Human Rights-Based Approaches to Community Practice in the United States: A Call to Action

© The Author(s) 2015
Kathryn R. Libal and Scott HardingHuman Rights-Based Community Practice in the United StatesSpringerBriefs in Rights-Based Approaches to Social Work10.1007/978-3-319-08210-3_1

1. Human Rights-Based Approaches to Community Practice in the United States: A Call to Action

Kathryn R. Libal  and Scott Harding 

School of Social Work, University of Connecticut, West Hartford, CT, USA



Kathryn R. Libal (Corresponding author)


Scott Harding

Where, after all, do universal rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

Eleanor Roosevelt, “The Great Question,” remarks delivered at the United Nations in New York on March 27, 1958 (United Nations, n.d.).


Eleanor Roosevelt’s statement on human rights being realized “close to home” through everyday acts of involvement in community life has new meaning today. Community-based organizations and other civil society groups increasingly invoke human rights in campaigns to challenge social inequality and other forms of injustice. Rights-based approaches in social work have also been gaining currency in the past 20 years. Internationally, social work scholars and practitioners utilize a human rights framework to conduct policy analysis and political advocacy, community practice (Ife, 2012; Zaidalkilani, 2011), and clinical practice (Berthold, 2015; Reichert, 2011). Social workers in the United States are relatively new to the field of contemporary human rights practice. This is due in part because of long-standing resistance to understanding social justice issues as involving human rights claims, stemming from a legacy of “American exceptionalism” (Hertel & Libal, 2011). Relatively limited engagement in this area by social workers also stems from the perception that human rights mobilization is best achieved by lawyers or professional policy advocates (Reichert, 2006). In the past such efforts in the judicial and policy realms have relied on a top-down approach to achieve formal legal change to comply with international human rights norms. Though important, this work has often failed to adequately consider the value of grassroots mobilization and specific community-based efforts to promote and realize human rights (Armaline, Glasberg, & Purkayastha, 2011; Ife & Fiske, 2006; Ife, 2008). In the past two decades, social workers in the United States have become increasingly knowledgeable about human rights principles and international norms (Healy, 2008; Steen & Mathieson, 2005). At the same time, public interest lawyers and human rights advocates have solicited community social workers and allies to develop campaigns “from the ground up” (see the work of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative and the US Human Rights Network, Class Exercises and Additional Resources). As this movement has matured in the United States, local organizations have made claims for social inclusion and equality using the language of human rights. Jewell, Collins, Gargotto, and Dishon (2009) argue that in the context of community organizing with welfare recipients and low-wage workers “using a human rights framework can stimulate a debate that emphasizes our ethical and moral right to basic necessities” (p. 310). While social work has a rich history of community-level “macro” practice (Rothman, 2007; Rubin & Rubin, 2008), explicit connections between community practice and human rights have only recently emerged (Androff, 2012; Ife, 2008; Reisch, Ife, & Weil, 2012). This book is an effort to bring together two strands of professional work—community practice and human rights practice—that are congruent and necessary to address together in order to advance human rights and social justice goals in the United States.

This chapter outlines the value of using a rights-based, rather than a needs-based or charitable, approach by community practitioners to address social exclusion and inequality. As a form of practice a rights-based approach seeks to hold government—at multiple levels—accountable for ensuring that human rights are met for all members of society. We define the concept of human rights, noting the legacy of “American exceptionalism” within the global human rights system, particularly with respect to economic and social rights. We illustrate the foundation for a “right to community,” underscoring core values of social inclusion, civic engagement, and deliberative democracy as crucial factors in human rights mobilization. The chapter also outlines the strength of a rights-based approach to community-level advocacy and efforts to organize campaigns at varied levels of governance (municipal, regional, state, and national). We suggest that a rights-based approach offers the possibility of more participation by a broader segment of community members on specific campaigns. Thus, such efforts have the potential to include actors lacking traditional political power. We compare the congruence of this framework with classic models of community organizing, which emphasize affected groups having a central role in identifying key concerns and defining solutions. Community engagement is also critical for implementation of laws and policies. Without community participation, therefore, specific human rights gains made in the legal and policy realm may not be realized.

Defining Human Rights

There are two dimensions to human rights, one that is rooted in international human rights law and practices, and another that is normative or moral in nature and may transcend any given legal norms (Ife & Fiske, 2006). Gaining competence in international human rights law for most social workers requires learning a new language. It implies a need to become familiar with how to access resources that provide insight into the specific norms and standards being developed by UN bodies and at regional and national levels. In the United States, lack of familiarity and knowledge by social workers and society at large with the meanings and practices of human rights stems from a sense of “American exceptionalism,” a concept explained in more detail below.

In the United States, the human rights document familiar to most people is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Embodied in the UDHR and the United Nations Charter are the founding principles of a evolving understanding of rights that all humans share, including economic, social, cultural, political, and civil rights. Less well understood is the system of human rights treaties, guidelines, and processes of implementing and monitoring compliance of human rights that takes place both at the United Nations and by regional human rights systems such as the European Court of Human Rights or the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Contemporary understandings of what counts as human rights in the United States emphasize civil and political rights, including the right to life; to be free from torture and enslavement; to liberty and security of the person; recognition before the law; freedom of belief, thought, and expression; right to participate in politics and public life; freedom of association; right to marry; and the right to one’s own language and community, particularly in countries with diverse ethnic, national, and religious groups. Underpinning these political and civil rights are the principles of non-discrimination and equality, regarded as fundamental within a human rights framework. Civil and political rights are consonant with core values expressed in the US Constitution and have been viewed as the human rights for which the federal government should be held accountable.

Less recognized in the United States has been the grouping of rights known as social, economic, and cultural rights (Albisa, 2011; Lewis, 2009; Ploch, 2011). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948) defines the basis for economic and social rights in several key principles. Article 22 establishes a right to social security and the “economic, social, and cultural rights indispensable” for dignity and human development. Article 23 defines rights related to work. Article 25 establishes a right to an adequate standard of living, in order to secure food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services for individuals and families. This article also entails that everyone has a right to social security for the unemployed, sick, disabled, widowed, or elderly (see Class Exercises and Additional Resources section). Article 26 defines a right to education. Finally, Article 27 articulates that everyone has “the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and benefits.” Each of these articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been further elaborated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (United Nations, 1966). The United States has failed to join the ICESCR, however, claiming that it already achieves these ideals through policies and laws that allow equal opportunity for its citizens to become educated, work, and secure their own housing and other “goods” (Alston, 2009). Thus, the federal government’s position is one of denial of any obligation or responsibility of the government to respect, protect, and fulfill economic and social rights. Despite this view, human rights advocates, community organizers, and other professionals from law, public health, nursing, and social work have begun to use the standards established in the ICESCR and other human rights treaties addressing economic and social rights.

Yet defining economic and social rights and building support within social work to advocate for the realization of specific rights—to adequate housing, health care, or food, for example—has been challenging. While many US social workers recognize addressing human needs as a primary goal of the profession, explicit reframing of such “needs” as rights is an uneven practice (Healy, 2008; Reichert, 2011). For example, human rights is often treated as something to address largely in the international realm in the National Association of Social Workers’ (2012) compendium of policy action statements, Social Work Speaks. The collection of NASW policy statements largely fails to engage human rights directly in other policy statements, despite human rights dimensions to most of the areas addressed by the volume.

This book seeks to underscore the consonance between human rights norms and practices and community practice in the United States, with a focus on some of the most pressing structural issues of social inequality: health care, housing, and food as human rights concerns. These are central concerns of community organizing. Reframed as human rights matters, many organizers argue that new concepts, tools and tactics for social mobilization and policy formulation and implementation can be developed.

Social work literature addressing social and economic rights has emerged over the past 20 years and there are now several different approaches to defining human rights that are helpful to recognize. Ife (2006) includes rights to life, food, water, shelter, clothing, health, and safety under survival rights and suggests that rights to a basic standard of living, work, and social security are economic rights. He claims the right to family life, privacy, education, and choice of partner and sexuality are social rights. Hertel and Minkler (2007), experts in political science and economics, define economic rights as a right to an adequate standard of living, including rights to health and education; right to employment without discrimination; and a right to social security. In yet another permutation, Mishra (2005) categorizes adequate standard of living, adequate housing, food, access to health care, and social protection/social security as social rights. For our purposes, we address economic and social rights as entwined and do not separate the two terms “economic” and “social.” We retain a focus on “economic and social rights” (rather than “survival rights”) because of the widespread use of this framing in many fields, including social work, public health, social development, and law.

Since the adoption of the UDHR in 1948, governments, including the United States, and non-governmental actors have sought to define the parameters of human rights and mechanisms for securing them both within and between nation-states. In the 1940s, Americans such as Eleanor Roosevelt were deeply involved in processes to define human rights and develop methods for state enforcement (Glendon, 2002). Because of the advent of the Cold War and the rise of post-colonial movements, it took nearly 20 years for the Commission on Human Rights to craft two separate covenants which further elaborated and gave force to principles contained in the Universal Declaration (Nowak, 2005). The ICESCR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) were adopted by the United Nations in 1966 and came into force in 1976, after enough countries had ratified, or agreed to be bound by these treaties. These covenants, along with the UDHR are also known as the International Bill of Rights (Healy, 2008; Pollack & Rosman, 2012).

Other human rights treaties have been created since the founding of the United Nations and are monitored under the auspices of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. These include the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) (United Nations, 1965); the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (United Nations, 1979); the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (United Nations, 1984); the Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations, 1989); the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (1990); the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (United Nations, 2006); and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (United Nations, 2006). Additional human rights monitoring processes have developed in recent years at the United Nations through the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process and through special investigations by “rapporteurs” on wide-ranging topics, such as extreme poverty, violence against women, housing, and food.

Additional UN treaties address key human rights concerns, including a robust system monitoring labor rights by the International Labour Organisation, the lead agency for monitoring labor rights; the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide (United Nations, 1948); and the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (United Nations, 1951, 1967), administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. At a regional level, the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, as well as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, are also rich sources for human rights implementation or organizing, highlighting how human rights claims are adjudicated in other countries. The United States is a member of the Organization of American States and thus is subject to the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Commission to consider violations of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 1948). But, the United States has not ratified the American Convention on Human Rights (Organization of American States, 1969) and is not subject to the authority of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The Political Nature of Claiming Human Rights

Mobilization for human rights is an inherently political activity. As Michael Goodhart (2009) observes, “To assert a human right is to make a fundamentally political claim: that one is entitled to equal moral respect and to the social status, support, and protection necessary to achieve that respect … Yet human rights are not simply equivalent with human dignity or justice; they represent a certain kind of dignity or justice, one incompatible with subordination” (p. 4). Deka (2012) underscores this political

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