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Human rights leadership in the sector

By Sanchita Hosali, CEO, British Institute of Human Rights.

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

It’s a running joke at BIHR that I never pass up the opportunity to share Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote about where universal human rights begin – in the small places close to home. For me, the last line of this quote gets to the heart of why leadership on human rights in our communities is so important:

“Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

In my experience, it can seem easier to see human rights as about that larger world without turning the lens inwards and reflecting on what action is needed to uphold human rights here at home.

The potential of everyday power

Our Human Rights Act (HRA) brings universal human rights into UK law. More than litigating these rights in courts, a key aim of the HRA was to help create a culture of respect for human rights. Essentially our HRA means that whenever public bodies are making decisions that affect our lives in housing, education, health, welfare, in local and national government, in a range of care settings, there are a set of legal duties to uphold people’s human rights as far as possible. These are powerful levers for change for community and voluntary groups to help address social injustices in those everyday places, close to home.

Powerful, but underused. We remain some way from that envisaged culture of respect for human rights. But that is also an opportunity, one which leaders across voluntary and community groups can seize. Whether that is the local advocacy and lived experience organisations supporting people recovering from addiction, the group supporting domestic abuse survivors to challenge local housing decisions, or the self-led learning disability group speaking up to get better involvement in local planning decisions.

I often talk about BIHR living in two very different worlds. Nationally, we’ve witnessed two decades of increasing hostility to human rights from various UK governments (having only just seen off serious attempts to scrap the HRA, which now remains firmly the law). Yet, at the community level we work with, so many groups show real leadership in making a culture of respect for human rights happen in their circles of power and influence. These human stories from communities across the UK about how our HRA is supporting people to live with dignity and respect are one of the most powerful tools in tackling governmental hostility.

Some honest reflections 

It can feel like human rights are a natural fit, speaking to sector values, to what we want to see in the world. But in reality, are the organisations we lead really knowledgeable and confident about the HRA? Are we able to use the HRA to advocate with and for the people we support, in our service decisions, or our challenges and asks of those with power? A BIHR research workshop with 60+ CVS groups across the four nations found that 90% rated their confidence to use the HRA at less than 3 out of 5. Yet 90% felt using human rights language was important for their work, and 100% felt it was very important to have access to free human rights support.

Our sector has, for years, been doing more and more with less and less, and now we’re in the midst of a cost of living crisis (in which the HRA could be a useful tool). Yet, those groups who can best use BIHR’s support are least able to afford our services, BIHR being also being a small charity needing to sustain funding. For my leadership, this has really pushed me to structure fundraising around developing programmatic human rights support for voluntary and community organisations, investing core funds to help us pilot the work and build the case.

Leading the change

It’s been hugely impactful work. For example, with Warrington Speak Up and their self-advocates with learning disabilities, we identified need for Easy Read tools that people can use in discussions with officials making decisions about their lives. That also led to working with Photosymbols to develop Easy Read imagery that could be used in our co-developed materials with WSU. Groups across the UK are using both the images and the materials to secure their human rights at local level.

With the backing of the Baring Foundation, the next round of our communities programme is now open for applications to co-design a human rights support solution that will help them put the HRA into practice. We work together, combining our expertise and yours, putting these values into our leadership and collaboration. As Mandy, CEO at Warrington Speak Up shared, the “partnership with BIHR has in itself been a celebration of human rights because it’s been focused on the right of people to have a voice about what is being created.”

And this brings me back around to where I started – the leadership needed to act so that our universal human rights have meaning in the small places close to home. Even in these times of significant political hostility to human rights, there is a positive story we can lead, one in which the community and voluntary sector can harness the power of human rights to make real and meaningful change with and for people in those small places close to home.

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