Human Rights and Social Work

Relation between Human Rights and Social Work 

The United Nations (UN) was established following World War II (1939–45) in June 1945 with 50 member states. The UN plays an important role across the globe in assuring security and human rights for all people. December 10, 1948, marks a very important day in history because the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In embracing the Declaration, 48 nations asserted their strong obligation that all humans deserved to be treated with respect and dignity, and with peace in the world.

{tocify} $title={Table of Contents}

The social work profession shares a close relationship with human rights because it adheres to values such as respect, dignity, and self-determination - values that are strongly embedded in the code of ethics for all practitioners. The client-social worker relationship has long been celebrated. The profession is highly regarded for challenging the inhumane treatment of vulnerable people, its commitment to challenging anti-oppressive practise, and most importantly, ensuring that vulnerable people are given a voice! Human rights are particularly important for social workers when making decisions that concern the future care needs of individuals.

Human rights are "commonly understood as inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being. Human rights are thus conceived as universal (applicable everywhere) and egalitarian (the same for everyone). These rights may exist as natural rights or as legal rights, in local, regional, national, and international law. Social Work is the professional activity of helping individuals, groups, or communities enhance or restore their capacity for social functioning and creating societal conditions favourable to this goal. Social work in its various forms addresses the multiple, complex transactions between people and their environments. Its mission is to enable all people to develop their full potential, enrich their lives, and prevent dysfunction. Professional social work is focused on problem-solving and change.


The term "human rights" refers to those rights that are considered universal to humanity, regardless of citizenship, residency status, ethnicity, gender, or other considerations. “The social work profession promotes social change, problem-solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work”. (International Federation of Social workers, IFSW: 1982)

Social workers should promote conditions that encourage respect for cultural and social diversity within the globe. Social workers should promote policies and practices that demonstrate respect for difference, support and expansion of cultural knowledge and resources, advocate for programmes and institutions that demonstrate cultural competence and promote policies that safeguard the rights and confirm equity and social justice for all people.(NASW,1996: Page27) (These are very similar to Human Rights).

The centrality of human rights in Social Work: They help people undertake a social analysis of where they are now. They are often the catalyst for helping people find and achieve change in their lives. The process of change is through building up trust and the social relationship with the person making that change in their lives.

Social workers adopt a human rights approach by 

a) Meeting and balancing need, risk and human rights in everyday practice,

b) Undertaking professional social work tasks with individuals, families and groups by helping people achieve change and helping people to undertake a social analysis of where they are now.

c) Operating as social catalysts to encourage the process of change via building trust and social relationships with those people with whom they work.

The IFSW position, which states that social work is a human rights profession, is accepted but has raised considerable debate (Ife, 2001). Healy (2008) provides a critical appreciation of this from a variety of perspectives that helps us to understand some of the uncertainties that demand professional engagement and judgement from social workers.


Human Rights are inseparable from Social work theory, values and ethics, and practice. Rights are corresponding to human needs. Have to be upheld and fostered and they embody the justification and motivation for social work action. Advocacy of such rights must, therefore, be an integral part of social work, even if in countries living under authoritarian regimes such advocacy can have serious consequences for Social work professionals.

Social Work: A Human Rights Profession!

It is the core of social work to promote and safeguard a just society and to defend the rights and interests of vulnerable citizens. The current international definition of social work confirms this stance and states that: “Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.”

Social work is neither a value-neutral practice nor a practice devoid of power in addressing issues of injustice and inequality. It comprises essentially a social, political and ethical mission and practice. Social work is a human rights profession! Day after day social workers attempt to combat practices and mechanisms of exclusion of people and contribute to social justice and human dignity.


In recent years, human rights and the accompanying political mission in social work have often been subject to technical and instrumental conceptions of professionalization, aiming at individual support or cultural or social activation. Similar tendencies can be observed in the daily practice of social workers. As a result, the socio-political context of social work became underexposed. Part of the normative dimension of the professionalization of social work is to practice the profession on the basis of fundamental human rights. 

Recent international developments in social work, such as the adoption of a new definition of social work in 2014, recognize that social work is both an autonomous profession and an academic discipline. This new focus on social work as an independent discipline alongside other disciplines may also give new impetus to social work degrees to develop their own perspective in which human rights have a central place.

The International Definition of Social Work states: ‘Principles of Human Rights and social justice are fundamental to Social Work’ (IFSW/IASSW, 2000). The 2004 ethics document is based on the definition and lists Human Rights treaties ‘particularly relevant to Social Work practice and action’. Among the most important are: 

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) (1953) 

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (1966); 

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (1966); 

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969); 

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (1979); 

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) (1989); 

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006);

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union

The IFSW’s Policy on Human Rights states amongst other things, that ‘the Social Work profession accepts its share of responsibility for working to oppose and eliminate all violations of Human Rights. This IFSW International Policy (1988) states: ‘Social Work has, from its conception, been a Human Rights profession, having as its basic tenet the intrinsic value of every human being and as one of its main aims the promotion of equitable social structures, which can offer people security and development while upholding their dignity. 


The Manual for Schools of Social Work and the Social Work Profession (originally published in 1992 and revised in 1994) by the United Nations Centre for Human Rights and the International Federation of Social Workers and the International Association of Schools of Social Work was developed in acknowledgement of the centrality of Social Workers as professionals in the protection and realisation of Human Rights. Further to this Manual, The IFSW and IASSW have in 2010 created a Human Rights website (2010) as a global resource for social service workers. 

The Manual states: ‘More than many professions, Social Work practitioners are conscious that their concerns are closely linked to respect for Human Rights. They accept the premise that Human Rights and fundamental freedoms are indivisible, and that the full realization of civil and political rights is impossible without the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights (United Nations, 1994: 5). 

‘Human Rights are inseparable from Social Work theory, values and ethics, and practice … Advocacy of such rights must therefore be an integral part of Social Work, even if in countries living under authoritarian regimes such advocacy can have serious consequences for Social Work professionals’ (United Nations, 1994: 5).


Principles of Social Work in promoting Human Rights

Human Rights condenses into two words the struggle for dignity and fundamental freedoms which allow the full development of human potential. Civil and political rights have to be accompanied by economic, social and cultural rights.

Social workers serve human development through adherence to the following basic principles:

1) Every human being has a unique value, which justifies moral consideration for that person.

2) Each individual has the right to self-fulfilment to the extent that it does not encroach upon the same right of others, and has an obligation to contribute to the well-being of society.

3) Each society, regardless of its form, should function to provide the maximum benefit for all of its members.

4) Social workers have a commitment to principles of social justice.

5) Social workers have the responsibility to devote objective and disciplined knowledge and skill to work with individuals, groups, communities, and societies in their development and resolution of personal-societal conflicts and their consequences.

6) Social workers are expected to provide the best possible assistance without unfair discrimination on the basis of gender, age, disability, race, colour, language, religious or political beliefs, property, sexual orientation, status or social class.

7) Social workers respect the basic human rights of individuals and groups as expressed in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international conventions derived from that Declaration.

8) Social workers pay regard to the principles of privacy, confidentiality and responsible use of information in their professional work. Social workers respect justified confidentiality even when their country’s legislation is in conflict with this demand.

9) Social workers are expected to work with their clients, working for the best interests of the clients but paying due regard to the interests of others involved. Clients are encouraged to participate as much as possible and should be informed of the risks and likely benefits of proposed courses of action.

10) Social workers generally expect clients to take responsibility for determining courses of action affecting their lives. Compulsion which might be necessary to solve one party’s problems at the expense of the interests of others involved should take place after careful explicit evaluation of the claims of the conflicting parties. Social workers should minimise the use of legal compulsion.

11) Social workers make ethically justified decisions, and stand by them, paying due regard to The Ethics of Social Work – Principles and Standards adopted by the International Federation of Social Workers.

These principles, drawn from the experience of social workers in carrying out their responsibility to help people with individual and social problems, place a special responsibility on the social work profession to advance the cause of human rights throughout the world.


Role of Social Workers in Human Rights

Social workers deal with common human needs. They work to prevent or alleviate individual, group and community problems, and to improve the quality of life for all people. In doing so, they seek to uphold the rights of the individuals or groups with whom they are working.

The value base of social work with its emphasis on the unique worth of each individual has much in common with human rights theory. Social workers frequently operate in situations of conflict and are required by their national codes of Ethics and the international Ethical Principles and Standards to demonstrate respect for all regardless of their previous conduct. Their experience of the impact of social conditions on the capacity of individuals and communities to resolve difficulties means that they recognise that the full realisation of civil and political rights is inseparable from the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. Policies of economic and social development have, therefore, a crucial part to play in securing the extension of human rights.

As a result of their particular role and responsibility in society, social workers are often the conscience of the community. Therefore, the value system, training and experience of social workers require that they take professional responsibility for promoting human rights. Social workers need to work with other professions and non-governmental organisations in action on human rights issues. As advocates for change, they are often at the forefront of movements for change and thus are themselves subject to repression and abuse. The IFSW Human Rights Commission was established in 1988 to support social workers under threat from pursuing their professional responsibilities.


Social Work Practice Meeting Human Rights 

The Global Standards in the Social Work profession identify the core purposes of Social Work in the global context. These clearly show how Social Workers promote the realisation of Human Rights by: 

1. Facilitating the inclusion of marginalised, socially excluded, dispossessed, vulnerable and at-risk groups of people; 

2. Addressing and challenging barriers, inequalities and injustices that exist in society; 

3. Forming short and longer-term working relationships with and mobilising individuals, families, groups, organisations and communities to enhance their wellbeing and their problem-solving capacities; 

4. Assisting and educating people to obtain services and resources in their communities; 

5. Formulating and implementing policies and programmes that enhance people’s wellbeing, promoting development and Human Rights and collective social harmony and social stability, insofar as such stability does not violate Human Rights; 

6. Encouraging people to engage in advocacy with regard to pertinent local, national, regional and/or international concerns; 

7. Acting with and/or for people to advocate the formulation and targeted implementation of policies that are consistent with the ethical principles of the profession; 

8. Acting with and/or for people to advocate changes in those policies and structural conditions that maintain people in marginalised, dispossessed and vulnerable positions, and those that infringe the collective social harmony and stability of various ethnic groups, insofar as such stability does not violate Human Rights; 

9. Working towards the protection of people who are not in a position to do so themselves, for example, children and youth in need of care and persons experiencing mental illness or mental retardation, within the parameters of accepted and ethically sound legislation; 

10. Engaging in social and political action to impact social policy and economic development, and to effect change by critiquing and eliminating inequalities; 

11. Enhancing stable, harmonious and mutually respectful societies that do not violate people’s Human Rights; 

12. Promoting respect for traditions, cultures, ideologies, beliefs and religions amongst different ethnic groups and societies, insofar as these do not conflict with the fundamental Human Rights of people. 

13. Planning, organising, administering and managing programmes and organisations dedicated to any of the purposes delineated above.


Policy Statement of Social Work in Human Rights

Human rights are those fundamental entitlements that are considered to be necessary for developing each personality to the fullest. Violations of human rights are any arbitrary and selective actions that interfere with the full exercise of these fundamental entitlements.

The social work profession, through historical and empirical evidence, is convinced that the achievement of human rights for all people is a fundamental prerequisite for a caring world and the survival of the human race. It is only through the recognition and implementation of the basic concept of the inherent dignity and worth of each person that a secure and stable world can be achieved.

Consequently, social workers believe that the attainment of basic human rights requires positive action by individuals, communities, nations and international groups, as well as a clear duty not to inhibit those rights.


The social work profession accepts its share of responsibility for working to oppose and eliminate all violations of human rights. Social workers must exercise this responsibility in their practice with individuals, groups and communities, in their roles as the agency or organisational representatives and as citizens of a nation and the world.

IFSW, representing the social work profession internationally, proclaims the following human rights as a common standard and guide for the work of all professional social workers:


The value of life is central to human rights work. Social workers have not only to resist violations of human rights that threaten or diminish the quality of life, but also actively promote life-enhancing and nurturing activities. Physical and psychological well-being is an important aspect of the quality of life. The deterioration of the environment and the non-existence of curtailment of health programmes threaten life. Social workers assert the right of individuals and communities to have protection from preventable disease and disability.


Freedom and Liberty

All human beings are born free. The fundamental freedoms include the right to liberty, freedom from slavery, freedom from arbitrary arrest, torture, cruel inhuman or degrading treatment, and freedom of thought and speech. Next to life itself, freedom and liberty are the most precious human values asserting the worth of human existence.

Equality and Non-Discrimination

The fundamental principle of equality is closely linked to principles of justice. Every person regardless of birth, gender, age, disability, race, colour, language, religious or political beliefs, property, sexual orientation, status or social class has a right to equal treatment and protection under the law. Social workers have to ensure equal access to public services and social welfare provisions in accordance with the resources of national and local governments and have a particular responsibility to combat discrimination of any kind in their own practice.



Every person has a right to protection against arbitrary arrest or interference with privacy, and to equal protection under the law. Where laws have been violated, every person has a right to a prompt and fair trial by an objective judicial authority. Those convicted are entitled to humane treatment whose purpose is to secure the reform and social readaptation of the individual. The impartial operation of the law is a crucial safeguard for the citizen in the administration of justice. Social justice, however, requires more than a legal system untainted by interference by the executive. It requires the satisfaction of basic human needs and the equitable distribution of resources. It requires universal access to health care and education, thus enabling the achievement of human potential. It underpins concepts of social development. In the pursuit of social justice, workers may have to face conflict with powerful elite groups in any given society.


Every person whose fundamental freedoms are infringed has a right to support from fellow citizens. The concept of solidarity recognises the fraternity ideal of the French Revolution and the importance of mutual support. Social workers give expression to this through the Human Rights Commission in relation to social workers whose political freedoms are infringed. In their daily practice, they express solidarity with the poor and oppressed. Poverty, hunger, and homelessness are violations of human rights. Social workers stand with the disadvantaged in campaigning for social justice.

Social Responsibility

Social responsibility is the recognition that each of us has a responsibility to family, the community, the nation and to the world community to contribute personal talents, energy and commitment to the advancement of human rights. Those with intellectual and physical resources should utilise them to assist those less well equipped. Social work’s engagement with the disadvantaged is a reflection of that responsibility. No person or collective body has the right to engage in any activity, including propaganda, to incite war, hostility, hatred, bigotry or violence, contrary to the institution and maintenance of human rights.


Peace and Non-Violence

Peace is more than the absence of organised conflict. It is the goal of achieving harmony with self and with others. Social workers are committed to the pursuit of non-violence. Their experience in conflict resolution teaches that mediation and arbitration are effective instruments to overcome seemingly irreconcilable differences. Non-violence does not mean passivity in the face of injustice. Social workers will resist and exercise non-violent pressure for change, but will not engage in acts of violence in the course of their professional activity. Social workers devote their energies to constructive efforts to achieve social justice.

The Environment

Humankind has trusteeship responsibility for the care of the planet. Environmental degradation poses a threat to life itself in some areas, and to the quality of life in many countries. False development models based on industrialisation, the unequal distribution of resources, excessive consumerism and ignorance of the pernicious consequences of pollution have all contributed to this global plight. Social workers need to work with community groups in tackling the consequences of environmental decline and destruction.

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post