Debate on human rights vs human needs

Friday, 12 September 2014

What is the difference between "human rights" and "human needs"? According to a University of Adelaide law researcher, language is vital when it comes to human development initiatives and using the term "human rights" has greater potential to accommodate change than the term "human needs".

The United Nations (UN) is calling for universal access to sustainable modern energy services, declaring 2014-2024 as the UN Decade for Sustainable Energy for All (SEFA).

However, Adelaide Law School PhD candidate, Manuel Solis, says this important global initiative is likely to be impaired because its official documentation defines access to energy in the language of "human needs" rather than of "human rights".

"The term 'human needs' has been used in relation to universal access to modern energy services for the last three decades and, despite it being deemed fundamental to human development by the UN, it has not resulted in bold immediate actions," Mr Solis says.

"Research shows that using the term 'human rights' demands action and accountability. And with the establishment of a new focus on this issue, as demonstrated with the implementation of SEFA, it is important that clear and legally-binding language is used in documentation and resources."

Mr Solis says the critical stage of turning the vision of SEFA into reality is a commitment to action.

"Energy is indispensable to providing basic needs, eradicating poverty and meeting sustainable development goals. However, close to 1.3 billion people remain without access to electricity and 2.6 billion are still without access to clean cooking facilities," he says.

"The imperative of developing a coherent and appropriate legal response is vital to advancing an international and national development agenda.

"A 'human needs' approach appeals to charity, while a 'human rights' approach translates need into a matter of entitlement with dignity. Universal access to modern energy services falls within the purview of 'human rights' conversations; therefore, a 'human rights' approach should be adopted in SEFA."

Mr Solis' PhD thesis examines the merits and limits of the language of "human needs" compared to the language of "human rights" in the context of the challenge to enhancing universal access to modern energy services. He received an international environmental law award for a supplementary paper on this topic.


Contact Details

Manuel Solis
PhD student
Adelaide Law School
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 5063
Mobile: + 61 (0)430102202

Media & Corporate Relations
External Relations
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 0814