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Human rights have provided a contentious issue in the social work profession, and have a patchy implementation globally. This is changing as social workers and educators throughout the world embrace concepts of human rights. The International Federation of Social Workers and International Association of Schools of Social Work have incorporated human rights throughout their mission statements. However, while human rights have now become more accepted within social work education and practice, social workers still have to understand what human rights actually represent. Application of human rights to social work policies and practices remains a work in progress.
- Overview of Human Rights and Social Work
- What Are Human Rights?
- Universality and Indivisibility
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- Political and Civil Human Rights
- Cultural, Economic, and Social Human Rights
- Other Provisions of the UDHR
- Challenges to the UDHR
- Covenants and Other Documents on Human Rights
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
- International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights
- Other Important Human Rights Documents
- Human Rights within Social Work Context
- Cultural Relativism
Human rights have recently been prioritized for inclusion in social work education and practice. In this research paper, I describe human rights and argue for their further development in the profession.
Overview of Human Rights and Social Work
The connection between human rights and social work has become increasingly important within the last decade. In 2004, at a meeting in Adelaide, Australia, the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) and International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) jointly made a major change within the international code of ethics for social workers throughout the world by agreeing an ethics document that covered practice, education, and research. This agreement changed IFSW’s 1994 ethics document that did not mention human rights as a social work principle. The 2004 document incorporated human rights as a dominant guidepost for social work policies and practice and turned social work into a human rights profession. These two international umbrella organizations for the social work profession now expect practitioners in their member countries to adhere to human rights principles. Thus, for example, the US-based Council of Social Work Education has required human rights to become part of the social work curriculum that US schools of social work must teach for accreditation (Council of Social Work Education, 2008). Outside the United States, social work educators have also integrated human rights into their works (e.g., Ife, 2008; Wetzel, 1993; Wronka, 2008; Dominelli, 2009).
Why have human rights been recently integrated into the wider social work profession? This integration of human rights with social work may have always been there, without being specifically stated as currently. In the past, social work principles often related to human rights principles, but little formal effort that specifically linked human rights with social work. What is now happening is formal recognition of the strong connection between human rights and social work. For instance, the American social work code of ethics today still does not mention human rights within its ethical statements (National Association of Social Workers, n.d.). Yet, a reading of that code indicates a strong connection to human rights principles. Values stated in the code include social justice, dignity and worth of the individual, and integrity, all of which require reference to human rights. Although human rights have always been explicitly part of contemporary social work, the profession’s international organizations have made this connection formal and explicit in the Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development (IASSW, IFSW, ICSW, 2004).
What Are Human Rights?
One of the major challenges within the social work profession is that of defining human rights. Understanding the meaning of human rights is crucial to social workers using these within their practice. Unfortunately, in today’s world, politicians and government officials often leave out the term human rights when criticizing others for all types of sins, including torture, suppression of political speech, religious discrimination, and gender bias. These acts violate human rights, but social workers’ concerns go far beyond a litany of violations. Often overlooked, human rights include positive rights, like a right to water, food, education, adequate health care, housing, work, clean environment, leisure time, and other important quality of life matters (United Nations, 1948). Rarely do government leaders discuss these equally important human needs within the context of human rights (George, 2003). By failing to connect social, cultural, and economic needs to the overall concept of human rights, governments leave huge gaps regarding the realization of human rights.
Universality and Indivisibility
Human rights cannot exist within a vacuum. They must be linked to an overall goal of how best to manage and enforce these rights. Within this goal lies the notion of universality: Every individual, wherever she or he resides, has a claim to specific human rights principles, which should be accepted as valid globally. Governments should not have the authority to deny an individual their human rights. Rather, governments have an obligation to establish frameworks within which to promote human rights. Problems with universality arise when a government does not accept a particular need as a human right, for example, the United States does not acknowledge medical care as a human right even though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) specifically classifies medical care as one of these – Article 25, UDHR. American laws may require public hospitals to treat individuals for emergency care, but there is no other legal requirement to provide medical care. In contrast, other Western countries view medical care as a right that governments must provide. Some Asian countries reject UDHR definitions of human rights for being embedded in Western concepts that focus on individual, not group rights (Yip, 2005).
Other commonly accepted human rights include free speech, right of assembly, and elections (Art. 19–21). While more and more countries seem accepting of these universal values (note recent developments in the Middle East), differences exist in their interpretation of these. For instance, China has restricted some opinions from being communicated over the Internet; other countries accept greater latitude in allowable content.
Universality does not mean that everyone is alike or should ignore differences. Universality allows all types of diversity and differences among individuals and groups. Its main purpose is to ensure that individuals and peoples everywhere have basic rights within their lives, but not that these will be the same everywhere (Reichert, 2011). For example, European countries fund medical care in diverse ways (Esping-Andersen, 1990).
Within a human rights framework, indivisibility goes alongside universality. Indivisibility refers to the necessity for governments and individuals to recognize each human right and not selectively promote some while ignoring others. International agreement may exist on the definition of a human right like medical care, but a country may refuse to enforce that right. Without adequate health care, an individual may ignore treatment of an illness. Impaired health can reduce an individual’s enjoyment of other human rights, like employment or participation in community elections. The denial of one human right impacts on the enjoyment of other rights, making indivisibility crucial to any human rights framework.
How is it possible to promote human rights when a country can pick and choose what human rights it accepts or ignores? This is a major dilemma within the structure of human rights. Although every country belonging to the United Nations agrees to accept the UDHR as a guiding document, many countries fail to embrace fully all the rights covered by that document. A consequence of the parochial treatment of human rights is the belittling of what human rights mean (MacNaughton and Frey, 2011). Social workers may become frustrated when confronted with entrenched government structures that diminish the enjoyment of human rights. For human rights to have meaning to the profession, social workers have to develop interventions that can overcome obstacles to their realization. Possible approaches for integrating human rights into social work practice are discussed in Section Human Rights within Social Work Context.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Any understanding of contemporary human rights, whether by students, social workers, government officials, lawyers, or other interested persons, has to begin with a thorough analysis of the UDHR (United Nations, 1948). The United Nations (UN) adopted the UDHR in 1948 and requires all member nations to adhere to it. Social workers were involved through Katherine Kendall as IASSW’s representative. The UDHR lists fundamental freedoms and rights that each member nation is expected to promote among citizens and residents.
The drafting of the UDHR occurred with the horrors perpetrated by Nazi Germany in mind (Morsink, 1999). Nazi Germany had labeled numerous individuals and groups as non-Germans, depriving them of rights and benefits granted to ethnic German citizens, with the eventual goal of exterminating non-Germans (Arendt, 1956). While Nazi Germany’s genocidal policies provided the most immediate rationale for universal rules that would protect vulnerable populations, other factors also played a role (Reichert, 2011). Poverty and unemployment had afflicted many individuals throughout the world during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The colonization of African and Asian countries by Europeans also provided fuel for a universal rule against the exploitation of peoples by more powerful ones. The list of issues concerning the human condition seemed endless after World War II. Their discussion produced a broad-based document defining the essential underpinnings for human existence. Given vast cultural and other differences among individuals, finding common needs and freedoms for everyone to share was crucial. The outcome of the ensuing intensive soul-searching was the UDHR. While not perfect, its principles provide a worthy foundation for advancing political and social rights that everyone should enjoy, regardless of where she or he resides.
The UDHR does not contain language that legally binds a nation to enforce human rights. Although many countries have integrated human rights into their own laws, this integration remains a work in progress (Petersmann, 2002). Reference to the UDHR as a standard for acceptable conduct regarding human rights highlights its significance. However, the conflict between the principle of national sovereignty and a state’s duty to care for each citizen results in international reluctance to enforce adherence to the UDHR (Dominelli, 2009).
To understand the fundamental concepts of human rights, social workers should read the UDHR and analyze the document as a whole. It begins by recognizing the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world (Preamble). Human rights should be protected by laws and everyone should enjoy those rights. The UDHR often refers to freedom as an important goal without defining this term. When different cultures and political systems are involved, defining freedom becomes difficult. I argue that freedom in the UDHR does not refer to a Western or American type of freedom, but one that allows for general improvement in social and economic conditions. A common understanding of rights and freedoms plays a key role in realizing universal human rights. Although what constitutes human rights and freedoms can be contested, nations can agree some similarities while acknowledging that differences in interpretations will occur owing to cultural, economic, political, and social diversity among them.
Political and Civil Human Rights
The UDHR lists a number of political and civil rights that all member countries of the UN have accepted as a core foundation for their political and civil rights frameworks (Art. 1–21), and upon which they are expected to construct their political structures. Those human rights include prohibitions against slavery, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, gender and ethnic discrimination, and arbitrary interference with an individual or family’s privacy. Other political and civil rights listed provide the right to asylum, fair legal systems, presumption of innocence against criminal charges, freedom of movement, freedom of expression, fair elections, and peaceful assembly.
However, some countries may interpret these rights in ways that violate the clear intent of the UDHR. Such responses illicit questions such as: Should a country be allowed to detain individuals suspected of terrorist acts for unlimited periods of time without trial or a hearing to examine the evidence of suspected terrorist acts? Should a country be allowed to torture suspects accused of terrorism to extract information that might prevent future terrorist acts? Should previously accepted guidelines defining torture be revised to allow treatment that was previously accepted as torture? Should a country be allowed to execute suspected terrorists without trial or even arrest, as occurs through the use of unmanned drones to kill suspected terrorists? These acts appear to violate political human rights contained in the UDHR. Yet, what enforcement mechanism can prevent such human rights violations, particularly if the accused is a major power like the United States? Various courts may consider individual human rights cases to provide a remedy. But when a country adopts general policies that violate established human rights, or refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court at The Hague, human rights violations will continue. This lack of enforcement poses a significant challenge in promoting human rights.
Cultural, Economic, and Social Human Rights
A second category or type of human right contained in the UDHR involves cultural, economic, and social needs (Art. 22–27). It provides that everyone has the right to social security, education, housing, medical coverage, employment, and leisure time. Everyone also has the right to participate in the cultural life of a community and enjoy the protection of interests resulting from scientific, literary, or artistic creations.
Cultural, economic, and social human rights differ from political and civil human rights in that a community or government will have to be more proactive in insuring their realization. Political and civil human rights aim to prevent governments from discriminating against particular ethnic groups. As long as the government does not discriminate, no human right is violated. However, cultural, economic, and social rights often require a government to provide every citizen or resident with services like health care or education. This can be costly and some governments may lack resources for funding these. Some people contend that economic and social human rights dilute the traditional human rights focus on political and civil rights (The Economist, 2007). This view maintains that food, jobs, and housing are necessities, but not rights that can be violated, unlike a government detaining individuals without a fair trial. This clarity on political rights seldom holds for economic and social rights.
Social workers can question the opinion that economic and social human rights are not true human rights because they will most likely encounter situations where economic and social human rights are at issue. In contemporary human rights, the lack of economic and social rights can be linked to dictatorships in several countries, including Germany under the Nazis. In others, for example, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the United States had to respond to its residents’ economic and social welfare by creating work projects and other economic assistance programs (Sunstein, 2004). Economic and social human rights are difficult to separate from political and civil rights. Neither type of human right should be subordinated to the other, because the deprivation of one can easily lead to the deprivation of other. Additionally, where countries fail to address economic and social inequality, economic growth may suffer (Lowrey, 2012; The Economist, 2012).
Other Provisions of the UDHR
Aside from promoting political, civil, economic, and social human rights, the UDHR encourages working toward a social and international order in which human rights can be realized (Art. 28). Without UN member countries cooperating on international concerns and disputes, human rights principles can easily be ignored. An example of this concept is the failure of the international order to uphold a multinational environmental treaty to reduce greenhouse emissions that affect more than one country. Environmental rights were not part of the UDHR, but social workers are demanding their inclusion (Dominelli, 2012).
Another provision of the UDHR states that everyone has a duty to respect the human rights of others and the community in which the individual resides (Art. 29). Human rights impose duties upon governments and individuals regarding recognition of their importance to the community as a whole.
Challenges to the UDHR
Major challenges to the UDHR concern its enforcement and interpretation. Whose voices are being heard when interpreting human rights? An individual with income in the top 10% of income earners might object to redistributing that income among lower income individuals through taxation. Higher income earners might view those earning less as lazy or undeserving, but human rights are not designed to function in that way. All voices should be heard when conceptualizing human rights. Human rights belong to everyone, not a select group. If someone does not have adequate medical care or food with which to survive, then government and other members of the community should provide that medical care and food. Every individual is responsible for satisfying those needs, but circumstances may prevent the individual from doing so, for example, lacking resources for buying medical care or food. Labeling a person as lazy or undeserving is unhelpful in addressing human rights issues because the structural causes of an individual’s predicament can be ignored. Governments and community organizations should address structural obstacles to satisfying human rights by asking: Why does a person not have adequate medical care? Is it the individual’s fault or are there cultural and social reasons for it? Why does a person not have sufficient food? Is the individual making unwise choices in purchasing items, perhaps preferring lottery tickets or tobacco products over food? Does the individual simply have no income? The human rights mission of professional social work is to examine circumstances behind failure to meet human rights goals and try to remedy these (IFSW and IASSW, 2004).
Even where countries generally agree the interpretation of a human right, enforcement can be difficult. For example, countries may agree that women have equal status to men, but underlying social and cultural norms may prevent its realization. Women may not enjoy the same level of respect as men in holding public office, managing large companies, occupying upper administration positions within education, and any number of significant roles within society. Contesting such human rights violations can be detrimental to women’s career or lives, not to mention the emotional stress of raising objections to entrenched norms. Despite the Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women and others linked to ethnicity, disability, and age, an egalitarian human rights framework can be difficult to create because this would require some people to relinquish current privileges.
No simple answers can confront human rights challenges. However, social work occupies a unique position in educating about and confronting human rights violations. Ethical statements require social workers to educate themselves about human rights and address their violation. This task is not easy, but one that ethical social workers are duty bound to pursue.
Covenants and Other Documents on Human Rights
The UN has drafted numerous documents following the UDHR to provide wider acceptance and guidance on realizing human rights. While there are many, I have space to focus on two key covenants or international treaties that are binding on nations adopting them: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (United Nations, 1976, http://www.un.org/). Many nations have endorsed these covenants and, at least on paper, have integrated these human rights into their legal systems. The European Court of Human Rights requires member countries to adhere to provisions within the UDHR and these covenants (European Court of Human Rights, http://www.echr.coe.int/). The UN does not require member nations to adopt these or any other covenants, and some have not. One notable exception to the adoption of the covenant on economic and social rights is the United States, which refuses to accept various UN covenants or treaties on human rights. Its failure to promote UN documents on human rights or endorse their wider acceptance lies partially within the American legal framework for approving treaties and partly within its political structure where national sovereignty must prevail over UN treaties. Nations that sign international treaties, like the covenants on human rights, must relinquish some control over their legal systems, since they are obliged to incorporate human rights into their laws. American politicians have not been willing to do this and have failed to approve the vast majority of UN human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
The UDHR laid the foundation for the modern era of human rights. However, the UN did not draft the UDHR in legally binding language. To legally require countries to acknowledge and enforce human rights, the UN has proposed various covenants or conventions, which are to have the force of law once a member country had given approval. One of the first major covenants that the UN drafted after the UDHR was the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Its counterpart was the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights duplicates UDHR provisions that address what might be classified as freedom from wrongful treatment by a government. No country may
- torture someone (Art. 7);
- practice slavery or forced labor (Art. 8);
- arbitrarily arrest or detain an accused (Art. 9);
- discriminate against persons on the basis of a status, including gender (Art. 26); or
- interfere with an individual’s right or privacy (Art. 17), freedom of expression (Art. 19), or use of its legal system (Art. 16).
Other sections of this covenant include the right of self-determination among peoples (Art. 1) and the right of minority groups within a state to enjoy their own culture, religion, and language (Art. 27). Countries that agree to follow this covenant must submit periodic reports to a Human Rights Committee as to progress made in satisfying its human rights provision (Art. 40, para. 1).
Social workers can embrace this covenant’s political and civil rights that guarantee that everyone can voice opinions, preserve cultural backgrounds, enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and freedom from arbitrary arrest and torture. They can also integrate these into social work policies and practices.
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights
The counterpart to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. This latter covenant also derives its provisions from the UDHR but focuses on needs or quality of life issues. For this reason, some countries, most notably the United States, do not consider this one as pressing as that on civil and political rights. Unlike many other countries, the United States does not recognize the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights as a valid expression of human rights, and so refuses to ratify it.
The Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights requires that countries provide technical and vocational guidance, training programs, and policies to achieve economic, social, and cultural development, as well as full and productive employment (Art. 6). Women are guaranteed conditions of work equal to those of men, and workers should have a decent living (Art. 7). This emphasis on work is a key part of the covenant, which acknowledges that societal harm can occur through unemployment or unfair working conditions. Some countries may not have the resources to fulfill the work requirements, but, at a minimum, governments should assist residents in obtaining suitable employment opportunities. Other parts of the covenant require states to provide education (Art. 13), food and housing (Art. 11), health care (Art. 12), and social security (Art. 9) to every resident, although many Western governments are pursing austerity measures despite the risks in socioeconomic rights.
Like the Covenant on Civil and Political Human Rights, the Covenant on Economic and Social Rights provides for reports on steps taken to fulfill these rights, but allows states more leeway in satisfying them. This can be an implicit acknowledgment that many countries might have difficulties meeting the covenant’s requirements.
Other Important Human Rights Documents
While the UDHR and covenants on political and socioeconomic human rights form the core of contemporary human rights, the UN has proposed numerous other documents for adoption and inclusion into member states’ legal system. Briefly, these include the:
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, 1979). This aims to eliminate distinctions, exclusions, or restrictions made on the basis of sex, which aim to impair women’s human rights (Art. 1).
- Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1989). Member nations approving this Convention are obliged to recognize the special needs of children and respect their human rights. This convention specifically recognizes the responsibilities, rights, and duties of a child’s parents or guardians in raising the child. No provision of this Convention aims to deprive parents of their accustomed role as the child’s caregivers.
- Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CEAFRD, 1965). This seeks to prevent ethnic discrimination.
- Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD, 2009). This promotes the rights of disabled people.
- Principles for the Older Person (POP, 1999). These have less force than conventions, but can assist in reducing age discrimination.
- Declaration on the Right to Development (DRD, 1986). Developmental rights are contentious, but this declaration helps countries to industrialize.
- Millennium Declaration (MD, 2000). The Millennium Declaration stresses broad goals (Millennium Development Goals) to be achieved by the year 2015, including eradication of poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, ensuring environmental sustainability, reducing child mortality, empowering women, and developing of a global partnership for development.
The adoption of UN documents on human rights coupled with difficulty in their enforcement has led to the formation of organizations like Human Rights Watch. This regularly investigates human rights abuses around the world and provides annual surveys on compliance with human rights principles (Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/). Surveys issued by Human Rights Watch highlight human rights violations in individual countries, and provide annual updates. Human Rights Watch covers practically every country, including Western countries like the United States that seem to place themselves above others in the human rights arena.
The social work profession has much to gain from integrating human rights into its policies and practices. Its review of UN documents on human rights can clarify the issues that directly impact upon a social worker’s education and career.
Human Rights within Social Work Context
The connection between human rights principles and social work policies and practices requires more than a study of UN documents. Social workers must understand the meaning of human rights and develop the tools for integrating human rights into the profession. The IFSW and IASSW have developed and stated the core purposes of social work throughout the world, The Global Standards Document (Sewpaul and Jones, 2004). Those purposes include:
- Facilitating the inclusion of socially excluded, dispossessed, and vulnerable groups of people;
- Addressing and challenging barriers, inequalities, and injustices in society;
- Forming working relationships with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities to enhance their well-being and problem-solving capacities;
- Assisting and educating people to obtain services and resources in their communities;
- Formulating and implementing policies and programs that enhance people’s well-being, and promoting development and human rights, and collective social harmony;
- Encouraging people to advocate on pertinent local, national, regional, and international concerns;
- Engaging in social and political action to influence social policy and economic development and effect change by critiquing and eliminating inequalities; and
- Promoting respect for traditions, cultures, and religions among different ethnic groups and societies insofar as these do not conflict with human rights.
These core activities place social workers at the forefront of understanding clients, their needs, and cultures within which they exist. Social workers should not be passive in this pursuit but should take a leading role rather than a secondary role to lawyers or government officials when addressing human rights issues affecting clients. The IFSW and IASSW documents encourage social workers to adopt more active roles in addressing the many political, economic, and social issues that afflict countries throughout the world. One example of this is community-based human rights advocacy practice, an approach to community organizing that combines theoretical and practice frameworks from law and community organizing in social work practice. Human rights, such as the right to housing, health, and education, are at the forefront of such practice. Individual and community constituents are trained to advocate for entitlements and maneuver within systems to access rights (Grodofsy, 2012). A social worker applying human rights to their practice should first analyze a particular set of circumstances in relation to human rights principles. Questions to ask include: What human rights issues are relevant to the situation? What are the specific provisions in human rights documents that apply? What controversy or conflict might arise from the human rights relevant to this situation? Does cultural relativism play a role in the social worker’s perception of what constitutes human rights?
Another key concept in analyzing human rights within a social work situation is that of cultural relativism. In cultural relativism, all points of view are equally valid, and any truth is relative, with truth belonging to the individual or her or his culture (Reichert, 2011). All ethical, religious, and political beliefs are truths related to the cultural identity of the individual or society. Cultural relativism is appropriate for certain human rights; for instance, language, food. However, others like clothing, art, and architecture differ from one culture to another and maintaining these differences remains important (Pasamonik, 2004). Also, cultural relativism suggests an irreducible diversity among cultures because each culture is unique as a whole, but with parts so intertwined with others that none can be understood or evaluated without reference to the others and the cultural whole, the so-called pattern of culture (Lawson, 1998).
The phrase ‘cultural relativism’ creates confusion when discussing human rights because it refers to a view that all cultures are equal and that universal values are secondary when examining cultural norms. No outside value is superior to that of the local culture. So, for example, if local cultures allow female genital mutilation, the human right prohibiting cruel or degrading treatment cannot prevent it (Reichert, 2011). Such conundrums indicate that like universality, cultural relativism has limits. A social worker should examine the historical background of a cultural practice that appears to violate contemporary human rights principles and ask Which group has determined the cultural practice? Has the decisionmaking process been democratic, with voices from many groups heard in determining it? This analysis will often find that cultural relativism rests on outdated or oppressive foundations.
The social work profession is well suited to integrating human rights principles into its policies and practices. This integration presents many challenges, including lack of government support for their fulfillment. Moreover, enforcement is weak because nations are reluctant to intervene in sovereign nations’ internal affairs. And, cultural relativism can confuse practitioners wishing to act. However, by understanding what human rights mean to particular individuals in specific contexts, and acting to apply human rights to such situations, social workers can confront human rights challenges within the profession. The IFSW–IASSW guidelines are useful in developing this dimension of social work theory and practice.
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