Across the globe, many are witnessing their human rights being diminished. Those of us who are marginalized because of poverty, geography, and/or identity are most vulnerable to having our human rights denied. Climate change and environmental degradation amplify existing health inequities, pollute and/or deplete vital resources, fuel conflict, and increase forced migration upon already persecuted communities (World Health Organization [WHO], 2021). Adding to this is a growing sense of nationalism around the globe, resulting in denying refugees their right to safety and creating anti-immigrant and anti-other sentiment. All of this is happening against a backdrop of expanding violence, consolidation of power, and a rise in authoritarianism. In some countries, leaders have exploited fears of the other to encourage voters to voluntarily hand over their rights (see Snyder, 2017 on response to tyranny). Across the United States, our human rights to participate in government, reproductive freedom, non-discrimination, privacy, education, health, and safety are being denied and/or infringed upon through legislation and judicial intervention.
As a profession that professes respect for “the inherent dignity and worth of all human beings” (IFSW, 2014, para. 8), social work should provide leadership in times of increasing poverty, political tyranny, and violence. Denying people of their basic rights and humanity allows others to dehumanize, stigmatize, and marginalize groups they deem unworthy. A human rights and rights-based approach in social work and social policy can bring forward the humanity of all people.
White supremacy patriarchy underlies many of the inequities experienced around the world. This dates to European colonization of the Americas, Australia, Asia, and Africa when people and lands were exploited for the profit of white male society. The idea of race and gender existing as a hierarchy, with white men as rightfully at the pinnacle, was solidified through the occupation of lands, genocide of the people who were on the lands, and extraction of the natural resources from the land. These actions created a hierarchy of oppression that is perpetuated by legislation worldwide that limits access to voting, withholds education, and supports growth in the incarceration of people marginalized by their identity.
Human rights documents were created to protect those most vulnerable to rights violations– women, children, elders, people of color, people with disabilities, people living in poverty, immigrants and refugees, and people in developing countries. Human rights documents alone cannot protect and promote our rights. For example, women have made remarkable strides over the past century, including the right to vote in almost every country; however, as long as women are not equally represented in government and judicial systems, women will continue to risk losing the right to safety, reproductive freedom, and even education. Our noble intentions must be followed by actions to secure our rights.
Across the globe, attacks on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression have placed people already vulnerable at further risk of interpersonal, community, and structural violence. While some countries have struck down laws banning same sex relationships (e.g., Singapore, Bhutan, Angola), others have increased punishment to include the death penalty (e.g., Uganda, Brunei) (Human Rights Watch, n.d.). In the United States, conservative states are passing legislation that limits gender affirming care for minors and adults; banning books on and education about race, slavery, and LGBTQI + topics; and outlawing drag performances. These laws deny basic human rights while increasing marginalization, violence, and hate crimes.
All persons have a right to live free from discrimination, persecution, and all forms of violence, from interpersonal and community to organizational and structural. A rights-based approach honors the worth and dignity of all people (Androff & Mathis, 2022), ensuring we all have racial, social, economic, civil, political, and environmental justice. Actively confronting the discrimination and oppression of people who seem different from us is a core value in social work, one that can ensure we all enjoy our universal human rights.
Cathryne L. Schmitz
Shirley Gatenio Gabel
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International Federation of Social Work (IFSW) (2014). Global Definition of Social Work. https://www.ifsw.org/what-is-social-work/global-definition-of-social-work/.
Snyder, T. (2017). On tyranny: Twenty lessons from the Twentieth Century. New York: Tim Duggan Books.
World Health Organization (WHO) (2021). Climate Change and Health. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/climate-change-and-health.
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Schmitz, C., Gabel, S. Targeting Those Already Vulnerable. J. Hum. Rights Soc. Work 8, 115–116 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41134-023-00259-y