Change that leads to better lives

Human Rights in Advocacy

Katrin McEntee, from The British Institute of Human Rights, discusses why Human Rights needs to be used in Advocacy and how it can be done.


Know Your Human Rights

“The tool helps to ground me back into my role and to ensure that human rights are key.”

Advocacy Awareness week is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate and reflect on the difference that advocacy can make to people’s lives. At BIHR (The British Institute of Human Rights) we regularly support advocates to develop and embed their knowledge of human rights to make sure that people’s voices are heard.

We have recently worked alongside advocates across the country to develop an online advocacy tool which supports people with mental health and or mental health capacity issues to raise human rights issues in a health and care setting. Essentially, we want to enable people with learning disabilities, autism, mental health issues, dementia, brain injuries, and those in similar situations, to be able to know and make use of their human rights. Too often people are on the sharp end of poor decision-making which leaves them disadvantaged; human rights helps redress this power imbalance and gives people choice and control over their lives.

What are human rights?

Human rights embody key principles shared with advocacy such as being treated fairly and with dignity and respect.

The Human Rights Act is the main way human rights are protected in the UK. The Human Rights Act contains a list of 16 rights that belong to everyone in the UK. As part of the Human Rights Act, public authorities have a legal duty to respect, fulfil and protect these rights in everything that they do, including decisions about care and treatment.

The duty on public officials under the Human Rights Act means that people can:

  • Speak up about their human rights
  • Talk to services about their duty to respect rights
  • Work with services to find a solution

The 16 rights in the Human Rights Act are all important, and some are especially relevant when we’re accessing health and care. One right we ALWAYS encourage advocates to become familiar with is the right to respect for private and family life (Article); it has one of the longest titles of all the rights, and that is a clue to how relevant it is! This includes issues of well-being and dignity, autonomy and participation in decisions, where we live, who we have relationships with, privacy and lots more – all the very things that are at the heart of advocacy.

How can human rights be used in advocacy?

Human rights are about a person-centred way of working – making sure that a person’s views, needs and wishes are fully considered. Advocacy similarly strives to make sure that people are heard and involved in plans for their care and treatment.

The Human Rights Act provides advocates with the legal framework to work together with public officials to secure a person focused decision-making process, ensuring that rights are respected, protected and fulfilled. Talking about legally protected human rights can help steer the discussion away from people’s own “moral compass” and help clarify the issues and find ways to resolve them.

In my previous role as an advocate I regularly used human rights language to remind professionals about the importance of remembering the person at the centre of the decision. I found that being able to make clear human rights arguments that encouraged consideration of a person’s own views and respect for their autonomy, helped focus the discussion in a practical way and often reduced levels of confrontation.

Advocates can play a vital role in making sure human rights are considered at the very beginning of a decision-making process rather than once something has gone wrong. By advocating for a rights-based, person centred approach from the very start, the need for court action (which is often a long and difficult process to access) can often be avoided.

In our discussions with advocates, many of them tell us that developing their confidence about human rights has reinforced what they already knew and given them more confidence to use the human rights language in discussions with key professionals and decision makers.

Using human rights advocates have been able to get better outcomes for the people they work together. Jenny’s story is a great example of using human rights in advocacy to make a difference.

Jenny wanted to leave a mental health hospital to visit the coffee shop but staff said she couldn’t as it would not be in her best interests. Actually, Jenny was not formally detained and could leave at any time. Refusing to let Jenny leave meant informally detaining her without any safeguards. Advocates raised Jenny’s rights to liberty with staff and arranged for Jenny to leave to get coffee. This reassured staff about safety. Respecting Jenny’s right to liberty helped her gain control over her life.

How can I find out more about human rights?

Working with advocates (including the folks at ncompass), self-advocates, people with mental health and/or capacity issues, families and carers, we have developed a new online human rights advocacy resource which can be found at

This tool is for people with mental health or mental capacity issues, and those that advocate on their behalf, including formal advocates, families and carers.

Know Your Human Rights aims to support people to be able to speak for themselves or to equip their advocates with the knowledge and practical understanding to be able to make human rights arguments to address an issue.

How was the tool developed?

The tool is based on the human rights resources co-developed from a previous BIHR project in which we worked with 6 community groups across England to support advocates to use human rights for positive everyday change. We worked with over 300 people using services, including people detained in hospitals and care homes, young people and people with learning disabilities and over 600 advocates and practitioners; You can still find lots of our hardcopy resources for downloading or to be posted online, here. Last year we received funding from The Legal Education Foundation to translate and develop these materials into an online, interactive resource that is simple, practical, and available to anyone with a web connecting device.

A vital part of the tool’s development was the ongoing feedback and suggestions from advocacy teams and self advocates in terms of what the tool should look like and include. This feedback, based on advocates’ expertise, has helped us to shape the tool into a resource that is relevant to the very people that use it.

Advocates have responded well to the tool so far. They have told us:

“As someone who is still very much new to advocacy, I think “Know Your Human Rights” is really helpful in terms of the information provided and how visual it is. The layout is great and so easy to navigate. I have been through the tool with a client in mind and I think this would have been really beneficial for him”

“It takes us back to the whole point of our jobs – the human rights principles”.

“As a resource it is fantastic. It is a good way of always having that information on you”.

What is in the tool?

The tool includes information about human rights and flowcharts to support people to identify if their issue is a human rights one and if so how to raise it. It also has a range of practical downloadable resources such as letter templates and accessible mini guides. A key feature is a collection of people’s human rights stories such as the advocate who questioned the unlawful detention of man with mental health issues or the advocate that used human rights arguments to challenge a decision to move an older woman from hospital into a care home.

The tool works on many levels, providing an introduction to human rights for individuals struggling to have their voice heard, acting as a refresher for seasoned advocates confident in using human rights and as a source of practical information for any advocate looking to expand their own knowledge and understanding of human rights.

What next? is now live and we hope that it can make a real difference to you in your role and the people that you work with. We have already heard some great results of using the tool. For example, an advocate who used the flowcharts for discussing human rights with a local authority so that an elderly couple could continue to live together and a parent advocate who was able to use the tool to write a complaint about the treatment of her son in an ATU and received a reply for the very first time.

We want to continue to develop the tool and to keep it relevant and seek funding to support this. We are therefore very keen to get your feedback on the tool including any outcomes from using it. Please feel share the tool widely using #knowyourhumanrights and let us know what you think at

Katrin McEntee, Human rights Officer at BIHR

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