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Social Work and Human Rights

10th December 2019

It is International Human Rights Day 2019. To explore the close connection between social work and human rights and to highlight social work activity in this field, the Association asked Neil Ballantyne, a social work academic at the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, to provide insights.

This year Neil was the recipient of ANZASW’s John Fry Memorial Supreme Award for Quality and Innovation in Social Work.

How are human rights connected to social work?

“For me human rights are central to social work activity and being a defender of human rights ought to be a primary motivator and goal. The global definition of social work includes reference to “principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities”. Here in Aotearoa, core competence standard four states that social workers must be competent to “promote the principles of human rights, and social and economic justice.

Can you describe your activities on human rights and the kaupapa that guides these actions?

As a social work educator I’m responsible for ensuring that future social workers understand the human-rights perspective on social work and I teach courses on human rights, social justice, working with communities, and social work law and ethics. As a social work researcher an awareness of human rights informs my practise and I’ve worked with colleagues to investigate the teaching of human rights across the curriculum. Recently, in a project involving the co-design of a capability framework for newly qualified social workers we ensured that the framework included a capability statement on human rights.

Outside of my work role one of my main preoccupations is with the human rights of Palestinian people and I am the co-convenor of a local group called Wellington Palestine. Israel’s military occupation of Palestine has continued for over half a century and the oppression of the Palestinian people is the longest standing, unresolved issue for the United Nations. It is a strange paradox that the United Nations, an organisation formed as a direct result of the horror of the Holocaust, by supporting the division of Palestine into two states, created the conditions for one of the most repressive regimes in human history. Although the UN recognises the aspirations of the Palestinian people, and declares many of the actions of Israel illegal, so long as the US has a veto on the security council, it is powerless to intervene.

Wellington Palestine works in partnership with other Palestinian rights groups across Aotearoa. Although I undertake this activity as a volunteer it’s connected to my profession since it was the arrest and detention of the Palestinian social worker Munther Amira, that triggered my involvement with the Palestine solidarity movement. I’ve also written a paper with Raed Amira, a social worker working in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, on the plight of Palestinian child prisoners: a topic that will be the main focus for Wellington Palestine’s campaigning activity in the new year.

Can you describe some of the social work roles that are most intimately connected to HR?

Some social work roles might seem more directly related to human rights work than others. So, any social worker whose main activity concerns advocacy is almost certainly working in the domain of human rights.

However, if you read the 29 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (and these should be on the office wall of every social work organisation in the country) it’s hard imagine any social work role that isn’t connected to the promotion and protection of human rights: the right to an education; the right to life, liberty and security; the right not to be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal; the right to work; the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and many more.

A careful reading of those rights, and the rights captured in related conventions and treaties – especially UNDRIP- highlights just how far we have to travel to protect and achieve those rights even in a relatively wealthy liberal democracy like Aotearoa New Zealand.

Why are human rights important in challenging neoliberalism and improving social outcomes, how can they be used in concrete, practical ways to improve the lives of marginalised people and to change society for the better?

Forty years of neoliberalism has had a devastating impact on communities, on the environment, and on human rights worldwide. Inequality has deepened, oppressive working conditions and precarity are pervasive, and everywhere people feel disempowered and disconnected. The competitive, individualistic ethos of the neoliberal order actively undermines human solidarity and the dignity and worth of all people. Austere social policies have rolled back welfare provisions, undermining the health and social welfare safety net and dismantling state involvement in housing services. From a global perspective the “war on terror”, Islamophobia and the rise of far-right groups has added pressure to refugee and migrant populations displaced by war and repressive regimes.

The intentions of those who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was to establish a benchmark for rights that were held to be universal – they belong to all of us, to everybody in the world; inalienable – they cannot be taken away from us; and indivisible and interdependent – that is, governments should not be able to pick and choose which are respected.

Sadly, governments throughout the world routinely ignore and breach the human rights of their people. Which is why we need agreed statements of universal human rights, and human rights defenders, including social workers, who will take resolute action to protect them. Sometimes at risk to their own health and wellbeing, especially under conditions of military occupation, or periods of repressive police actions.

Some might wonder why social workers should be concerned about the rights of people overseas when so many issues confront us here at home. It’s true that there are human right abuses, historical and current right here in Aotearoa. You only have to consider the current debates about the rights of Māori in relation to our child protection system, or the rights of our prisoners, or reproductive rights or land rights. The Reimagining Social Work blog is an excellent medium for social workers to write about and reflect on those issues, and to bring attention to the other actions – petitions, protests, and direct action ­– collective groups are taking to advance those rights.

However, the promotion and protection of human rights is an international issue and recognises the need for human solidarity across borders. In Aotearoa New Zealand, we are relatively free to organise, to assemble and to campaign for our rights. I have no doubt that if I was doing in Bethlehem (the most tear-gassed town on the planet) what I am doing in Wellington I would be arrested and detained like my colleague Munther Amira. Perhaps worse.

So, I choose to use my freedom to work for the rights of the thousands of Palestinian people – including hundreds of children – who are prosecuted in military courts and incarcerated in Israel’s jails. Military rule disrupts every aspect of daily life in occupied Palestine. Palestinians are denied the most basic of human rights that New Zealanders take for granted, including freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom of speech. Through its so called “security measures” ­ – including the separation wall and network of military checkpoints – Palestinian men, women and children are subject to daily humiliations and held captive in a system that is as oppressive as the former South African apartheid state.

Nelson Mandela famously declared that “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinian people”. For me, that is a call to work relentlessly until all Palestinians – whether living in exile, as citizens of Israel or in the occupied territories – are accorded their inalienable human rights.


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