opinions expressed in the following blog and comment postings are those of the authors, and are not necessarily the same views held by ISSAT, DCAF, or their Governing Board Members. 

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