Human Rights and Social Work

By Witkin, Stanley L. | Social Work, May 1998 | Go to article overview
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Human Rights and Social Work


Witkin, Stanley L., Social Work


[The] recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

- United Nations, 1948

So begins the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first multinational agreement specifying basic rights to which all people are entitled. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration by the United Nations General Assembly. For social workers, this anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect on the meaning and significance of human rights for their work.

In the aftermath of the horrors of World War II, the international community was motivated to make a statement and adopt a platform that would express their collective repugnance at these atrocities and to forge an agreement that might prevent such tragedies in the future. Under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt and with considerable urging and support from nongovernment organizations, the United Nations convened representatives of various member states to draft a document that would enumerate the rights and freedoms of all people. After three years of work, revisions, and debates - the final one lasting until the call for a predawn vote - the Declaration was adopted without dissent on December 10, 1948 (National Coordinating Committee for UDHR50, 1998).

In the 50 years since its adoption, and despite several other agreements and covenants, the world has seen, and continues to see, numerous new offenses inflicted on humanity. Yet despite its inability to eliminate abuses to life and basic dignities, the Declaration remains a significant document. Its articulation of the idea of universal rights, its recognition that such rights cannot be divorced from social and economic arrangements (Gil, 1994), and its inclusion of human rights in international discourse have had a beneficial impact on the lives of countless people.

The precepts and values embedded in the Declaration are familiar and central to our professional identity. They include "existential" statements about humanity, such as "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." They include "positive rights" such as the right to life, liberty, and security of person; to recognition as a person before the law with equal protection; to a nationality; to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and "negative rights" such as protection from slavery or servitude, arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile. They also include the economic, social, and cultural rights indispensable for dignity and development; the right to work, including equal pay for equal work; and the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, including food, clothing, housing, medical care, and necessary social services (United Nations Center for Human Rights, 1992).

These statements express social work's most basic values and vision for humanity, a point well understood by our international colleagues: "Human rights are inseparable from social work theory, values and ethics, and practice. Rights 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" (United Nations Center for Human Rights, 1992, p. 10).

In the United States these commitments to human rights appear less visible and integrated with social work practice and research. In my view, this is the result of our emphases on individual change, psychological explanation, and conventional science. Our human rights stance also is influenced by our (that is, Western) view of ourselves as the center of the universe and the representation of good (Galtung, 1994). This perspective is reinforced by a capitalist, political economy whose myths tend to obscure rights issues while claiming to champion them.

But the problems that social workers confront cannot be divorced from the human rights struggles within and beyond our borders.

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