Is Social Work a Human Rights Profession?

By Murdach, Allison D. | Social Work, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Is Social Work a Human Rights Profession?


Murdach, Allison D., Social Work


Social work has a long history of concern with human rights (Healy, 2008). Nevertheless, some have expressed doubt that, as presently constituted, social work can truly qualify as a "human rights" profession (Solas, 2008). This commentary examines this issue and reviews some current concerns about this difficult question.

WHAT ARE HUMAN RIGHTS?

The notion of human "rights" has deep roots in the history of the Western world and can be found in such classic documents as the United States Declaration of Independence (1776) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens (1789) (Melden, 1970). In general, the idea of human rights stands for the principle that rights are ascribed to people because of "the mere fact that they are human beings" (Melden, 1970, p. 1). Based on this broad assumption, the catalog of human rights has exploded over the past half century. Beginning in the 20th century, the guarantee of freedom for all in a wide variety of areas, from gender to religion, was further elaborated by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, issued in 1948, and has been considerably expanded since that time (Driscoll, 1979). Indeed, some have even compared the expansion of human rights claims in our times to the arms race and suggested that today the growth of such claims is "out of control" (Sumner, 1984).

SOCIAL WORK AND HUMAN RIGHTS

Various attempts have been made to place the concept of human rights squarely within the professional culture and identity of social work. For example, Healy (2008) asserted that social workers constitute "front-line human rights workers" and that this is proved by their implementation of recent professional policy statements emphasizing the centrality of human rights to the mission of the profession. Nevertheless, it appears this emphasis is sometimes blunted by the profession's long-standing tradition of focusing primarily on human needs rather than human rights. This emphasis often leads social workers to address immediate needs, as determined by professionals and their clients, as opposed to defending intrinsic human rights and liberties. However, a wide variety of social work authors also assert that present-day social work has sufficient self-monitoring to overcome these tendencies, and, hence, the profession can now unabashedly claim its mantle as a protector of human rights (Healy, 2008).

Some authors have observed that the profession's proclamations of devotion to human rights are belied by everyday practice in social work, which demonstrates a reliance on expediency rather than principles. As an example, it is often noted that professionals rely on a utilitarian framework to guide their practical decision making (Reamer, 2006; Solas, 2008). Utilitarianism emphasizes trade-offs and minimalist solutions in seeking the greater good for all and has historically been opposed, in principle, to the idea of human rights because of that doctrine's reliance on abstract principles and notions of individualism and egalitarianism (Sumner, 1984). To correct this utilitarian emphasis, authors such as Solas (2008) have suggested that social work rely more strongly on a purely individualistic, rights-based approach to practice.

Solas (2008) has examined in some detail what a serious attempt by the profession to institutionalize a rights-based approach would involve. He stated that grounding the activities of the profession in human rights would require social work to demand that society make social justice its primary goal, and thus guarantee all people fair treatment, plus make all social resources and opportunities equally accessible to all. Solas has admitted that this goal of total egalitarianism is bound to be financially costly. However, he observed that no sacrifice is too great to pursue the "inviolable" goal of equality to ensure the ultimate sovereignty of the individual. According to Solas, the achievement of this goal would eliminate the oppressiveness of the present social order and radically improve the social conditions that characterize the current status quo. …

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