Exceptional and Necessary: Practicing Rights-Based Social Work in the USA



This paper argues that it is critical for social workers to become familiar with the larger set of human rights—including social and economic rights—and put them into practice because respecting and validating these rights has the potential to transform our clients, our societies, and our social work profession. Beyond arguing the importance of human rights, this paper will provide needed human rights background, as well as specific guidance for social workers and educators about how to take a rights-based approach to professional social work practice. Though the article focuses on the US example, global readers may find the analytic framework employed here useful for understanding the challenges social workers in their own countries face when adopting rights-based approaches. In all countries, social workers must analyze the legal and cultural specificities that promote—or limit—human rights and how the local context may encourage or challenge rights-based practices. Overall, a rights-based approach to practice has the potential to offer social work—a profession oriented to social well-being—the opportunity to take leadership, and become the point profession on economic, social, and cultural rights.


Human rights Social work practice Social work Human rights practice Social work education Social work ethics USA 

As social workers in the United States (US), we learned in civics class about our constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech, assembly, trial by jury, and the like, and we were almost certainly taught to understand our homeland as the beacon of liberty and justice for all. Many fewer of us were educated about those human rights that do not appear in the US constitution, especially those economic and social rights to food, work, healthcare, housing, and even to special services for mothers and children. This paper will argue that it is critical for all social workers to become familiar with this larger set of human rights and put them into practice because respecting and promoting these social and economic rights has the potential to transform our clients’ lives, our societies, and our social work profession. Beyond arguing the importance of human rights, this paper will provide some needed human rights background, as well as guidance for social workers and educators about how to take a rights-based approach to professional practice. Though the article focuses on the US example, global readers may find the analytic framework employed here useful for understanding the challenges social workers face when adopting rights-based approaches in their own countries. In all countries, social workers must analyze the legal and cultural specificities that promote—or limit—human rights, as well as the ways that local communities collaborate to encourage or challenge rights-based practices. Specifically, the paper will provide guidance for US social workers and educators about how to take a rights-based approach, as is now considered a core professional competency by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE 2015).

Looking through a lens of human rights (McPherson et al. 2017), we see our social work clients as rights-holders and, all around us, we see violations of their social and economic rights: poverty, most profoundly, but also failing elementary schools, inadequate housing, interpersonal violence, and pervasive hydra-headed discriminations (McPherson 2015a). We also see ourselves as social workers in direct or clinical practice, attempting to meet clients’ immediate needs in ways that neither secure their rights nor impact the larger systems that produce these violations. Looking through the human rights lens, it becomes clear that our role as social workers should be to help our clients secure stable access to rights—not merely to services. It is important to provide a hungry family with a good meal, but it is transformational to partner with them to secure their human right to food. Having access to a right is not about being deemed “worthy”; access to the right to food means that there is no need to fear hunger (Katz 1989). This imperative to help clients secure access to their human rights may feel overwhelming to social workers, especially those trained as micro-level practitioners, and surely it is challenging. It may require partnering with clients, communities, other professionals, advocates, activists, governments, and more. Still, this is the work that is required by social work’s ethical mandates (Cemlyn 2011; Hancock 2007).

In order to take a rights-based approach to practice, it is useful for a social worker to understand how the United Nations (UN) defines and operationalizes human rights, as well as how communities can define and advocate for themselves using human rights language and tools. It is also useful to have insight into the specific challenges of implementing a human rights approach in the particular community where she or he practices. This paper will provide a brief introduction to human rights that will be useful for US-based social workers, as well as some concrete direction on how social workers can competently and ethically act to advance human rights through their social work practice.

A Human Rights Primer for the US Social Worker

In theory, human rights are universal, and, according to social work’s international organizations, social workers should advocate for their clients’ human rights in every country in which they ply their trade (International Association of Schools of Social Work n.d.; International Federation of Social Work 2000). However, even though human rights are proposed as universal, in fact, the rights to which individuals are legally entitled vary depending on which country grants them citizenship and—in the context of the USA—on within which city, county, or state they happen to plant their feet. Though human rights are created internationally, they are implemented locally. Thus, this primer will begin with a discussion of human rights generally and then focus on legal and cultural specificities that both promote and limit human rights within the US.

Human rights are those rights that belong to all people; humanity is their only prerequisite. Human rights, as promoted by the UN, are universal and internationally guaranteed; they focus on the inherent dignity and worth of all human beings, and they can neither be given nor taken away; also—and critically—human rights impose obligations on states (and other large actors, like corporations) to respect, protect, and fulfill them (UN Population Fund & Harvard School of Public Health 2010). Human rights also represent a body of law, a bureaucracy, and a field of practice. In rhetoric and in practice, they can be powerful forces for social justice. As Samuel Moyn writes, human rights create “an agenda for improving the world, and bringing about a new [world] in which the dignity of each individual will enjoy secure international protection” (Moyn 2010, p. 1).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted on December 10, 1948, affirms the dignity and worth of every human being and lays out their rights and fundamental freedoms in 30 articles (UN 1948). The first articles affirm the rights to life, liberty, security, nationality, and competent national tribunal; freedoms of speech, movement, thought, religion, assembly, expression, and participation in government; and the rights to be free from slavery, torture, discrimination, and arbitrary arrest. These rights are commonly known as civil and political rights, and they are largely familiar to US citizens, as they are included among our own constitutionally guaranteed rights. (The right to bear arms is a right of US citizens, but it is not considered a human right.) The next set of articles attest to each person’s right to social security and to the “the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality” (UN 1948, Article 22). These rights include the rights to work, to earn fair pay, to unionize, to have leisure, and for children to have access to free primary education. Importantly, they also include the rights to an adequate standard of living with food, clothing, medical care, housing, and social services. (Yes, indeed, there is a human right to social services typically provided by social workers as articulated in Article 25 of the UDHR.) Lastly, Article 28 avows that all human beings share the right to “a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms…can be fully realized” (UN 1948). Collective rights to peace and development, and to natural resources, such as water, have been derived from Article 28 (Healy 2008; Midgley 2007). Table 1 provides a brief listing of the rights and freedoms enumerated by the UDHR.
Table 1

Brief listing of the rights and freedoms enumerated by the UDHR


Rights and freedoms

Article 1

Right to freedom, equality, and dignity

Article 2

Right to non-discrimination

Article 3

Right to life, liberty, and security of person

Article 4

Freedom from slavery

Article 5

Freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment

Article 6

Right to recognition as a person before the law

Article 7

Right to equal protection of the law

Article 8

Right to effective legal remedy before a competent tribunal

Article 9

Freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention or exile

Article 10

Right to fair public hearing

Article 11

Right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty

Article 12

Freedom from arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence

Article 13

Right to freedom of movement

Article 14

Right to asylum

Article 15

Right to nationality

Article 16

Right to marriage, family, and divorce; freedom from forced marriage

Article 17

Right to own property

Article 18

Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion

Article 19

Freedom of opinion and expression; right to access media

Article 20

Right to peaceful assembly and association

Article 21

Right to participate in government; right to vote

Article 22

Right to social security; right to indispensable economic, social, and cultural rights

Article 23

Right to work and fair pay; right to join trade unions

Article 24

Right to rest and leisure; right to paid holidays

Article 25

Right to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services

Article 26

Right to education

Article 27

Right to cultural life; right to share in scientific advancements

Article 28

Right to a social order in which rights and freedoms can be realized

Article 29

There are duties to the community which accompany rights and freedoms

Article 30

Freedom from state (or other) interference with rights and freedoms

The Core Human Rights Treaties and the Process of Ratification

The UDHR is a non-binding declaration, not a treaty that has the force of law. Thus, as we consider government obligations under international human rights law, it is useful to grasp the basic details of treaty ratification and government duties. A treaty must first be drafted and formally approved (that is, adopted) by resolution of the UN General Assembly. Once adopted, it must be ratified or acceded to by a specified number (generally stipulated within the treaty itself) of individual UN member states in order to be entered into force. In the USA, ratification is a two-step process: First, the President signs the treaty signaling the intent that the nation be bound by its provisions, and then, treaty is ratified (or, as in the case of many human rights treaties, not ratified) by the US Senate.

Though the UN maintains that the rights of the UDHR are “universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated” (UN General Assembly 1993), the rights of the UDHR were neatly divided for the purposes of ratification. Nearly two decades after the UDHR was unanimously approved, two treaties—the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights 1966a, b) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights 1966a, b)—were finalized in form and content. As of 2017, both covenants have been widely ratified: Of the 193 UN member states, 169 countries are party to the civil and political rights treaty, and 165 are party to the treaty on economic, social, and cultural rights (UN Treaty Collection n.d.). Through these two treaties, civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights are all enshrined in international law. All member countries of the European Union and many other US allies, including Canada, Turkey, Japan, and Brazil, are party to both treaties. Beyond these agreements, the UN General Assembly has adopted multiple treaties, conventions, and optional protocols to protect the human rights of vulnerable populations (see Table 2; UN Treaty Collection, n.d.). The rights of human beings first codified in the UDHR have now been elaborated and should be respected, protected, and fulfilled by the actions of states.
Table 2

US signing and ratification of major international human rights treaties


Year adopted by the UN General Assembly

Year signed by the US President

Year ratified by the US Senate

Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide




International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD)




International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR)




International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)




Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)




Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)




Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)




International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW)



Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)




International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CPED)



Taking stock of the rights now held by vulnerable populations under international law, it looks as if users of social work services should have access to many if not all of the rights they need to protect themselves in the US and throughout the world. Among other rights, the populations that social workers often work with have the right to employment that provides “a decent living for themselves and their families” (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 7); women have the right to family planning (Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, Article 10), and people with disabilities have the right to legal protection against discrimination (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Article 5). And yet, a casual bystander can look around the world and see these rights being violated with impunity. What is going on?

Even though the treaties have all entered into force, and even though the rights they contain are now considered universal, the treaties are not legally enforceable in many of the world’s countries. Treaties are only binding upon the countries that have chosen to ratify them, and even ratification does not guarantee that the treaty’s rights and provisions will be fully accessible to the citizens of that country. Governments can choose to ratify treaties with reservations, and reservations can exempt countries from applying selected articles of the treaty in question (UN Office of Legal Affairs 2012).

Beyond ratification, governments must also enact domestic legislation that reflects treaty obligations in order for those treaty provisions to be enforceable. In most cases, it is the individual country’s domestic legal system that provides the principal legal protection for human rights guaranteed under international law (UN Office of Legal Affairs 2012). Finally, law and custom must be applied at the community level, if individuals are to be able to access their rights.

Human Rights in the US

Of the list of international human rights treaties laid out in Table 2, the US has ratified exactly four: the conventions that address (1) genocide, (2) civil and political rights, (3) racial discrimination, and (4) torture. In each of these cases, the US ratified the treaties with reservations, and in no case was the treaty self-executing, meaning that the provisions of the ratified treaties were not automatically enacted into US law. When the US ratified the convention related to civil and political rights, for example, it did so with five reservations, five understandings, four declarations, and one proviso (Ash 2005). One infamous reservation, taken in 1991, asserted that the US could impose capital punishment on individuals under 18 years of age (Ash 2005), though imposing the death penalty on juvenile offenders was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005. Thus, US participation in international human rights is often considered “symbolic, since adopting treaties does not actually improve the statutory rights protections of U.S. citizens in domestic law” (Ignatieff 2005, p. 6).

Though US Presidents have signed additional treaties with the intention to protect the human rights of US women (Jimmy Carter), children (Bill Clinton), and persons with disabilities (Barack Obama), none of these treaties has been ratified by the Senate and, therefore, none is binding (see Table 2). The US is the only UN member state that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN 1989), and it is the only country in the Global North that has not ratified the convention on the rights of women (Ignatieff 2005; Mapp 2008; UN 2012). Indeed, the USA has ratified or acceded to fewer human rights treaties than any other country in the Indeed, the USA has ratified or acceded to fewer human rights treaties than any other country among the membership of the Group of 20 (G20), whose members include the 19 countries with the largest economies plus the European Union (American Civil Liberties Union 2013; G20 2014). Even provisions of the US-ratified treaties may not be easily enforceable if their provisions are not included in the US legal code (Reichert 2011). Ignatieff names “the complex and ambivalent pattern” of US human rights leadership and obstructionism as “American exceptionalism” (Ignatieff 2005, p. 1).

Social and Economic Rights in the USA

US exceptionalism is particularly visible in the area of social and economic rights. Though Jimmy Carter signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1977, the US Senate has never ratified it, and therefore, the US is not party to the major treaty on economic, social, and cultural rights. Additionally, the US has not ratified other treaties that specifically protect the social, economic, and cultural rights of children, women, persons with disabilities, migrant families, and indigenous peoples. In the nearly 70 years since Eleanor Roosevelt helped lead the way towards the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the US has continuously declined to formally recognize (Ignatieff 2005) the existence of economic, social, or cultural rights.

Additionally, as the U.S. Constitution makes no reference to social and economic rights like food, shelter, health care, and unemployment insurance, many Americans lack awareness that such rights exist in international law (Ignatieff 2005; Lundy 2011; Midgley 2007). It is estimated that only 10% of US citizens have even heard of the UDHR (Wronka 2008). Certainly, this cultural preference for civil and political rights over economic and social rights is critical to appreciating how US-educated and acculturated people tend to understand—and perhaps misunderstand—human rights (Reichert 2011).

How Can the US Social Worker Advance Human Rights in our Exceptional Climate?

The US ratification record on human rights, the attitude of American exceptionalism, and the lack of public acknowledgement of economic and social rights all present special challenges to US social workers who wish to see their practice through a human rights lens. Citizens may not conceptualize poverty, discrimination, hunger, and homelessness as human rights violations, and it is also true that the USA is a wealthy country where residents may generally have more widespread access to services than citizens of countries that have ratified treaties on social and economic rights (McPherson 2015b). Social workers who practice in the USA and their clients who live here are also affected by the ways that human rights are legislated in this country. For example, a client’s right to non-discrimination is protected by US law, but her rights to food and housing are not. How can social workers work to secure clients’ rights that are not protected in US law?

Putting Human Rights into Practice

There are multiple strategies for practicing human rights in social work, including (a) community-based practices that engage communities in defining their own rights (Ife 2008; Ife and Tascón 2016), (b) models of professional practice that emerge from human rights principles, (c) models that engage the community in working with the UN, and (d) professional advocacy. This paper will address each of these and suggest how each strategy can be used by social workers to promote social and economic rights in the USA.

One theme that unites rights-based practice is the importance of shifting the focus of attention from human needs to human rights. Though currently the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) in the US situates social work within the need-based paradigm, stating that the “primary mission” of the profession is to “help meet the basic human needs of … people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty” (NASW 1999); there is ethical support to make the rights-based change. As Peter Uvin writes,

A right is about a long-term guarantee, a set of structural claims, particularly for the most vulnerable and underprivileged or excluded. It is not simply the result of a gift, an act of charity, or even of a smart policy blueprint (Uvin 2004, p. 53).

Uvin proposes that access to a right provides stable access for meeting people’s needs, in contrast to charitable approaches, which depend upon individual generosity and may be fickle.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) summarizes the changes their providers experienced as they shifted from needs-based to rights-based work: (1) There was an increased focus on the process—the way that services are provided; (2) there was increased space for empowerment, client participation, and skill-building; (3) there was a need for greater collaboration across programs and professions; and (4) the increased focus on the social, economic, cultural, and political context of clients’ problems required more emphasis on politics and policy (UNFPA and Harvard School of Public Health 2010). Each of these shifts is visible in the rights-based practices discussed below.

Engaging Communities in Defining their Own Rights

Human rights practice—also known as rights-based practice—goes beyond asserting the existence of legal claims; it is about political struggles, in which human rights are tools that crystalize the moral imagination and provide power in the political struggle (Uvin 2004, p. 176). In Uvin’s vision, human rights can provide the impetus for community building and public dissent, which, in turn, may promote legal change. This connection between rights-based practice and community-engaged activism opens a rights-based space that social workers can and should occupy.

Jim Ife’s rights-based social work seeks “creative alternatives to the oppressive and dehumanizing structures that affect social workers and clients alike” (Ife 2008, p. 200). This approach “from below” changes the paradigm of practice and equalizes the relationship between workers and clients (Ife 2008, 2010). Community members are recognized as experts in their own lives, and rights-based social workers enact human rights by making space for clients to have “the maximum self-determination and control over the situation in which they find themselves” (Ife 2008, p. 188).

In this community-based approach, the UN documents may be a starting point, but they are not definitive. Critical social workers, non-Western social workers, post-colonialists, feminists, and others critique the absolutist language of human rights. They point to the top-down approach of the UN and wonder why community members should not have the right to define their own rights (Ife and Tascón 2016). In this community-level work, people do define their own rights and priorities for change.

This community-level praxis also responds to another important criticism that the top-down human rights approach reflects the values of Western, individually oriented societies (Healy 2007; Ife and Tascón 2016). Uvin (2004) sees the need for social workers to address a Western cultural bias (especially when working with clients from more collectivist cultures) as good for the profession:

Constant debate obliges us to come down from the moral high ground and question ourselves. It forces scholars and practitioners to reach out, to develop new ways of seeing things and talking about things, to moderate their claims, to build bridges. At the end of the day, all of that…is rather a good thing for practitioners. (p. 31)

For Ife, rights do not exist in an objective form that “can be identified, ‘discovered,’ and empirically measured” (Ife 2008, p. 9). Though he writes that the UDHR is “one of the more remarkable human achievements of the twentieth century,” in his practice/praxis, the definition of human rights comes from the community, which assesses their needs and creates a vision “that reflects their own context and lived experience” (Ife 2008, p. 9, 50). Ife’s social work practice situates the social worker alongside the client/community member in an equal partnership of learning: “Each learns from the other in a relationship of shared knowledge and expertise, which does not privilege one above the other” (Ife 2008, p. 172). Ife abandons traditional social work activities that contain unequal power dynamics (e.g., the interview, assessment, intervention, supervision) and reworks them so that power can be shared (Ife 2008). For Ife, social work is inevitably political, “committing a social worker to an ideological position that incorporates at least some degree of collectivism and a strong role for the public sector” (Ife 2008, p. 163). Ife proposes a dynamic, shared, community education and assessment project that may lead to shared action.

In the US, we see that this type of work rising from communities, for example, in the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice (SRBWI), a collective of women leaders across Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia “dedicated to lifting up Black women and families in rural, impoverished areas” (SRBWI n.d.). Their goal is to expose and fight “barriers of race, class and power that trap Black women and their families in the vicious cycle of poverty” (SRBWI n.d.). The approach to achieving their goals is explicitly collective, capacity-building, political, collaborative (at the community and professional levels), and advocacy based. Their Human Rights Commission led by Black women community leaders, community youth, and elected officials promote social and economic rights in the areas where they work.

Similarly, We the People of Detroit is dedicated to community coalition building and to the provision of resources that inform, train, and mobilize Detroit’s citizens to improve their quality of life (We the People of Detroit, n.d.). Their work is explicitly framed by their lack of access to their human rights to water and sanitation. Professional social workers are involved in both of these collaborations, but the local people (some of whom are also professionals) are the leaders. Working with these partnerships, social workers take the lead from their service users and work on community-defined priorities in the area of social and economic rights.

Adopting Models of Professional Practice that Emerge from the Human Rights Framework

In professional practice, rights-based approaches have been developed by adapting the principles of the human rights framework. In these examples, scholars and practitioners follow the lead of the UN, which elaborates three basic tenets for a rights-based approach to practice: (1) Rights-based practice should further the realization of human rights, (2) human rights principles must guide all activities, and (3) the work should develop “the capacities of ‘duty-bearers’ to meet their obligations and/or of ‘rights-holders’ to claim their rights” (UN Development Program 2003).

When scholars speak of the human rights framework, they refer (1) to the UDHR and the other international human rights treaties, (2) to the various UN-produced documents that have sought to elucidate the practice of human rights and to improve the human condition, and (3) to the human rights principles (Finnegan et al. 2010; UN Development Program 2003). While legal and advocacy approaches to human rights practice emphasize the use of treaties as the central tools in their work, these rights-based practices employ human rights principles and methods as the major tools for practice (UN Development Program 2003; UN Population Fund and Harvard School of Public Health 2010; Uvin 2004).

Human rights principles include

1. Universality and inalienability, meaning that all people everywhere are entitled to human rights.

2. Interdependence, meaning that the realization of one human right often depends, wholly or in part, upon the realization of others.

3. Indivisibility asserts that all human rights—civil, political, economic, social, and cultural—are critical to the dignity of every human person, that these rights have equal status, and that they cannot be ranked in a hierarchy.

4. Equality and non-discrimination means that human beings everywhere are entitled to their rights without discrimination of any kind.

5. Participation declares that every person and all peoples are entitled to active, free, and meaningful participation in social and political processes.

6. Accountability underscores that for every human right, there is a rights-holder and a duty-bearer, and that when the duty-bearer fails to protect that right, the aggrieved rights-holders are entitled to appropriate redress (UN Population Fund 2005).

These principles are fundamental to both legal and instrumental understandings of human rights, and they usually form the bedrock of rights-based practice. The World Health Organization asserts that integrating these principles into the process of service delivery alters “the way that programs are designed, implemented, monitored and evaluated” (WHO 2013, p. 20). Within social work, scholars have built upon these principles to develop frameworks for rights-based approaches to social work practice (Androff 2015; McPherson 2015a). Androff places the human rights principles at the center of his framework and highlights five key concepts that rights-based social workers must deploy in their work: human dignity, non-discrimination, participation, transparency, and accountability (Androff 2015). McPherson defines human rights practice in social work as practice that sees through a human rights lens, employs rights-based methods, and reaches for rights-based goals (McPherson 2015a; McPherson et al. 2017). In her framework, the rights-based principles of participation, non-discrimination, and accountability are named as methods of rights-based social work practice, and macro-/micro-integration, capacity building, strengths-based practice, interdisciplinary collaboration, and activism are also identified as methods that social workers can use to promote human rights and dignity.

Rights-based practice frameworks stress the importance of collaboration across personal, community, and professional boundaries as a key rights-based practice strategy (McPherson 2015a; UN Development Program 2003), echoing Uvin and Ife who both write that rights-based practice requires creative partnerships (Ife 2008; Uvin 2004). Such intentional interdisciplinary practice may also advance human rights by disrupting traditional hierarchies within professions and destabilizing the paternalistic attitudes that collaborating professionals, like lawyers, doctors, psychologists, and social workers, have historically held towards each other, as well as towards their clients (Martins Costa et al. 2011; Ife and Tascón 2016; McPherson 2015b). This egalitarian “interdisciplinarity” promotes client participation and equalizes partnerships, both between professionals and between those same professionals and their clients who may be in socially “inferior” positions due to neediness, dependence, and structural disadvantage due to race, class, and/or gender (Barbosa de Carvalho 2009, p. 15; Martins Costa et al. 2011).

Rights-based professional social work can be seen in practice in the US and beyond. Social workers at the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition (TASSC) in Washington, DC, engage survivors of torture as participants in their own healing, and build individuals’ capacity through encouraging their community participation, as well as their public speaking. The work is collaborative, strengths-based, accountable, and promotes change at the individual, community, national, and international levels (Tagert and McPherson n.d. manuscript in progress). The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama, where practice focuses on children in the adult criminal justice system and on reentry needs of people who have spent decades in prison, is another agency where social workers are explicitly rights-based in their focus. Again, their focus is to elevate the voices of their clients using participatory, capacity-building, strengths-based, and accountable methods. EJI’s goals are to promote change at the individual, family, community, state, and federal levels (Maria Morrison, personal communication, December 12, 2017). In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, social workers, psychologists, and lawyers use interdisciplinary practice methods to address the needs of survivors of gender-based violence the Reference Centre for Women from Maré (Martins Costa et al. 2011). They provide shelter, legal assistance, psychological support, classes in handicrafts (and other strategies to promote economic self-sufficiency), classes in art and theater (and other services that promote group cohesion and self-expression), groups that promote reflection about gender relations and Brazilian social reality, and university-based education on human rights. In all their services, violence against women is presented as a violation of human rights, and in all cases, individual rights and political solutions are promoted. All three of these programs engage professional social workers in expanding access to social and economic rights.

Engaging the Community in Working with the UN

Another rights-based strategy is to bring local community voices to the UN to advocate for improvement in local access to human rights. The US Human Rights Network (USHRN), for example, coordinated the submission of shadow reports to the UN Human Rights Committee for the 2014 review of the US implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Shadow reports are reviewed at the same time as the official state reports and can provide a non-official view on problems. Official government reports tend to focus on the successful implementation of treaty provisions and human rights progress, rather than the areas where violations are still occurring (The Advocates for Human Rights 2013). Shadow reports are filed by civil society groups and are reviewed alongside the governmental report; usually, they indicate areas of government non-compliance with a treaty or treaties. In 2014, the USHRN submitted 29 reports—representing 47 partner organizations—addressing civil and political human rights violations across a range of issues, including immigration policy, domestic violence, racial profiling, incarceration, racial discrimination, equal access to housing, and more (USHRN 2012). Based on these reports, the UN Human Rights Council cited the USA in violation on many issues that the USHRN and their allies raised.

More recently, the USHRN hosted the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty in Atlanta, Georgia, in December 2017. Rural Black women, First Nations, and immigrants to the USA all testified on violations of their social and economic rights. Several social workers are involved in USHRN reporting, and there is opportunity for more input from social workers and our clients (USHRN 2017).

Human Rights Advocacy

Advocacy, the only rights-based practice mentioned in the 2008 CSWE Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards, is a familiar social work method and a well-known human rights practice. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, for example, use advocacy to exert pressure on governments through the “mobilization of shame” (Uvin 2004, p. 57). Human Rights Watch’s 2017 World Report calls out the USA for abuses related to criminal and juvenile justice, immigration, and national security, and asserts that “those least able to defend their rights in court or through the political process—members of racial and ethnic minorities, the poor, immigrants, children, and prisoners—are the people most likely to suffer abuses” (Human Rights Watch 2017, p. 633). By publicizing these examples of systematic discrimination, Human Rights Watch attempts to shame the USA into legislative and policy change.

A Human Rights-Based Approach to Social Work Practice

Adopting a human rights-based approach is not a panacea. Still, there is a chorus of social voices pointing out the benefits that such an approach can bring to social work, to our society, and to the people who live without access to their social and economic rights. Certainly, human rights may offer social work, as a profession oriented to social well-being, the opportunity to take leadership and become the point profession on economic, social, and cultural rights (Dominelli 2007; Ife 2007, 2008; McPherson 2015b).

This article has served as an introduction to human rights and also to the application of human rights to social work practice. Human rights are said to be “fundamental” to the practice of social work (IFSW 2000), and multiple methods are suggested here that US social workers should use to advance human rights. This piece also highlights the mixed messages that US social workers receive about human rights—strong support for economic and social rights from CSWE and NASW, and no official recognition by the US government—and some special challenges that the US social work profession may face when implementing rights-based approaches.

This context is necessary and should be useful to practitioners and scholars as we develop rights-based approaches to social work practice that go beyond the advocacy-centered approach, and engage deeply with communities and with human rights principles. To quote CSWE’s competency-defining language, “Social work competence is the ability to integrate and apply social work knowledge, values, and skills to practice situations in a purposeful, intentional, and professional manner to promote human and community well-being” (CSWE 2015, p. 6). The information in this paper will allow social workers to build their competency in rights-based practice.

Though social work scholars have argued that social work is a human rights profession, social work’s impact in the larger field of human rights has, as yet, gone largely unnoticed (Androff 2010). This article is meant to provide greater definition to the scope of human rights practice within social work, to provide the profession with the language and methods to describe and implement human rights practice, and therefore to contribute to social work’s growth and importance as a human rights profession. Further, greater guidance on the particulars of human rights practice may encourage more social workers to practice from a human rights perspective and therefore to challenge the structures that lie behind the injustices social workers and citizens encounter every day:

The real potential of human rights lies in its ability to change the way people perceive themselves vis-à-vis the government and other actors. A [human] rights framework provides a mechanism for reanalyzing and renaming ‘problems’ like contaminated water or malnutrition as ‘violations’ and, as such, something that need not and should not be tolerated...Rights make it clear that violations are neither inevitable nor natural, but arise from deliberate decisions and policies. By demanding explanations and accountability, human rights expose the hidden priorities and structures behind violations and challenge the conditions that create and tolerate poverty. (Jochnick 1999, p. 59)

Developing a full articulation of a human rights-based approach to social work practice is a challenge that social work must accept in order to truly locate itself as a human rights profession. US practitioners and educators need a clear framework for rights-based social work practice as they seek to prepare themselves and their students to “Advance Human Rights and Social, Economic, and Environmental Justice” as is required by CSWE (CSWE 2015). This article should help with that process.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Social WorkUniversity of Georgia (USA)AthensUSA

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