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The Human Rights Framework And Social Work

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The three generations of human rights framework

Human rights are a powerful ideal that are easily endorsed today by people from many different cultural and moral backgrounds (Ife, 2012). The term ‘human rights’ is relatively new and was only initially used after the second world war (Weston, 1984). Prior to the 1940s there were no movements, no non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and no international laws to protect our human rights (Cmiel, 2004). It is difficult to fully define the discursive topic of ‘human rights’ as is constantly progressing and changing (Ife, 2012). They are generally explained as rights that we claim apply and belong to everyone, everywhere, regardless of culture, race, religion, origin, age, gender or any other characteristic (Ife, 2012). They are rights of which all human beings possess purely by virtue of being human (Lattimer, 2018). One of the most dominant schools of thought that have informed the human rights tradition since the beginning of modern times is the 1979 notion framed by Czech-French jurist Karel Vasak (Weston, 1984). His theory divides human rights into three waves or generations based on civil and political rights (civil-political), economic, social and cultural rights (socio-economic) and collective or solidarity rights (collective-developmental) (Ife, 2012). These generations also align with the three ideologies of the French revolution liberty, equality and fraternity (Weston, 1984).

The first generation of human rights, or civil and political rights are based on an individual’s rights to freedom in a fair, civil and democratic society (Ife, 2012). These complex ‘enlightenment rights’ were crucial in overthrowing feudalism and destroying the uncontested divine right of kings in history (Simmons, 2009). Inspired from Enlightenment concepts of individualism and non-intervention, these first-generation rights have become otherwise known as a set of ‘negative rights,’ or rights that require governments to refrain from vilifying (rather than requiring them to intervene on behalf of) human dignity (Simmons, 2009). In applying first generation rights, social workers have an advocacy role working to protect the basic human rights of people or to demand attention to human rights abuses (Ife, 2012). Examples of first-generation rights include the right to freedom of religion, involvement in government affairs, equality before the law and court, right to life, right to privacy, right to individual safety, right to freedom against unwarranted arrest, and imprisonment (Borisov, Ibarra, Nifanov, Oleinik, Oleinik & Ostapiuk, 2016). They are usually defined in law under such mechanisms as the Bill of Rights (Ife, 2012), beginning with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which articulates fundamental civil and political rights and freedoms for all worldwide (Simmons, 2009).

The second generation of human rights which concerns social, economic and cultural rights, arose from nineteenth and twentieth century ideas of social democracy (Ife, 2012), particularly those preserved in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Macklem, 2015). These are rights designed to ameliorate economic and social inequalities (Macklem, 2015) of individuals and/or groups to receive different forms of social provision or services in order to realise their full potential as human beings (Ife, 2012). Second generation rights are often referred to as ‘positive rights’ as they are no longer solely concerned with ‘thou shalt nots’ or negative liberties, characteristic of first-generation rights (Thio, 2009). The social workers role is to ensure that people realise their second-generation rights by addressing issues of poverty, unemployment, and access to education and adequate health care through direct practice, policy, research and action work (Ife, 2012). These rights can only be attained through the active provision of social care by the state as they are not readily protected through legal channels and mistreatments are less easily disputed (Ife, 2012).

The third generation of human rights was proposed to include ‘collective rights’ which describes rights that belong to a community, population society or nation (Ife, 2012). This generation emerged after ‘the emancipation of colonised and dominated peoples’ in the middle of the 20th century (Macklem, 2015). This wave no longer focuses purely on the State versus individual scenario, it is also concerned with affiliation and duties between States (Thio, 2009). Through community development work, social workers ensure community advancement in the areas of social, economic, political, cultural, environmental and spiritual development (Ife, 2012). Third-generation rights are commonly referred to as ‘solidarity rights’, which include the right to development, to self-determination, to minority rights, to a healthy environment, to peace and to ownership of the common traditions of man (Macklem, 2015). The intention of a third generation ‘collective rights ‘was to expand human rights to include more collective understandings, however the separate category has been critiqued for reinforcing the individual understandings within the first two generations (Ife, 2012).

Social workers play a central role in ensuring human rights are protected, and while Valek’s three generation theory is a valuable conceptional tool for thinking about human rights, it is not without its implications and limitations. When politicians and media discuss the human rights of a country, they generally only refer to a governments capability of preventing the abuse of civil and political rights (Ife, 2012). The dominance of first-generation views in Western societies is diplomatically favourable for governments, as they can ‘claim’ a good human rights record, even though they may take from other public services like education, health and welfare (Ife, 2012). This lack of interconnectedness and indivisibility between all three generations tends to make social workers view human rights as marginal to their own work and in the domain of the law (Ife, 2012). While only a fraction of social workers would be concerned with first generation rights, most if not all are concerned with helping individuals realise their second-generation rights (Ife, 2012). For the framework to be strong and pertinent to social work practice in a diverse world, it must equally employ all three generations and not seek to emphasise one at the expense of the other two (Ife, 2012). A more holistic view shifts the meaning beyond some of the white patriarchal assumptions that lie within the first generation and enables human rights issues that are of concern to women to be included (Ife, 2012). Ife (2003, as cited in Ife & Fiske, 2006) proposes a seven-category classification of human rights, by adding a special category called survival rights and separating the second-generation rights of economic, social and cultural rights to be conceptually distinct. He believes the seven-categories of survival, civil/political, cultural, economic, social, environmental and spiritual would allow for better exploration and understanding of human rights.

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The human rights-based approach to social work

Many scholars have disputed that social work is a profession whose ethics are deeply affiliated with human rights (NASW, as cited in Rozas & Garran, 2016). A social work approach that is rights-based utilises methods that do not violate human rights, the practice means acknowledging, recognising, and overcoming the obstinate and toxic effects of prejudice and oppression that often compromise rights and lead to poor welfare outcomes (Andoff, 2015). Even though there is not a solid agreeance on a definition of a human rights-based approach, descriptions employed by the United Nations (UN), key international Non-Government Organisations (NGOs), and World Health Organisations (WHO) agree that ‘rights-based approaches prioritise the protection and promotion of human rights, the incorporation of human rights principles, the empowerment of people, and an equitable shift in power relationships’ (Cornwall & Nyamu-Musembi, 2004). A human rights approach is one that believes that rights imply duties, and duties demand accountability from policy-makers and other actors whose actions have an impact on the rights of people (UN High Commission for human rights, as cited in Cornwall & Nyamu-Musembi, 2004).The framework for a rights-based approach to social work incorporates dignity and respect, non-discrimination, transparency, accountability, participation, and the interrelatedness of rights (political, civil, social, economic and cultural), which are then implemented through policy, program planning, and practice (UN, as cited in Andoff, 2015).

Theoretical issues are important foundations for a human rights-based approach to practice. A human rights perspective allows for, and irrefutably requires, a praxis formulation where both mainstream social work theory and practice are intertwined together and constantly weighed in terms of the other (Ife, 2012). Social workers are moral agents that engage other team members in moral decision-making; they have capacity to engage with difficult moral dilemmas, to undertake some form of moral judgement, and to make essentially moral decisions (Ife, 2012). Maintaining passion is an essential part of human rights-based social work as it is driven through not only careful analysis, but also by a passion to make the world a better place, anger towards injustice and oppression, and an obligation to change (Ife, 2012). Social workers need not avoid the passion and the rage but to direct them into effective action that makes a difference (Ife, 2012). Politics are unavoidable in human rights-based social work as it commits a social worker to an ideological position that integrates at least some level of collectivism and a robust role for the public sector, as a result of globalisation. A strong collectivist approach is needed if the entire scope of human rights is to be reached and fulfilled, as some of the functions carried out by states will relocate either to international or to the local level.

Due to the broad nature of human rights, it is essential to have some knowledge and comprehension of the struggle for human rights in history all over the globe and to place human rights work in a historical framework (Ife, 2012). Recognising the history and struggle for human rights emphasises that things can and do change, while giving the feeling of immediacy to the human rights issues at present (Ife, 2012). A historical perspective in any human rights work is necessary for human rights issues to be adequately addressed in their historical context and for cultural blindness to be overcome (Ife, 2012). Human rights-based social work practice must include multi-dimensional analysis of structural oppression; an understanding of why human rights is not defined, realised or protected for many people (Ife, 2012). It also embraces a more holistic understanding of progress by rejecting the restricted linear thinking that is characteristic of the Western Enlightenment view (Ife, 2012). The Green Movement is an important human rights approach for this reason as it emphasises the essential interconnectedness of everything as part of an ecological approach and makes light of how the pursuit of linear thinking can lead to an ecological catastrophe (Ife, 2012). Hershock (as cited in Ife, 2012) believes that non-western intellectual traditions such as Buddhist and Confucian traditions also demonstrate a holistic and systematic world-view.

Both Critical and Structural social work have been explicitly linked to human rights practice (Nipperess & Briskman, 2009; Lundy, 2011, as cited in Andoff, 2015) and are great influencers in the development of anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive social work (Andoff, 2015). Critical social work practice consists of collective and cooperative engagement in seeking to make people more aware of personal, social and/or political issues to encourage participation in transformative social change with the intention to empower people (Andoff, 2015). It promotes social justice by employing topics of discourse, subjectivity, and deconstruction to problematise oppressive social situations, their reproduction, and the role of ideology, positivism, capitalism, and neo-liberalism, while Structural social works to inform social work practice to advance social justice and liberation by appling a collectivist analysis of capitalism, globalization, neo-conservatism, and oppression (Andoff, 2015). However, Ife and Tascon (2016) believe there are limitations in applying a ‘human rights framework’ within critical social work and describe the idea of human rights for advancing social work as a ‘two-edged sword’. On one hand, human rights can imply a progressive approach to practice, while it can also be applied to social work from a more conservative perspective, which denies the likelihood of creative critical practice (Ife & Tascon, 2016).

There is no doubt that human rights are grounded in social work practice. Advocacy is often considered the heart of social work, as Social workers have an ethical and professional responsibility to advocate on behalf of individuals or groups to have a ‘minimally decent life’ (Meckled-Garcia, as cited Rozas & Garran, 2016). Achieving human rights through social work practice involves understanding and utilising the theoretical foundations of praxis, morality, passion, ideology, history, structural disadvantage, holism, postmodernism and post-structuralism. Critical and structural social work provide a social justice framework which imply working from a set of values and principles which have historically emphasised equity, accountability and responsibility for human rights (Rozas & Garran, 2016). Human rights are best achieved through the five core human rights concepts of human dignity, non-discrimination, civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, and solidarity rights (Wronka, as cited in Rozas & Garran, 2016). If a social worker does not deliberately ‘seek to be part of the solution, their practice will inevitably become part of the problem’ (Ife, 2012).


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  2. Borisov, G., Ibarra, P; Nifanov, A., Oleinik, A., Oleinik, N & Ostapiuk, V. (2016). Interaction of the state and the individual in the context of the development of generations of human rights. The Social Sciences, 11(5), 6849-6853.
  3. Cmiel, K. (2004). The recent history of human rights. American Historical Review, 109 (1), 117-36.
  4. Cornwall, A & Nyamu-Musembi, C. (2004). Putting the ‘Rights-Based Approach’ to Development into Perspective. Third World Quarterly, 25(8), 1415-1437.
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