20 February 2012

Human rights

History of human rights

The history of human rights is that of the struggle against exploitation of one person by another. It is based on the recognition of basic rights founded on the concept of the inherent dignity and worth of every individual.

The recognition was consolidated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the General Assembly of the United Nations. Its preamble asserted “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”.

The basic instruments concerning human rights are:

1. Charter of the United Nations (1945)
2. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)
3. The Covenants on Human Rights (1966)
a) International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
b) International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
4. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965)
5. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979)
6. Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984)
7. Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)
8. International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (1990)

These global instruments are reinforced by:

  1. The European Convention on Human Rights (1950)
  2. The American Convention on Human Rights (1969)
  3. The African Charter on Human Rights and Peoples Rights (1981)

The covenants and conventions are supported by UN Declarations:

a) The Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons (1971)
b) The Protection of Women and Children in Armed Conflicts (1974)
c) The Elimination of All forms of Religious Intolerance (1981)
d) The Right to Development (1986)

Violations of human rights

Despite these agreements, gross and subtle violations of human rights are perpetrated every day against thousands of people. The phenomenon of the “disappeared”, the torture of political prisoners, summary killings and arbitrary arrests, the increasing use of the death penalty, the extortion of confessions by physical and mental abuse, the manipulation of and the intellectual, emotional and moral pressures imposed on individuals in an attempt to condition their personalities, the detention of prisoners without trial, the economic exploitation of adults and children, displacement of populations due to internal conflicts – these and other violations are all too evident throughout the world. The victims of human rights abuses continue to suffer for many years as a result of their experience.

Many factors contribute to the violations of human rights. The collapse of totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe did not bring an end to the human rights abuses. The resurgence of nationalism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism in countries with established democracies, as well as in the former Eastern bloc, posed new challenges to the United Nations. In Africa, the rise of tribalism undermined the integrity of nations and led to widespread abuse of the most basic rights to life. In more than one region of the world, there has been a disturbing re-emergence of genocide in situations of armed conflict.

Social work principles

Human Rights condenses into two words the struggle for dignity and
fundamental freedoms which allow the full development of human
potential. Civil and political rights have to be accompanied by economic, social and cultural rights.

Social workers serve human development through adherence to the following basic principles:

i) Every human being has a unique value, which justifies moral consideration for that person.

ii) Each individual has the right to self-fulfilment to the extent that it does not encroach upon the same right of others, and has an obligation to contribute to the well-being of society.

iii) Each society, regardless of its form, should function to provide the maximum benefit for all of its members.

iv) Social workers have a commitment to principles of social justice.

v) Social workers have the responsibility to devote objective and disciplined knowledge and skill to work with individuals, groups, communities, and societies in their development and resolution of personal-societal conflicts and their consequences.

vi) Social workers are expected to provide the best possible assistance without unfair discrimination on the basis of both gender, age, disability, race, colour, language, religious or political beliefs, property, sexual orientation, status or social class.

vii) Social workers respect the basic human rights of individuals and groups as expressed in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international conventions derived from that Declaration.

viii) Social workers pay regard to the principles of privacy, confidentiality and responsible use of information in their professional work. Social workers respect justified confidentiality even when their country’s legislation is in conflict with this demand.

ix) Social workers are expected to work with their clients, working for the best interests of the clients but paying due regard to the interests of others involved. Clients are encouraged to participate as much as possible, and should be informed of the risks and likely benefits of proposed courses of action.

x) Social workers generally expect clients to take responsibility for determining courses of action affecting their lives. Compulsion which might be necessary to solve one party’s problems at the expense of the interests of others involved should take place after careful explicit evaluation of the claims of the conflicting parties. Social workers should minimise the use of legal compulsion.

xi) Social workers make ethically justified decisions, and stand by them, paying due regard to The Ethics of Social Work – Principles and Standards adopted by the International Federation of Social Workers.

These principles, drawn from the experience of social workers in carrying out their responsibility to help people with individual and social problems, place a special responsibility on the social work profession to advance the cause of human rights throughout the world.

Role of social workers

Social workers deal with common human needs. They work to prevent or alleviate individual, group and community problems, and to improve the quality of life for all people. In doing so, they seek to uphold the rights of the individuals or groups with whom they are working.

The value base of social work with its emphasis on the unique worth of each individual has much in common with human rights theory. Social workers frequently operate in situations of conflict, and are required by their national codes of Ethics and in the international Ethical Principles and Standards to demonstrate respect for all regardless of their previous conduct. Their experience of the impact of social conditions on the capacity of individuals and communities to resolve difficulties means that they recognise that the full realisation of civil and political rights is inseparable from the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. Policies of economic and social development have, therefore, a crucial part to play in securing the extension of human rights.

As a result of their particular role and responsibility in society, social workers are often the conscience of the community. Therefore, the value system, training and experience of social workers requires that they take professional responsibility for promoting human rights. Social workers need to work with other professions and non-governmental organisations in action on human rights issues. As advocates for change, they are often in the forefront of movements for change and thus are themselves subject to repression and abuse. The IFSW Human Rights Commission was established in 1988 to support social workers under threat for pursuing their professional responsibilities.

Policy statement

Human rights are those fundamental entitlements that are considered to be necessary for developing each personality to the fullest. Violations of human rights are any arbitrary and selective actions that interfere with the full exercise of these fundamental entitlements.

The social work profession, through historical and empirical evidence, is convinced that the achievement of human rights for all people is a fundamental prerequisite for a caring world and the survival of the human race. It is only through the recognition and implementation of the basic concept of the inherent dignity and worth of each person that a secure and stable world can be achieved. Consequently, social workers believe that the attainment of basic human rights requires positive action by individuals, communities, nations and international groups, as well as a clear duty not to inhibit those rights.

The social work profession accepts its share of responsibility for working to oppose and eliminate all violations of human rights. Social workers must exercise this responsibility in their practice with individuals, groups and communities, in their roles as agency or organisational representatives and as citizens of a nation and the world.

IFSW, representing the social work profession internationally, proclaims the following human rights as a common standard and guide for the work of all professional social workers:


The value of life is central to human rights work. Social workers have not only to resist violations of human rights which threaten or diminish the quality of life, but also actively to promote life enhancing and nurturing activities.

Physical and psychological well-being is an important aspect of the quality of life. The deterioration of the environment and the non-existence of curtailment of health programmes threaten life.

Social workers assert the right of individuals and communities to have protection from preventable disease and disability.

Freedom and liberty

All human beings are born free. The fundamental freedoms include the right to liberty, to freedom from slavery, to freedom from arbitrary arrest, torture, cruel inhuman or degrading treatment, and freedom of thought and speech.

Next to life itself, freedom and liberty are the most precious human values asserting the worth of human existence.

Equality and Non-Discrimination

The fundamental principle of equality is closely linked to principles of justice. Every person regardless of birth, gender, age, disability, race, colour, language, religious or political beliefs, property, sexual orientation, status or social class has a right to equal treatment and protection under the law.

Social workers have to ensure equal access to public services and social welfare provision in accordance with the resources of national and local governments, and have a particular responsibility to combat discrimination of any kind in their own practice.


Every person has a right to protection against arbitrary arrest or interference with privacy, and to equal protection under the law. Where laws have been violated, every person has a right to a prompt and fair trial by an objective judicial authority. Those convicted are entitled to humane treatment whose purpose is to secure the reform and social readaptation of the individual.

The impartial operation of the law is a crucial safeguard for the citizen in the administration of justice. Social justice, however, requires more than a legal system untainted by interference by the executive. It requires the satisfaction of basic human needs and the equitable distribution of resources. It requires universal access to health care and education, thus enabling the achievement of human potential. It underpins concepts of social development. In the pursuit of social justice workers may have to face conflict with powerful elite groups in any given society.


Every person whose fundamental freedoms are infringed has a right to support from fellow citizens. The concept of solidarity recognises the fraternity ideal of the French Revolution, and the importance of mutual support. Social workers give expression to this through the Human Rights Commission in relation to social workers whose political freedoms are infringed. In their daily practice they express solidarity with the poor and oppressed. Poverty, hunger, and homelessness are violations of human rights. Social workers stand with the disadvantaged in campaigning for social justice.

Social responsibility

Social responsibility is the recognition that each of us has a responsibility to family, to community, to nation and to the world community to contribute personal talents, energy and commitment to the advancement of human rights. Those with intellectual and physical resources should utilise them to assist those less well equipped. Social work’s engagement with the disadvantaged is a reflection of that responsibility. No person or collective body has the right to engage in any activity, including propaganda, to incite war, hostility, hatred, bigotry or violence, contrary to the institution and maintenance of human rights.

Peace and Non-Violence

Peace is more than the absence of organised conflict. It is the goal of achieving harmony with self and with others. Social workers are committed to the pursuit of non-violence. Their experience in conflict resolution teaches that mediation and arbitration are effective instruments to overcome seemingly irreconcilable differences. Non-violence does not mean passivity in the face of injustice. Social workers will resist and exercise non-violent pressure for change, but will not engage in acts of violence in the course of their professional activity. Social workers devote its energies to constructive efforts to achieve social justice.

The Environment

Humankind has trusteeship responsibility for the care of the planet. Environmental degradation poses a threat to life itself in some areas, and to the quality of life in many countries. False development models based on industrialisation, the unequal distribution of resources, excessive consumerism and ignorance of the pernicious consequences of pollution have all contributed to this global plight. Social workers need to work with community groups in tackling the consequences of environmental decline and destruction.

Approved at the IFSW General Meeting, Hong Kong, July 21 – 23, 1996