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date: 22 February 2018

Human Rights and Social Work in Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

Abstract and Keywords

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) affirms a social worker’s responsibility to social change and social justice on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed peoples (NASW, 2008). Because of this directive around social justice, it is the profession’s responsibility to make connections between individual human rights issues within the broader social, economic, and cultural context that creates conditions where injustice can take place. This article attempts to illustrate how social workers in the twenty-first century must be able to recognize and emphasize human rights in their practice on a local, national, and international level. The article also shows the need for social workers to be the catalyst bringing attention to the need to craft solutions to human rights violations that take into account global human rights standards.

Keywords: social justice, oppressed people, cultural context, human rights violations

An Overview of Human Rights

Some ask, “Why should anyone seek a part in the struggle to end the injustice and ugliness of our modern life? Why choose the strenuous life?” They are the lotus-eaters, who prefer to live in a gray twilight in which there is neither victory nor defeat. It is impossible for them to understand: that to have had a part in the struggle—to have done what one could—is in itself the reward of effort and the comfort in defeat.

—Abbott, 1930

As Grace Abbott so succinctly stated some 70 years ago, the magnitude of injustices around the world was and still is ugly. No subject or topic stirs the national and international debate more than human rights; since the beginning of recorded history, people have been concerned with the concepts of what is right and just as it relates to interpersonal relationships—how do we treat our fellow man? The belief that everyone, by virtue of her or his humanity, is entitled to certain rights is fairly new; however, its roots lie in earlier tradition and documents of many cultures. Human rights are all around us, and they provide insight into our relations with other people. They (should) cause individuals to question the “value of individual life, life lived with others, and what it means to be truly human” (Lauren, 2011, p. 1). Human rights provide a better understanding of how other people should be treated and what they deserve simply because they are humans.

Based on ancient texts and anthropological evidence, we can reasonably assert that through much of history, people acquired rights and responsibilities through their membership in one of several primary groups, such as family, state, religion, and so on. Evidence also points out that, in order to live in a group, we need rules of conformity, and most societies had rules stressing civility and respect for each other. For example, the morality found in all of Buddhism’s teachings can be summarized in three simple principles: to avoid evil; to do good, and to purify the mind. One of the most important injunctions attributed to Buddha is to “act in such a way, as if it were happening to yourself.” These edicts are very close to the Western religious principles of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” These principles also found their way into the teachings of the world’s newest religion: Islam. Mohammed is quoted as saying “Kindness is a mark of faith, and whoever has not kindness has not faith” (as quoted by Khwajah Kamal al-Din in Al-Islam [1926], p. 47).

In various texts, be it the Hindu Vedas; the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi; the Bible; the Quran (Koran); the Analects of Confucius; the codes of conduct of the Inca, Aztec, or the Iroquois Constitution, there is evidence that most societies had systems in place to care for the needs of their members. These systems of propriety and justice may be taken as precursors to the modern concept of human rights.

Human rights advocacy, as an international movement, was a reaction by nation states against the atrocities against noncombatants during World War II and especially the Holocaust launched by the Nazi regime. The Holocaust was one of the most barbarous acts ever to occur, and targeted specific ethnic and racial groups for genocide. According to Lauren,

The magnitude of suffering, brutality, and genocide during World War II, in particular, created a consciousness about the extremes of cruelty so horrendous, in the words of those who lived through it, as to “outrage the conscience of mankind.” This awareness … created a force of global scale on behalf of international human rights that refused to be denied (Lauren, 2011, p. 3).

The innocent loss of life and other horrors associated with the events of World War II instilled in many a desire to see that everyone would be afforded equal rights and that no one would have to endure the inhumane treatment that so many had during this war. It was only during and immediately after World War II that the United States was brought to the forefront of human rights advocacy after a period of isolationism (Lauren, 2011).

It should not be forgotten though, that there were international human rights movements prior to the Nazi’s inhumane treatment and extermination of over six million Jews, Sinti and Romani (gypsies), people of African descent, homosexuals, and persons with disabilities. Specifically, there were efforts in the nineteenth century to prohibit the slave trade and to limit the horrors of war. In 1919, the International Labor Organization (ILO) was founded to oversee treaties protecting workers’ rights, including health and safety. The League of Nations was formed to prevent war and to offer protection for certain minority groups who experienced persecution after World War I. However, the League of Nations never achieved its worthwhile goals. It foundered primarily due to several factors: (1) the United States refused to join, (2) it failed to prevent Japan’s invasion of China and Manchuria (1931), and (3) Italy’s attack on Ethiopia (1935). The beginning of World War II marked the formal demise of the League. Although the League failed, it gave hope that modern nation-states could work together, and with the atrocities of World War II as a backdrop, governments committed themselves to establishing the United Nations (UN).

As originally conceived, the primary mission of the UN would be to bolster international peace and prevent conflict. People wanted to ensure that never again would anyone be unjustly denied life, freedom, food, shelter, and nationality. The essence of these emerging human rights principles was captured in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union address when he spoke of a world founded on “four essential freedoms”: freedom of speech and religion and freedom from want and fear. There were calls from across the globe for human rights standards to protect citizens from abuses by their governments, standards against which nations could be held accountable for the treatment of those living within their borders. These voices played a critical role in the formulation of the United Nations Charter in 1945. After the Second World War, the UN decided that the Charter itself did not sufficiently emphasize the importance of universal, individual human rights and created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) to meet that need (Lauren, 2011).

At this juncture it should be mentioned that the UDHR is part of the broader International Bill of Human Rights, which also includes two treaties: the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESR), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The ICCPR, which has been signed and ratified by most countries in the world, including the United States, expands on the UDHR in the areas of freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, as well as electoral rights and rights to due process and fair trials. The ICESR, which expands on the rights to health, education, and an adequate standard of living, as well as certain labor rights, has been signed and ratified by most major countries except for the United States and South Africa. The United States’ refusal to ratify the ICESR was due to the reluctance to admit that issues such as health, education, and living wages were rights guaranteed to all citizens. Similar arguments can be made regarding South Africa. Both the United States and South Africa had long histories of denying rights to people of color. As Gunnar Myrdal stated in his seminal work, An American Dilemma:

Though our study includes economic, social and political race relations, at bottom our problem is the moral dilemma of the American—the conflict between his moral valuations of various levels of consciousness and generality. The “American Dilemma,” referred to in the title of this book, is the ever-raging conflict between, on the one hand the valuations preserved of the general plane which we shall call the “American Creed,” where the American thinks, talks and acts under the influence of high national and Christian precepts and on the other hand, the valuations on specific planes of individual and group living, where personal and local interests; economic, social and sexual jealousies; considerations of community prestige and conformity; group prejudices against particular persons or types of people; and all sorts of miscellaneous wants, impulses, and habits dominate his outlook. (Myrdal, 1944, pp. 7–8)

It is ironic that the United States was a leading proponent for human rights on the world stage while denying basic rights to its citizens at home. This paradox between the ideal and the real was the motivation behind the human and civil rights movements led by Gandhi in India, King in the United States, and Mandela in South Africa. These individuals placed their lives on the line in the struggle for basic human rights for all.

Economic Human Rights Abuses and Concerns in the United States

While the debate around social welfare and entitlements is common in the modern political landscape, the human rights implications of these issues are not as common. Certainly, advocates for the poor and needy will raise the issue; the Kensington (Pennsylvania) Welfare Rights Union (KWRU) has led the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC) in the United States for years, arguing that restrictive policies around social welfare, like the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, are violations of the UDHR (PPEHRC, 2012). This Act established the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, replacing an entitlement, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), with a bloc grant to states that requires mothers to join the workforce. This requirement subjects children of single parents to often inadequate, poor, and even harmful child care. Concern for dependent children has been a national issue since the first White House Conference on Children in 1909 under President Theodore Roosevelt. Over time, what started out as children’s benefits became entangled in arguments over the definition of “deserving” versus “undeserving” mothers.

The work ethic is a value that undergirds TANF. However, its implementation is a punitive approach in the absence of jobs that pay a living wage. Work was also a focus in the New Deal, that is, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration and the National Youth Administration, which provided for unemployment and human capital improvement when many were poor and unemployed during the Great Depression.

Has the reform of welfare (AFDC) worked? Caseloads have decreased, but the poverty rate has only shown slight declines. Noted poverty and employment economist Sheldon Danziger stated that many people who left welfare for work remain poor: “Economic hardship remains high because given their human capital and personal characteristics, many former, as well as current, welfare recipients have limited earning prospects in a labor market that increasingly demands higher skills” (Danziger, 2001, p. 14).

Day and Schiele (2012) make the argument that the work ethic validated the New World’s conquest, the rape of native cultures and slavery as a means to wealth and power and today justifies our society’s “meanness” in terms of social programs; the harsh TANF regulations, reductions in social programs, and refusal to deal with health and nutrition, unemployment and movement of jobs to other countries and so on. (Day & Schiele, 2012, p. 478)

But economic human rights violations in the United States are simply not taken as seriously as violations of other types of human rights, at home or abroad. It is imperative that social workers, as they work with individuals and families in their times of need, also grapple with policy matters like Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA) and its impact on children, families, and communities. Social workers must not lose sight of the broader human rights implications of their work. Educational programs must prepare practitioners to think about economic and political issues that affect practice (deMause, 2012).

In the United States, human rights are seen primarily within the context of civil liberties; much has been written about the United States and human rights violations after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. A recent study by Goderis and Versteeg (2012) found a systematic increase in human rights violations by the United States and its allied nations in the years since September 11. They note that while the United States has been trying to protect its citizens from future terrorist attacks, they have often violated the rights of their own citizens and noncitizens outside the United States as well (Goderis & Versteeg, 2012). Their article illuminates how issues surrounding civil liberties, incarceration, and due process are viewed in the context of human rights. Civil liberties violations are synonymous with issues of human rights, while issues concerning social welfare are viewed in the context of deserving or undeserving poor, not global human rights standards. Social workers in the United States, like their international counterparts, must focus on the human rights of the individual with respect to social welfare and a basic standard of living in the United States as laid out by the UDHR.

As we have shown, while the concept of human rights in some form certainly existed before 1948, the UDHR and accompanying treaties have legitimized and codified human rights for the world. Though not all of the member states of the UN General Assembly voted for the UDHR at the time (eight members of the 56 abstained due to concerns around social rights), it is broadly seen now as the most basic standard that all individuals, groups, and countries can point to in the area of human rights (Human Rights Watch, 2011). The 30 articles of the UDHR include such broad rights as the right to nationality; freedom of movement; freedom to marry between a man and a woman; right to own property; and a right not to be tortured or arbitrarily arrested, deported, or exiled (UDHR, 1998).

However, it is Article 25 that is of most interest to social workers. Article 25 corresponds with the historical purpose of social work, a twentieth-century profession, because it is the section that deals with basic needs of individuals, families, and communities that social work was developed to address.

Article 25 states:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (UDHR, 1998)

The United Nations Centre for Human Rights and the International Federation of Social Workers and the International Association of Schools of Social Work have stated:

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 enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. (United Nations, 1994, p. 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, p. 5)

Here in the United States, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) placed human rights in the forefront of their Code of Ethics, and stated:

Social workers should not practice, condone, facilitate, or collaborate with any form of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, political belief, religion, or mental or physical disability.

Social workers should act to prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person, group, or class on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, political belief, religion, or mental or physical disability (NASW, 2003a).

Though human rights have been endorsed by governments and professional organizations globally, the champions of human rights have most often been citizens. In particular, social workers and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have played a primary role in focusing the international community on human rights issues. For example, NGO activities surrounding the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, drew unprecedented attention to serious violations of the human rights of women. NGOs such as Amnesty International, the Antislavery Society, the International Commission of Jurists, the International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs, Human Rights Watch, Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Survivors International monitor the actions of governments and pressure them to act according to human rights principles.

Although social workers are not the only professionals in the world concerned with human rights, the social work profession is positioned at an interesting and important nexus of individual interactions at the baseline neighborhood level and macro practice that views problems like human rights violations within larger communities from a wider and more comprehensive lens. Though many modern social workers focus on individuals within the environmental context, as distinct from the community per se, they are nonetheless uniquely positioned to take up issues related to human rights, and in fact it is the responsibility of social workers to make connections between individual violations of human rights with broader social, economic, and cultural forces that helped create the environment where human rights abuses can take place.

The role of the social worker in the twenty-first century is to go beyond human needs and recognize human rights in day-to-day practice on a local, national, and international level. Social workers should work to meet the individual need, while developing a practice that challenges the societal conditions that diminish their clients’ human rights, and at the same time develop and support initiatives that resist oppressive structures that deny basic political and economic rights. NASW has stated that the association:

promotes equal protection under the law, and strongly supports the full implementation of existing civil rights legislation and its application to women; to people of color; and to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people. And, because we believe that everyone is entitled to equal opportunity—regardless of age, disability, gender, language, race, religion, or sexual orientation—NASW endorses local, state, and federal policies and programs that give all people equal access to the resources, services, and opportunities that they require (NASW, 2003b).

A reading of the above statement leads to the conclusion that the NASW (like the International Federation of Social Workers) supports the adoption and implementation of human rights as a mainstay of the organization and the profession (Asamoah, Healy, & Mayadas, 1997; NASW, 2003c; Wetzel, 1993, 1998). On a global scale, human rights violations have often occurred, not only between the individual and the State, but also in the collision of modern, Western, political, social, and economic forces and traditional, localized ways of living in non-Western and less-developed countries. What was once seen in much of the twentieth century as a primarily two-dimensional Hobbesian battle between the right of the individual and laws that govern the individual is now a multidimensional conflict that must take into account American and Western European–led neo-liberal philosophies clashing with traditional religions and ways of being. This change in global human rights conflict, relatively new in the last 30 years, complicates how social workers and other professionals who advocate social justice approach issues of human rights; while principled positions against human rights violations may be voiced, there is a need to understand the context of the global changes occurring in recent decades in order to truly act in the best interest of individuals and communities that need professional attention or intervention. To make this point more salient, several recent examples where this conflict is occurring are noted below.

Human Rights and Conflicts of Culture: Recent Examples

As mentioned above, there is a need to understand the context of the global changes in order to act in the best interest of individuals and communities. For example, the shooting in 2012 of 15-year-old Pakistani girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai by the Pakistani Taliban has caused global outrage and increased attention on the issue of children’s right to access education, regardless of gender. People from the pop singer Madonna to former First Lady Laura Bush have condemned the attack and called for prosecution of the attackers. The attack and subsequent controversy led Gordon Brown, former British prime minister and the new United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, to start a petition concerning this issue that has three demands:

  • - We call on Pakistan to agree to a plan to deliver education for every child.

  • - We call on all countries to outlaw discrimination against girls.

  • - We call on international organizations to ensure the world’s 61 million out-of-school children are in education by the end of 2015. (A World at School, 2012)

While these are certainly laudable goals, the Taliban and similar religious conservative organizations are not the primary reason that children are not attending school across the globe, and it is certainly not solely about the clash between local and regional values and global human rights. The primary reason that children do not attend school is poverty—poverty in their family that necessitates a job for the child, poverty in a community that cannot provide education for children at a certain age for free, or general poverty (Julius & Bawane, 2011; Munene & Ruto, 2010). If children must do menial jobs, sell items on the side of the road, or scavenge in the local landfill to help provide for their family, they will do it; they may not quit school automatically once they have to work, but children who do work are much less likely to finish schooling (Edmonds & Pavcnik, 2005).

What are the conditions that create this kind of poverty on a global scale? What economic, political, and social forces create an economic situation for a family where a child must spend all day knee-deep in refuse, looking for anything of value to be traded or sold so that the family does not starve that evening? The answer to this question is significantly more complicated than focusing on the Taliban or another globally unpopular conservative political force. However, it is clear that the child who has to skip school to work on the family farm or family business does not even have a seat anywhere near the table where global economic decisions are made. It is the role of social workers to become informed advocates and start the process of reducing the gap between the client suffering from poverty and the people that make decisions affecting the global economy.

Gender Equality in Education

Malala Yousafzai’s situation did not have to happen if other nations had been proactive in trying to fulfill the goals of the Education For All movement (EFA). This movement began at the Jomtien Conference in Thailand, where 157 countries signed the World Declaration on Education For All (Unterhalter & Brighouse, 2007). Subsequently, at the Millennium Summit of the UN, two goals were set for the realization and implementation of this declaration: first, the member states would attempt to achieve gender equity in education by 2005; and, second, they would ensure that Education For All would be achieved by 2015 (Unterhalter & Brighouse, 2007). These agreements have certainly resulted in positive change in both developing and industrialized nations, but the EFA movement and other attempts at providing education for disadvantaged groups have illuminated the complexity of what true social justice in education looks like.

Why is an African American male more than four times as likely to drop out of school as his white counterpart in the United States? Why is there a national debate in the United States over whether English as a second language should be taught in the school system when a significant number of public school students speak a language that is not spoken at school? On the international stage, why are girls and young women denied even the basics of an education, in many instances, under the threat of death? In the push for universal human rights, the role of education cannot be overlooked. Unfortunately, education is an area where many in the United States and several other countries have not fared well. The problem is extremely salient among girls in many countries around the globe. Unless leaders rethink the current educational policies, many girls will continue to be unprepared to participate fully in the new technologically driven world.

Looking for deeper and more expansive answers to global questions does not take away any blame or accountability from groups like the Taliban or others for violating the rights of girls in Pakistan or anywhere else for that matter. But local or global social work practice in the area of human rights should be a constant search for an analysis of the issues and concerns at hand as well as a critical analysis of the “universally” accepted solution to the problem. Gordon Brown’s call for education for all children could have easily come before Malala Yousafzai was shot, but it took her shooting to catalyze the response. Social workers need to be ahead of the curve on both local and global human rights issues. They need to be the catalyst to bring attention to and work with people like Malala Yousafzai before they are attacked, to craft solutions to human rights violations that take into account global human rights standards while working within the local context on the struggle for justice. Related to gender inequalities in the educational sphere is the alarming increase in human trafficking, and more specifically the sex trade.

Human Trafficking

Human trafficking has reached epidemic levels throughout the world and is a type of modern slavery. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ Articles 1 and 4, respectively, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” and “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms” (2012). These tenets of the UDHR are clearly being violated when discussing the buying and selling of individuals for their exploitation (Kim, 2007, p. 960). Human trafficking in some form affects every country (Kim, 2007). Human trafficking is a multibillion-dollar industry with revenue estimated to be upwards of $44.3 billion (Hepburn & Simon, 2010) and affecting roughly 27 million individuals on the world stage (Rickert, 2009). Human trafficking takes on many forms and different variations, including exploitative domestic service, agriculture, and commercial sex (Kim, 2007). Recently, sex trafficking has been receiving the bulk of the national and international attention in the press.

Sex Trafficking

With regard to commercial sex (prostitution), the Trafficking Victims Protection Act distinguishes between different forms of human trafficking and defines sex trafficking as a “severe form of trafficking … in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age” (Kim, 2007, p. 963). Sex trafficking is often defined as sexual exploitation through coercion, generally of women and children (Skrivankova, 2006). This coercion can take many forms: in several cultures, there are religious and cultural practices that are not questioned, and these rituals allow for the exploitation of certain groups, especially women and children (Rajan, 2011). One example of this is the practice of devadasi in India, where poorer families tend to sacrifice (sell) their daughters, and then the girls are trapped in a ring of exploitation and forced into being sex slaves (Rajan, 2011). Many poorer families in India will “sacrifice their daughters to the gods, in hopes that they will appease their community’s professed deity, and assure themselves of a happier, more prosperous future” (Rajan, 2011, p. 99). Many of these girls and young women end up working as prostitutes because the temples are also serving as brothels (Rajan, 2011). There are tens of thousands of these girls serving as these sacrifices throughout southern India (Rajan, 2011). The majority of these trafficking victims find themselves in this precarious situation because of the poverty in India. Furthermore, many are under a constant threat of torture and even death, and complicating matters is the reality that their families are subject to these same threats and indignities (Rajan, 2011).

India is not alone in this area: in Brazil, children are sexually exploited at an alarming rate. It is estimated that between 100,000 to 500,000 minor girls work as prostitutes throughout the country (Finger, 2003). Prostitution is legal in Brazil, but many do not choose the profession of their free will: many are “poor, uneducated girls from broken homes who were sexually abused by a relative” (Finger, 2003, p. 119). Brazil also reportedly exports approximately 70,000 women between the ages of 15 and 25. In 2003, Brazil’s government pledged to “eradicate sexual exploitation in a year” (Finger, 2003, p. 119).

Often, many in the human rights community focus attention solely on countries that supply the victims of these crimes, without looking at the role of “destination” countries, which are generally the more developed nations, including the United States, Japan, Israel, Germany, and other European countries (Baker & Williamson, 2006). The United States is among the top destination countries, but also is the source of many of the victims of trafficking (Hepburn & Simon, 2010). There are approximately 50,000 women and children trafficked for sexual exploitation throughout the United States, according to the CIA (2010). Approximately 300,000 children and youth in the United States are at risk of being sexually exploited (Hepburn & Simon, 2010).

Protection for Victims and Prosecution for Traffickers

According to Skrivankova (2006), “Protection for all trafficked people is a vital element to any anti-trafficking policy” (p. 231). Paul Gordon Lauren contends that it is necessary that there be laws in place to protect individuals, especially “those least favored in life” (Lauren, 2011, p. 267), which allows for the safety of those who need it. The first international standard that set the precedent for protection standards was the Council of Europe’s European Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings (Skrivankova, 2006). Many who work with clients who may be the victims of these crimes are not aware of where the law stands on the issues. Therefore, social workers and other service providers must be educated in this area.

The Role of Education in Halting Trafficking

Education is one of the primary mechanisms that protection for victims can occur. Interestingly, however, it was not noted in Article 25 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Similarly, it was not a formal practice domain of social work. Social workers and other public servants should be involved in educating the public to increase their awareness of the prevalence of sex trafficking as an important aspect to the protection of the victims and the prevention of more people’s being victimized (Baker & Williamson, 2006). Educating social service departments is also important, because they must be aware of the complex nature of trafficking and how to investigate it, while providing constant supervision and specialized support for victims (Chase & Statham, 2005). Because of the uniqueness of the work involved in rehabilitating victims of sex trafficking, it is vital that social workers and after-care facilities be equipped to work with the victims (Rickert, 2009). It is also important to educate individuals, especially children, about the dangers of becoming a victim of sex trafficking so that they can better protect themselves (Rickert, 2009).

Contribution from the Social Work Profession

Social work has a unique contribution to make in the global conversation on human rights, now and in the future. First, it can make sure that there is a knowledgeable cadre of theorists and practitioners who are interested in and prepared to address human rights, protections, and violations, here and abroad. A place to start is in curriculum committees in the hundreds of social work programs and at all levels of the educational continuum. Certain concepts relative to human rights can be identified, defined, and integrated throughout a course of study. Field education and study, both within the national boundaries and in countries where people are at particular risk, must be encouraged and developed. Affiliation with the leading human rights organizations, noted earlier, would be a resource for schools for building partnerships. There must be exploration of cross-disciplinary affiliation with cognate professions—nursing, medicine, public health—that work in troubled nation-states. In addition, study-abroad programs that are cross-disciplinary can provide good opportunities for social workers to learn firsthand about human rights issues in different political systems.

Second, there is need for advocates across the country and abroad to keep practitioners and the public aware of systematic violations of rights. In the United States, hunger and child poverty are areas where rights are violated. Increasing technology, and particularly web-based activities, can provide advocates, including social workers, with new, useful, and accessible tools to enhance communication and networking among interested individuals and groups, even in remote areas.


Many years have passed since the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The document defined humans as a family, and the principles of the proclamation as the foundation for freedom, justice, and peace. Human and civil rights have come to encompass the quest for freedom and equality that range from the struggles of indigenous peoples to the freedom from the fear that too often characterizes the daily lives of communities around the world. Not a day passes without a news story of women being raped; children starving and fellow humans being sold into slavery.

For better or for worse, through the new social media, human rights concerns have increasingly become part of our daily lives. We see abuse unfolding before our eyes while in our living rooms or classrooms. We saw the Arab Spring emerge; we are witnessing the abuses and atrocities taking place in Syria and the resurgence of nationalism and religious fundamentalism. These are but a few examples of the realities of human rights abuses occurring each day. Here in the United States, the nation is torn over the use of capital punishment and mass incarceration which disproportionately affect people of color. Disparities in health care and infant mortality remind us daily of the racial and economic divides in the world. The very meaning of human rights is now an active area of scholarship and without a doubt has become one of the most globalized political issues of our time.

Social workers should take the lead in identifying and proposing changes to national and international human rights issues. They need to be the catalysts to bring attention to and work on a local and global scale to craft solutions to human rights violations that take into account global human rights standards while working within the local context of the struggle for justice.


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Further Readings

Athens Area Community Foundation. (2012). Investing in a healthy future. Retrieved November 2, 2012, from http://athensareacf.org/investing-in-a-healthy-future-kaiser-permanente-teams-up-with-athens-area-community-foundation-to-expand-the-athens-health-network/

Kälin, W., Müller, L., & Wyttenbach, J. (2004). The face of human rights. Baden, Switzerland: Lars Müller, Publishers.Find this resource:

Kim, K. (2007). Psychological coercion in the context of modern-day involuntary labor: Revisiting United States v. Kozminski and understanding human trafficking. University of Toledo Law Review, 38(3), 941–972.Find this resource:

National Association of Social Workers. (2003a). Affirmative action. In Social work speaks: National Association of Social Workers policy statements, 2003–2006 (6th ed.; pp. 16–19). Washington, DC: NASW Press.Find this resource:

Piven, F. F. (1998). The breaking of the American social compact. New York: New Press.Find this resource:

Special Thanks

We would like to recognize the contributions of our research assistant, Elliott Caldwell, for his research work on this project.