The Roots of Human Rights Advocacy and a Call to Action

By Steen, Julie A. | Social Work, April 2006 | Go to article overview

The Roots of Human Rights Advocacy and a Call to Action


Steen, Julie A., Social Work


All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

--Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1 (United Nations, 1948)

Human rights are defined as "the rights one has simply because one is a human being" (Donnelly, 1989, p. 9). Embedded in the concept of human rights are notions of basic entitlements to freedom--by virtue of birth--to live without persecution, to express oneself, and to have opportunities to develop (such as through education, health care, and basic economic security). Social workers, thus, are called to protect and promote human rights in the course of their professional duties.

One of the most widely recognized types of human rights is termed "integrity of the body and security of the person." Included in this category are the rights to be free from torture, arbitrary detention (detention based on some arbitrary element, such as race, ethnicity, country of origin, or religion), and extrajudicial killing (execution without prior judicial review) (Vincent, 1986). Although the NASW Code of Ethics does not explicitly address integrity of the body and security of the person, it does state that "social workers should respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person" and should "seek to resolve conflicts between clients' interests and the broader society's interests in a socially responsible manner consistent with the values, ethical principles, and ethical standards of the profession" (NASW, 2000, pp. 4-5).

Human rights also include political rights and civil liberties. These rights are commonly associated with democracies and include voting, protest, and freedom of expression (Donnelly, 1989). The NASW Code of Ethics calls on us to support political rights and civil liberties by facilitating "informed participation by the public in shaping social policies and institutions" (NASW, 2000, Section 6.02, p. 27).

Social and economic rights are also human rights, although they are rarely presented as such in Western democracies. The notion is that all human beings have the right to social and economic fundamentals, such as education, employment, basic subsistence, and health care (Donnelly, 1989). The Code of Ethics asks us to "engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully" (NASW, 2000, Section 6.04(a), p. 27).

HISTORICAL INVOLVEMENT IN HUMAN RIGHTS

In the United States, social work began with a strong grounding in human rights. Jane Addams (1860-1935), one of the founders of U.S. social work, was an advocate for the full range of human rights. Through both her actions and her writings, Addams sought to promote peace and end violence in both domestic and international arenas. She worked for the protection of African Americans who were the victims of lynching and mob violence (National Negro Committee, 1909a). As a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (Moon, 1969; National Negro Committee, 1909b), she signed the famous 1909 "Call" for a national conference to discuss the lack of protections for the rights of African Americans. Part of the focus of the Call was the "lawless attacks upon the negro ... often accompanied by revolting brutalities" (National Negro Committee, 1909a, p. 3). In addition, Addams vigorously protested against the use of war in international disputes. As president of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and 1931 Nobel Peace Prize recipient (Stroup, 1986), Addams believed that "we are not obliged to choose between violence and passive acceptance of unjust conditions for ourselves of others ... on the contrary, that courage, determination, moral power, generous indignation, active good-will, can achieve their ends without violence" (Addams, 1945/1972, p.

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