Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the Encyclopedia of Social Work, accessed online. (c) National Association of Social Workers and Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the applicable license agreement governing use of the Encyclopedia of Social Work accessed online, an authorized individual user may print out a PDF of a single article for personal use, only (for details see Privacy Policy).

date: 22 March 2018

Human Rights

Abstract and Keywords

At the heart of social work, human rights are a set of guiding principles that are interdependent and have implications for macro, mezzo, and micro policy and practice. They can be best understood vis-à-vis the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, increasingly referred to as customary international law; the covenants and declarations following it, such as the conventions on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); and reporting procedures, such as the filing of country reports on compliance. Briefly, this powerful idea, which emerged from the ashes of World War II, emphasizes human dignity; non-discrimination; civil and political rights; economic, social, and cultural rights; and rights to solidarity. Only chosen values endure. The challenge is the creation of a human rights culture, which is a “lived awareness” of these principles in one's mind, heart, and body. Doing so will require vision, courage hope, humility and everlasting love, as the spiritual sage Crazy Horse reminds us.

Keywords: social justice, social change, Native American, indigenous people, social work and the law, advanced generalist practice, disability rights, women's issues, history of social work, Jane Addams, international social work, globalization, Social Welfare Policy, African American, people with disabilities

According to the International Federation of Social Work (IFSW), “social work has, from its conception, been a human rights profession, having at its basic tenet the intrinsic value of every human being and as one of its main aims the promotion of equitable social structures” (United Nations, 1994, p. 3), calling human rights, in fact “the heart of social work” (IFSW, 2003, p.1). The National Association of Social Work also asserted that it: “supports the concept that human rights be adopted as a foundational principle upon which all of social work theory and applied knowledge rests … and endorses the fundamental principles set forth in the human rights documents of the United Nations”. Indeed, many of Jane Addams' commitments to cultural diversity, peace, world citizenship, and an ethic of mutual reciprocity presaged what has become a burgeoning global movement to create a human rights culture, which is a “lived awareness” of these principles, not in a mere cognitive sense, but in a heartfelt way, that is dragged into one's everyday life. Human rights may also provide a common language among the helping and health professions, which almost entirely endorse such principles (Wronka, 2007; in press).

The U.N. officially coined the phrase “human rights” in its 1945 Charter. Ideas move people and this powerful social construct emerged from the ashes of World War II, a legacy of the failures of such international conferences as Evian (1938) to stop the abuses of the Third Reich. Many nations feared that attention to Hitler's pogroms might expose their own atrocities, like public lynchings in the U.S., the Soviet Gulag, or Europe's vast colonial empires (Buergenthal, Shelton, & Stewart, 2002). Although government reluctance to implement human rights is still apparent, the human rights movement has become an extremely powerful voice in domestic and world affairs, such that no government today would dare say it is against human rights.

The Human Rights Triptych

To understand human rights, which, ultimately, is the legal mandate to fulfill human need, it is best to refer to the Human Rights Triptych with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the authoritative definition of human rights standards at its center; declarations and conventions which elaborate upon the UDHR on the right; and implementation mechanisms on the left. Briefly, the UDHR, drafted under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, is an historical-philosophical compromise. Since Filartiga v. Pena-Irala (1980) it is increasingly referred to as customary international law, by which all nations must abide. It consists of five crucial notions: (1) human dignity in Article 1, reflecting substantively the Judaic-Christian-Islamic tradition; (2) non-discrimination in Article 2 on the basis of such characteristics as race, gender, national origin, or political opinion integral to those traditions; (3) civil and political rights in Articles 2–21, such as freedoms of speech, the press, worship, and peaceful assembly reminiscent of the Age of Enlightenment; (4) economic, social, and cultural rights, in Articles 22–27 as rights to meaningful and gainful employment, rest and leisure, medical care, security in old age, social protection for the family, special protection for motherhood and children, education, and participation in cultural life, evoking the Age of Industrialization; and (5) solidarity rights in Articles 28–30 calling for a “just social and international order,” duties, and limitations of rights, which would include rights to peace, humanitarian disaster relief, development, self-determination, international distributive justice, the common and cultural heritages of humanity, like the oceans, space, and cultural landmarks (Human Rights, 2006). That rights are interdependent and indivisible is integral to human rights discourse. As Malcolm X stated: “Instead of calling it a civil rights struggle … call it a human rights struggle … giving more of a chance of getting meaningful results … and the moral support of the world” (Sterling, 1992).

On the right there are first the eight major international conventions, considered treaties: Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD); the Rights of the Child (CRC); the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (CMW); the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD); and the Convention Against Torture (CAT). Thus, the UDHR urges “special care and assistance” for motherhood and children (Article 25). CEDAW elaborates that such protections “should be accorded to mothers during a reasonable period before and after childbirth … wherein working mothers should be accorded paid leave or leave with adequate social security benefits” (Article 10). The U.S. has ratified ICCPR, CAT, and CERD, which, according to the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Article VI, must become “law of the land … and the judges bound thereby” (Weissbrodt, Fitzpatrick, & Newman, 2001). Other documents, such as the Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness, Principles of Medical Ethics, Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Genocide Convention, can also inform debates on policies and practices to enhance the quality of life.

The left panel requires periodic filing of reports on progress toward compliance with ratified documents. In a spirit of “creative dialogue” committees have commended the U.S. for its Bill of Rights in regard to the ICCPR calling it a “beacon of hope for humanity” yet expressed concern that one out of four children live in poverty (Wronka, 1995). With regard to CERD the committee noted positive movements in the employment of discriminated groups. Yet, it expressed concern, inter alia, that police violence appeared excessive against African Americans; the majority of jail inmates are members of ethnic or national minorities; and there exists political disenfranchisement of a large segment of the ethnic population (Human Rights Committee, 2000). There are also a confidential 1503 procedure and special rapporteurs on thematic or country issues, such as extreme poverty and transnational corporations. The Human Rights Council, newly formed on March 15, 2006, is now largely the nucleus of standards setting and implementation. Regional organizations, like the Organization of American States and the African and European Unions, also have respective triptychs.

Toward the Creation of a Human Rights Culture

Only chosen values endure. To have a human rights culture, therefore, it is necessary to engage in a shared questioning and create social action strategies that empower people to critically evaluate such principles. Thus, social workers could, for instance, in concert with other helping and health professionals, engage in media campaigns to inform others about them; enact declarations, laws, and bills, such as MA House Human Rights Bill 706 To Infuse Human Rights Standards in State Laws and Policies; create alternative, also known as “shadow,” reports to committees; have readings of documents in commemoration of international days, such as December 10, when in 1948 the General Assembly endorsed the UDHR with no dissent; monitor executive, judicial, and legislative movements toward compliance with human rights; and lobby for a Human Rights Cabinet to coordinate international with domestic initiatives. It is empowering to know, for example, that the U.S. Constitution sorely lacks in economic, social, cultural, and solidarity rights (Wronka, 1998). Certainly, in social work curriculum, human rights can serve as guiding principles for whole-population (macro), at-risk (mezzo), clinical (micro), and research interventions. It is thus extremely amenable to Advanced Generalist Practice requiring proactive and reactive strategies. Some practice examples are, respectively: adding the right to meaningful and gainful employment in the U.S. Constitution (as enunciated in ICESCR); integrating an abused child back into society (CRC); and ensuring correct diagnoses irrespective of race, gender, or class and effective treatments for the client's well-being, rather than the convenience of others (Protection of Persons with Mental Illness) (Wronka, in press).

Indeed, human rights is the bedrock of social justice, which is always a struggle. Humanitarian concerns, for example, not hidden agenda like a country's wealth, resources, or geopolitical location, must motivate human rights activism. And, whereas it is important to eradicate torture, genocide, extreme poverty, the death penalty, and war, ultimately, as world citizens, the debates must be human rights for all. An exemplar may be the great spiritual leader Tashunkewitko, commonly known as Crazy Horse, who said it well: “A very great vision is needed and the man who has it must follow it as the eagle seeks the deepest blue of the sky.” Eagles are famous for their courage, flying straight into the storm for food for their families. Indeed, that is the Spirit of Crazy Horse: “peace, humility, and everlasting love” (Geocities, 2006, p.1).


Buergenthal, T., Shelton, D., & Stewart, D. (2002). International human rights in a nutshell (3rd ed.). St. Paul, MN: West Publishing.Find this resource:

Filartiga, v. Pena-Irala. 630 F 2d 876 (1980).Find this resource:

Geocities. 2006. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. Retrieved July 18, 2006, from

Human Rights. (2006). Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Retrieved July 18, 2006, from

Human Rights Committee on the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. (2000). Consideration of reports submitted by states parties under Article 9 of the Convention. New York: United Nations.Find this resource:

International Federation of Social Work. (2003). Social work and the Rights of the Child. Berne, Switzerland: Author.Find this resource:

Marshall, J. (2006). Crazy Horse (Tasunke Witko). Encyclopedia of North American Indians. Retrieved February 8, 2006, from

Sterling Entertainment Group. (1992). Malcolm X: Death of a prophet. Available from: Sterling Entertainment Group, Fort Mill, SC 29708.Find this resource:

United Nations. (1994). Human rights and social work: A manual for schools of social work and the social work profession. New York: Author.Find this resource:

Weissbrodt, D., Fitzpatrick, J., & Newman, F. (2001). International human rights: Law, policy, and process. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson.Find this resource:

Wronka, J. (1995). On the human rights committee's consideration of the initial report of the USA on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Human rights interest group newsletter of the American Society of International Law, (5)3, 14–16.Find this resource:

Wronka, J. (1998). Human rights and social policy in the 21st century: A history of the idea of human rights and comparison of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights with United States federal and state constitutions (rev. edition). Lanham, MD: University Press of America.Find this resource:

Wronka, J. (in press). Human rights and social justice: Action and service for the helping and health professions. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.Find this resource:

Further Reading

Amnesty International, International Fourth World, & Frances Libertes. (2000). Human Rights Defenders Summit: The final report. New York: Amnesty International.Find this resource:

Claude, R., & Weston, B. (1992). Human rights in the world community. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Find this resource:

Fisher, E., & MacKay, L. (1996). Gender justice: Women's rights are human rights. Cambridge, MA: Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.Find this resource:

Gil, D. (1998). Confronting social injustice: Concepts and strategies for social workers. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

Glele-Ahanhanzo, M. (1995). Report on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in the USA (E/CN.4/1995/78/Add.1). New York: Economic and Social Council, United Nations.Find this resource:

Heater, D. (1996). World citizenship and government: Cosmopolitan ideas in the history of western political thought. New York: St. Martin's Press.Find this resource:

Ife, J. (2001). Human rights and social work: Towards rights based practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

International Human Rights Internship Program and Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development. (2000). Circle of Rights: Economic, social, and cultural rights activism: A training resource. Washington, DC: Author.Find this resource:

Kly, Y., & Kly, D. (Eds.). (2001). In pursuit of the right to self-determination: Collected papers and proceedings of he First International Conference on the Right to Self-determination and the United Nations, Geneva 2000. Atlanta: Clarity Press.Find this resource:

Lifton, R. (2000). Nazi doctors: Medical killing and the psychology of genocide. New York: Basic Books.Find this resource:

Link, R., & Healy, L. (2005). Teaching international content: Curriculum resources for social work education. Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education.Find this resource:

Mann, J., Gruskin, S., Grodin, M., & Annas, G. (Eds.). (1999).Health and human rights. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Minkowitz, T., Galves, A., Brown, C., Kovary, M., & Remba, E. (2006). Alternative report on forced drugging, forced electroshock, and mental health screen of children in violation of Article 7. Retrieved September 21, 2006, from

Prokosch, M., & Raymond, L. (2002). The global activist's manual: Local ways to change the world. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press.Find this resource:

Reardon, B. (1995). Educating for human dignity: Learning about rights and responsibilities, a K-12 teaching resource. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Find this resource:

Reichert, E. (2003). Social work and human rights: A foundation for policy and practice. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

Reichert, E. (2006). Understanding human rights: An exercise book. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.Find this resource:

Reichert, E. (in press). A reader in human rights and social work. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

Sharp, G. (2005). Waging nonviolent struggle: 20th century practice and 21st century potential. Boston: Porter Sargent.Find this resource:

Steiner, H., & Alston, P. (2000). International human rights in context: Laws, politics, morals. (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

United Nations. (1989). The ABC's of teaching human rights. New York: UNESCO.Find this resource:

United Nations Development Program. (2005). Human development report: International cooperation at a crossroads: Aid, trade and security in an unequal world. New York: Author.Find this resource:

Weissbrodt, D., Fitzpatrick, J., Newman, F., Hoffman, M., & Rumsey, M. (2001). Selected international human rights instruments and bibliography for research on international human rights law. (3rd ed.). Cincinnati: Anderson.Find this resource:

Wronka, J. (1993). Science and indigenous cultures. Humanistic Psychologist, 21, 341–353.Find this resource:

Wronka, J. (1998a, Summer). A little humility, please: Human rights and social policy in the United States. Harvard International Review, 20(3), 72–75.Find this resource:

Wronka, J. (2001, July). Human Rights House Bill No. 850: A request for support. NASW News, 46(7), 4.Find this resource:

Wronka, J. (2002). On the theme creating a human rights culture: The Dr. Ambedkar lectures. Bhubenaswar, India: National Institute of Social Work and the Social Sciences Press.Find this resource:

Wronka, J. (2004). Human rights and advanced generalist practice. In A. Roy and F. Vecchiolla (Eds.), Thoughts on advanced generalist education: Models, readings, and essays (pp. 223–242). Peosta, IA: Eddie Bowers.Find this resource: