Human Rights

Definition, criteria to be a human right, three generations of human rights, Western influence, three traditions, universalism versus culturalism, needs versus rights, implications for social work, deductive and inductive approaches, frameworks for right-based practice, human rights with refugees, older people, LGBTIQA+ community


Three sections follow:

1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

2. A suggested Practice Approach

3. A list of Supporting Material / References

Feedback welcome!


Background Material


What are human rights?

Human rights are generally those rights that we claim belong to all people, regardless of national origin, race, culture, age, sex or any other characteristic. Such rights are

  • universal—apply to all human beings,

  • indivisible—they come as a package where accepting some and rejecting others is not an option,

  • interdependent—the realization of one human right often depends, wholly or in part, upon the realization of others,

  • inalienable—they cannot be taken away from someone,

  • inabrogable—one cannot voluntarily give up one’s human rights or trade them for additional privileges (although one may choose not to exercise them all the time), and

  • non-discriminatory—all humans are entitled to their rights without discrimination of any kind (Ife, 2012; McPherson, 2018).

When does a ‘right’ become a ‘human right’?

For a claim to a right to be made on the basis of human rights the following criteria must be met.

  1. Realisation of the claimed right is necessary for a person or group to be able to achieve their full humanity, in common with others.

  2. The claimed right is seen either as applying to all of humanity and is something that the person or group claiming the right wishes to apply to all people anywhere, or as applying to people from specific disadvantaged or marginalised groups for whom realisation of that right is essential to their achieving their full human potential.

  3. There is substantial universal consensus on the legitimacy of the claimed right across cultural and other divides.

  4. It is possible for the claimed right to be effectively realised for all legitimate claimants. This excludes the rights to things that are in limited supply.

  5. The claimed right does not contradict other human rights, e.g. the ‘right’ to bear arms, the ‘right’ to hold other people in slavery, a man’s ‘right’ to beat his wife and children, and the ‘right’ to excessive profits resulting in poverty for others contradict the human rights of others and advantage the few (Ife, 2012).

There are three ‘generations’ of human rights

Ife (2012) suggests three types of human rights are emphasised to a greater or lesser extent across cultures.

  1. Negative rights (first generation rights) are civil and political rights that need to be protected or safeguarded with this protection often achieved through legal means. They include the right to vote, the right to freedom of speech, the right to free assembly, the right to a fair trial and equality before the law, the right to citizenship, the right to privacy, the right to self-expression, the right to freedom of religion, the right to nominate for public office, the right to free participation in the society and in the civic life of the nation, the right to be treated with dignity, the right to public safety, freedom from discrimination (religious, racial, gender, etc.), protection in order to go about one’s lawful business and freedom from intimidation, harassment, torture, coercion, and so. Negative rights are central to the Western tradition of human rights discussed below.

  2. Positive rights (second generation rights) imply an active and positive role for the state to provide for the needs of the individual. They are economic, social and cultural rights; rights of the individual or group to receive various forms of social provision or services in order to realise their full potential as human beings: the right to employment, the right to an adequate wage, the right to housing, the right to adequate food and clothing, the right to education, the right to adequate health care, the right to social security, the right to be treated with dignity in old age, the right to reasonable recreation and leisure time, and so on. Global political and economic systems have failed monumentally in the provision of second-generation, positive human rights.

  3. Collective rights (third generation rights) belong to a community, population, society or nation—the Asian critique of human rights: the right to economic development, the right to benefit from world trade and economic growth, the right to live in cohesive and harmonious society, and environmental rights such as the right to breathe unpolluted air, the right to access clean water, and the right to experience ‘nature’. They arise from the struggle against colonialism and unsustainable economic and social development as well as the struggles promoting self-determination for colonised peoples and the struggles of environmental activists.

The UNDHR has a distinct Western influence

The concept of human rights in the UNDHR is a product of European Enlightenment thinking and contextualised within a Western tradition. Several characteristics of the Western worldview have affected the construction of human rights: individual experience is important and celebrated; a worldview defined by and valuing men; a colonial tradition and its associated racism; rational, scientific, logical and patriarchal forms of thinking are privileged. This approach to human rights assumes a Western way of life is superior (Ife, 2012; Ife & Tascon, 2016).


European Enlightenment thinking is not shared by many non-Western cultures, that have their own version of human rights. This doesn’t mean the UNDHR should be abandoned; rather it should be reconstructed in cross-cultural terms (Ife, 2012).


The UNDHR considers only one of three traditions that can be identified in human rights history

There are three traditions that can be identified in the history of human rights and in the human rights literature.

  1. The natural rights tradition where human rights are assumed to attach to people simply as part of their innate humanity; we are born with rights. To understand our rights we have to understand our humanity. Defining rights is seen as the realm of philosophers, theologians or psychologists.

  2. The legal or state obligations tradition where our rights only exist to the extent that they are protected, guaranteed or realised as a result of state action; our rights are defined by legislation and achieved by legislation and the welfare state. The lawyers and legislators articulate human rights. This is the most dominant view of the three and is the dominant view of the UNDHR.

  3. The constructed rights tradition that considers we constantly negotiate and renegotiate rights in our daily lives and our interaction with others; rights are defined by the people themselves, rather than by lawyers (legal rights) or theologians (natural rights). This tradition rejects the idea that rights somehow ‘exist’. What constitutes human rights will always be a matter for ongoing debate (Ife, 2012).

Universalism versus Culturalism; Needs versus Rights

There is an ongoing debate around two concepts both of which are problematic when taken to the extreme.

  1. Human rights are universal—apply to all humans. However, the universality of human rights does not mean they have to be applied or realised in the same way in different cultural contexts. Human rights are universal, but needs are the way these universals are applied in different contexts. For example the right to shelter or health care will be different in different areas of the world (Ife, 2012).

  2. Human rights should be understood by others in terms of the individual’s or community’s culture--culturalism or cultural relativism or simply, relativism. This position gives one no moral position from which to oppose human rights violations outside one’s own culture (Ife, 2012).

The culturalist/relativist position makes two false assumptions about culture, i.e. cultures are static, and cultures are monolithic. In fact cultures are continually changing and cultural practices tend to be pluralistic—many are not held universally. In addressing relativism dialogue become critical; it is essential that anyone wishing to make a useful contribution to the debates, to policy development or to action, be open to dialogue with those from within the other culture. This dialogue could revolve around exploring the following (Calma & Priday, 2011; Pederson et al., 2000):

  1. Is the local community aware of (i) the history of the local cultural community, (ii) the issues they face, (iii) their priorities, (iv) their preferred and traditional approach to life.

  2. Can the expertise and influence of the local leaders and/or elders in that community be harnessed to help with understanding and dialogue’?

  3. What false beliefs / prejudice about the cultural community circulate in the wider community?

  4. How can dialogue between this cultural community and the wider community be promoted, especially in organisations that routinely deal with people from the cultural community?

Human rights are defined differently, realised differently, guaranteed differently, and protected differently in different contexts; the right may be the same, but it will be met in different ways. Distinguishing between ‘needs’ and ‘rights’ is one way of moving the debate forward. Rights are aspirations for all humanity, e.g. the right to health care. Needs are the way these rights are contextualised. Health care means different things in different contexts; in some situations health care could mean the right to a hospital bed, while in other situations it may involve something different. The key is to see cultures as changing and pluralistic with struggles for particular rights (e.g. the liberation of women) occurring in different ways in different cultures. Moral decisions should be made in collaboration with the people concerned. Through dialogue both client and worker become more informed and seek common understandings and common action (Ife, 2012).


Practice Approach



Implications of the Western domination of human rights for social work practice

Human rights exist in many philosophical and religious traditions. They are not a Western invention. There are several aspects of the Western worldview that have affected the construction of human rights and, therefore, how social workers should practise (Ife, 2012):

  1. Individualism Liberalism celebrates individual achievement. This is at odds with non-Western thinking where harmony and the value of the whole support a collective understanding of human rights. Macro and micro approaches to social work practice need to be integrated. For example, the capacity of a ‘micro’ social worker to help a person or family is determined by the social worker’s ability to work in organisational systems, to operate in team meetings, to advocate with a range of community services and to build strong community supports than by engaging in counselling of individuals. Likewise and ‘macro’ social worker constantly uses interpersonal skills and uses skills of effective communication.

  2. Patriarchy The Western worldview has been defined by men in the interests of men, leading to unquestioned acceptance of domination and violence. It must be challenged by a post-structural feminist analysis so that patriarchal structures and influences are recognised and challenged in all social work settings.

  3. Colonialism, racism and progress Colonialist practice remains a significant problem for social work—practice that assumes the practitioner is coming from a position of superiority, imposing their world view on others and promoting the needs of the practitioner rather than that of the client. Non-Western cultures do not necessarily accept the concept of inevitable progress and its associated colonialist implication of Western superiority. Anti-racist and anti-colonialist practices must join feminism at the core of social work.

  4. Rationality In much Western scholarship rational, scientific, logical and patriarchal forms of thinking (positivism) are privileged over any other. But this is only one form of knowledge based on binary, dualistic and linear (stepwise) thinking (right/wrong, pass/fail, etc.). These are also strong traditions in social work even though the experience of the social worker is at odds with this and more in keeping with more holistic (non-Western) thinking involving people experiencing a shared humanity and a continuum of experience.

  5. Assumptions about humans The notion of the human and humanity has been constructed differently at different times and in different places. Human rights need to be placed in context. This involves a deeper understanding of each cultural context, and an exploration of the meaning of humanity and the human experience within that context.

Social workers should apply the three generations of human rights to their practice
  1. Social workers can advocate to protect civil and political rights (negative rights) within an empowerment framework

  2. Social workers can engage in direct practice to realise positive rights that need to be met, not just protected (right to employment, adequate wages, housing, food and clothing, education, health care, social security, respectful ageing, recreation time, etc.). Framing poverty, exclusion, inadequate education, hunger, preventable disease, homelessness and environmental degradation as human rights abuses can be helpful in providing an extra moral imperative that these problems be effectively addressed

  3. Social workers can empower communities to deliver collective rights: social, economic, political, cultural, environmental and personal/spiritual rights (Ife, 2012).

A human rights-based approach can move the focus from satisfying human needs to defining, realising and guaranteeing human rights. Meeting needs is often the seen as the central task of social work. This change from needs to rights shifts the emphasis of social work to

  • an increased focus on the way services are provided,

  • an increased space for empowerment, client participation and skill-building,

  • an increase in collaboration across programs and professions, and

  • increased focus on the social, economic, cultural, and political context of clients’ problems leading to more emphasis on politics and policy (McPherson, 2018).

Different value systems have different views on the needs of a given situation. When social workers make statements of need, the desired end state can be described in terms of the meeting of a claimed right, and this is the essence of the link between needs and rights in social work. Needs do not exist objectively but are the result of someone deciding what is needed to achieve some rights-based goal. Social workers have to stop defining needs for people and empower them to reclaim that right and define their own needs. A social worker’s role is to assist this process. Any practice that does not allow people to exercise the power to define their own needs is a denial of their human rights practice (Ife, 2012).


Use both deductive and inductive approaches in practice

The constructed rights tradition (one of the three traditions of human rights mentioned above) suggests that human rights are not static but will vary over time and in different cultures and political contexts. This approach to human rights should be front-of-mind of social workers. Social workers should use both deductive and inductive approaches when practising (Ife, 2012).

  • The deductive approach starts with a particular statement of particular rights (e.g. the UNDHR or the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) and then asks, ‘What does this mean for practice?’

  • The inductive approach starts with the reality of a practice situation and then asks what are the human rights issues at stake (Ife, 2012). The approach makes private troubles into public issues as it goes beyond addressing individual needs and advocates for structural and cultural changes at both mezzo and macro levels with needs being perceived as basic human rights (Cox & Pardasani, 2017). For example, seeking social assistance because of unemployment needs to be framed as the right to meaningful and rewarding work. There may also be other rights involved: the right to be free from discrimination, the right to education, the right to have a say in larger economic and business decisions.

The deductive/inductive approach can be used at community level. Communities need to be engaged in defining their own rights. 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. In this approach UN documents 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 and priorities for change (McPherson, 2018).


Frameworks for rights-based approach to social work exist

Androff (2018) highlights five key concepts that rights-based social workers must deploy in their work:

  • Respect the human dignity of each person and community.

  • Prevent discrimination on any basis: gender, age, sexual orientation, sexual identity, ability status, national origin, race or ethnicity, language, religion, and migrant status.

  • Empower the disempowered through full participation in decisions that affect their welfare.

  • Work in a transparent manner in all aspects of social work: assessment, research program evaluation and interactions with people.

  • Demonstrate accountability to individuals and communities, e.g., via advocacy, awareness-raising and education.

Ife and Tascon (2016) suggest a critical approach to social work practice is necessary for social workers who adopt a rights-based practice. This critical approach starts with the idea of the ‘human’ who has rights, recognising that human rights assumes a ‘humanity’ and ‘ideal human’ who has reached the full human potential. This approach recognises cultural specificities, which the conventional view of human rights largely fails to do. Starting with a recognition of cultural specificities enables social workers to explore with people, through dialogue, their alternative assumptions about humanity, and this can then become the basis for defining the rights that people see as important, and the corresponding duties, which may fall on family members, community, civil society, local, state and federal governments, local businesses, large corporations, media bodies, educational institutions, and so on. Human rights begin, not with the UN Declaration, but with a dialogical examination of culture, life experience, community norms and values, within the direct experience of the people concerned. While the UN Declaration may prove useful later, primacy is given clearly to the local, contextual constructions of what ‘humanity’ and ‘rights’ mean.


Ife and Tascon (2016) illustrate their position with an examination of social work with Indigenous People and communities where recognition of culture and dialogue between white and Indigenous people has often been absent.

  • Indigenous human rights have been defined by white lawyers, based on UN conventions.

  • Indigenous rights to health, housing, etc are defined using the standards of the white community, leading to ‘close the gap’ language where white communities set the standard.

This approach invalidates the Indigenous perspective; the dialogical approach is missing. Instead a critical social work approach would enable Indigenous People to define human rights in their own way, from their ideas of ‘humanity’. This can move to a dialogue around human rights between Indigenous and white people, thereby promoting cross-cultural understanding.


Mapp, McPherson and Androff (2019) propose a framework for rights-based practice that depends on three “pillars”:

  1. Seeing people as rights-holders where social and other problems are views as rights violations rather than problems to be managed or solved—use a ‘human rights lens’.

  2. Identifying human rights and needs leads to the development of human rights goals. Achieving these goals becomes the focus as well as addressing immediate needs. Advocacy has an important place in this pillar—'human rights goals’.

  3. Social workers need tools to achieve their goals: participation, non-discrimination, strengths perspective, micro–macro integration; capacity building, community and interdisciplinary collaboration, activism, and accountability. This is the ‘human rights methods’ pillar.

  • A strengths perspective requires social workers to focus on the skills, strengths, and capacities of clients and their communities.

  • Human rights practice frames problems as personal as well as structural, and thus requires intervention in both the individual (micro) and social (macro) arenas.

  • Capacity building requires skill building and means that social workers must move beyond services—what professionals do for clients—and help clients and communities to develop the skills to participate in changing unjust personal and political situations.

  • Community and interdisciplinary collaboration allows professional and social alliances to form that cross the professional, economic, and community boundaries for the purpose of advancing social and political change

  • Activism means that professionals join with their clients and communities in the struggles that affect all our lives.

  • Accountability requires that social workers reflect on their own privilege and judgments, especially when engaging across race, class, and culture.

Human Rights Social Work with Different Societal Groups

Refugees and asylum seekers

Social workers have always been involved with refugees and asylum seekers (RAS). It started in the 1970s with the arrival of the people from Vietnam and has continued. They work with communities to provide RAS with support in housing (a critical issue), education, employment, language, health issues, etc. Torture and trauma are major health issues that pass from one generation to another and can lead to violence and contact with courts and police.


Social work practice should play an important role in maintaining refugees’ and asylum seekers’ human rights, both in Australia and internationally. In Australia, social workers will continue to assist refugees and asylum seekers to uphold their rights as, or in becoming, Australian citizens. They will also continue to publicise human rights abuses, and advocate for the just treatment of people. However, Ife (2012) maintains effective social work must also understand the global dimensions of local problems, such as asylum seekers. Social workers could advocate for the Australian government to establish a multi-nation processing centre mentioned. International social work must increase.


Older people

Cox and Pardasani (2017) offer an outline of human rights and older people. They suggest that, as human rights advocates, social workers must ensure that policies are fulfilling rights rather than simply addressing needs so older people can enjoy full health and actively participate in society. Workers can help empower older adults, so their voices are heard. However, in order for the profession to take a leadership role with regards to the rights of older adults, it is critical that social workers examine their own attitudes and preconceptions of aging.


As long as ageism remains unchallenged, it will continue as a detriment to policies that support and respect the dignity of older adults. To support the rights of older people social workers need to move beyond the needs-based approach to a rights-based approach that focuses on policies that secure the mandated wellbeing of older people. To lead in this area and ensure the human rights of older adults, social workers need to:

  1. Identify and engage multiple stakeholders at the local, regional. and national level to work collaboratively.

  2. Engage for-profit businesses and non-profit organizations who depend on older adult consumers in supporting (financially and in-kind) a national movement.

  3. Recruit and train older adults to engage in political action.

  4. Learn from national movements around the globe that are effectively addressing the rights of older adults.

  5. Advocate with elected representatives across the country to protect the rights of older adults and enhance their well-being.

  6. Engage media to raise awareness and critical consciousness among the general public.

  7. Collect and disseminate evidence on the impact of social policies on the lives of older adults.

  8. Build a national consensus and action plan to promote the human rights of all older adults

Cox and Pardasani (2017) outline a number of areas where social workers can implement a rights-based approach at micro, mezzo and macro level: the guardianship process, unemployment, health care and for specific subgroups (older women, LGBTIQA+ seniors and immigrants. The article has details.


LGBTIQA+ community

Social workers can empower communities to unite to work against discrimination of LGBTIQA+ people based on Ife’s (2012) discussion around Western binary, dualistic thinking. Binary thinking promotes competitive opposites: male/female, right/wrong, radical/conservative, pass/fail. It does not mirror life, where grey is more common that black/white. Having people acknowledge that authentic life does not consist of opposites may lead into a discussion around gender and heteronormativity. Other strategies can include advocacy for LGBTIQA+ people to have the rights accorded to heterosexual citizens. However, any intervention needs to start with what the LGBTIQA+ community would like to see occur, and how they would like to see it happen. They need to have control of the process, i.e. the role of a social worker will be to listen, reflect, and discuss with LGBTIQA+ people in an empowering manner how to bring authentic awareness of LGBTIQA+ issues to a heterosexually oriented society. With their emphasis on identifying and overcoming oppression, the person-in-environment and feminist perspectives of social work practice provide useful approaches.


Supporting Material / References


Androff, D. (2018). Practicing human rights and social work: Reflections and rights-based approaches. Journal of Human Rights and Social Work, 3, 179-182. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41134-018-0056-5

Calma, T. & Priday, E. (2011). Putting Indigenous Human Rights into Social Work Practice, Australian Social Work, 64(2), 147-155.

Cox, C., & Pardasani, M. J. (2017). Ageing and human rights: A rights-based approach to social work with older adults. Journal of Human Rights and Social Work, 2, 98-106. doi: 10.1007/s41134-017-0037-0

Ife, J. (2012). Human rights and social work: Towards rights-based practice (3rd ed.). Port Melbourne, Australia: Cambridge University Press.

Ife, J., & Tascon, S. M. (2016). Human rights and critical social work: Competing epistemologies for practice. Social Alternatives, 35(4), 27-31.

Mapp, S., McPherson, J., Androff, D., & Gabel, S. G. (2019). Social work is a human rights profession. Social Work, 64(3), 259-269. doi: 10.1093/sw/swz023

McPherson, J. (2018). Exceptional and necessary: Practicing rights-based social work in the United States. Journal of Human Rights and Social Work, 3 (2), 89-98. doi:10.1007/s41134-018-0051-x

United Nations. (1948). The universal declaration of human rights.http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html

United Nations. (1990). Convention on the rights of the child. http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx