• vasilios ioakimidis

Social Workers are Human Rights Defenders. Let's support them and protect them.

Social Workers, in many parts of the world, risk their lives out of commitment to human rights and social justice. Unfortunately, the list of social work practitioners and educators who have been ‘disappeared,’ assaulted, persecuted or arbitrarily detained for defending the rights of the oppressed grows longer every year that passes. 2016 has been a remarkably dangerous year for social workers several of whom fell victims of state violence, homophobia and racism most notably in Latin America and the Middle East.

Protecting social workers/ Human Rights defenders is a crucial task for the social work community. We hope that 2017 will be the year that sees the creation of appropriate means necessary for co-ordinating solidarity for the "defence of the defenders"

It is for this reason that the Human Rights Committee of IASSW drafted a proposal for the creation of a Committee in Defence of Social Workers- Human Rights Defenders. I had the privilege of chairing this committee and liaise with colleagues and human rights lawyers from different regions of the world. We are confident that the proposal will be approved by the IASSW Board of Directors next month and by the end of 2017 we will be able to launch this crucial committee. Below you may find the full proposal.

Proposal for the creation of a ‘Committee in Defence of Social Workers – Human Rights Defenders’.

1. The Global Definition of the Social Work Profession[1] accurately encapsulates the historic and dynamic commitment of the social work profession to principles of Human Rights and Social Justice. Such commitment is also crystalized and amplified in the IFSW-IASSW joint Statement of Ethical Principles[2]. The latter makes explicit references to International Conventions and Documents particularly relevant to social work practice and action. In particular it stated that social work practice and education adheres to:

  • The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) (1953);

  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (1966);

  • The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (1966);

  • The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969) (ICERD);

  • The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (1979);

  • The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) (1989);

  • The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006);

2. The United Nations confirms the strong and undisputable link between Social Work and Human Rights in the ‘Manual on Human Rights and Social Work’ when stating that ‘More than many professions, Social Work practitioners are conscious that their concerns are closely linked to respect for Human Rights. They accept the premise that Human Rights and fundamental freedoms are indivisible, and that the full realization of civil and political rights is impossible without enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights.’ [3]

The aforementioned Manual, goes beyond conventional and technically narrow interpretations of Human Rights when suggesting that ‘Human Rights are inseparable from Social Work theory, values and ethics, and practice (...) advocacy of such rights must therefore be an integral part of Social Work, even if in countries living under authoritarian regimes such advocacy can have serious consequences for Social Work professionals’

3. Therefore, the United Nations not only recognizes the importance of social work as a “Human Rights Profession” but crucially accepts that Social Workers and Social Work Educators have a professional and ethical obligation to promote human rights even under authoritarian and politically asphyxiating environments. Perhaps it would be more accurate when interpreting these documents to stress that social workers should promote Human Rights especially in these environments, where systematic and deliberate violations of human rights and civil liberties occur and have a catastrophic effect on the the well-being of communities and individuals.

4. However, the task of advocacy and promotion of human rights, as described above, includes multiple and serious risks. Systematic abuses and state violence targeting Human Rights Defenders across the world are well documented. The United Nations suggest that ‘A great many human rights defenders, in every region of the world, have been subject to violations of their human rights. They have been the target of executions, torture, beatings, arbitrary arrest and detention, death threats, harassment and defamation, as well as restrictions on their freedoms of movement, expression, association and assembly. Defenders have been the victims of false accusations and unfair trial and conviction.’[4]

It has been formally recorded that between 1995 and 2005 more than 40 social workers were murdered, imprisoned or kidnapped in countries where freedom of speech and political activism are suppressed. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this number is much higher and it also includes social work educators and students.

5. IASSW and IFSW have a professional, political and ethical obligation to defend social work educators and practitioners who face persecution or abuse. These obligations stem from the following:

  • IFSW and IASSW are the two historical, principal, foremost and best recognized international social work organisations, which jointly represent the global social work community and the social work profession.

  • IFSW and IASSW are the largest social work organisations and their joint membership base is truly global spanning across all regions of the the world.

  • IFSW and IASSW retain excellent links with and are represented in International Organisations promoting human rights such as the United Nations and the Council of Europe.

  • Members of IFSW and IASSW have a continuous and pragmatic expectation that the two organization represent their views and defend the profession.

  • IFSW and IASSW through a number of key documents (including Manuals, Policies, Statements) explicitly and actively encourage social workers to act in defence of Human Rights.

  • IFSW and IASSW, when encouraging the promotion of Human Rights, should be able to support and defend practitioners when persecuted on the basis of simply adhering to the recommendations of the two organisations.

6. Therefore, apart from the obvious ethical, political and professional obligation to extend solidarity, support and empathy to social workers-defenders of Human Rights who are also members of the two organisations, one could argue that IFSW and IASSW have a “Duty of Care” towards their members, elected representatives, employees, General Meeting, Board of Directors and as defined in Common Law.

7. The idea of defending social workers victimized due to promoting the values and principles of the profession is not new. Ad hoc, grassroots and organic campaigns in defence of social workers, have appeared in the past in several occasions. Over the last five years the international social work community mobilized to support social workers whose activist work and vocal commitment to social justice put them at risk. A notable example of internationalism in defense of social work values and human rights was this of N. F., Hungarian Social Worker, who was prosecuted because of his activist work exposing the criminalization of homeless people. N. F. was acquitted as a result of the international mobilization, which included social work organisations at a global, regional and local level. This example offers a very useful model of how the international social work community (IASSW, IFSW, regional associations etc) can mobilize affectively in order to defend social work academics, practitioners and educators facing violation of their human rights. Despite the spontaneity and determination characterising these campaigns, a distinct lack of co-ordination at the IFSW-IASSW-Regional Level often hinders their efficiency and efficacy –

regrettably, to the disadvantage of the most vulnerable colleagues.

8. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights has expressed concern for the situation of human rights defenders in all countries.[5] Nevertheless, special emphasis has been placed on countries where: (a) internal armed conflict or severe civil unrest exists; (b) the legal and institutional protections and guarantees of human rights are not fully assured or do not exist at all. In order to address these challenges the United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/RES/53/144 adopted the Declaration on human rights defenders. The Declaration provides for the support and protection of human rights defenders in the context of their work. This Declaration outlines some specific duties of States and the responsibilities of everyone with regard to defending human rights, in addition to explaining its relationship with national law. Although, the Declaration is not, in itself, a legally binding instrument it contains a series of principles and rights that are based on human rights standards enshrined in other international instruments that are legally binding

9 Our assessment suggests that the role, job description, and principles of the social work profession should ex vi termini be considered as covered by the provisions of the ‘Declaration on Human Rights Defenders’. Therefore, IFSW and IASSW should make best use of the Declaration and confidently utilize it as a tool – part of a broader mechanism – for supporting social work practitioners and educators, defenders of human rights.

10. Our research, also suggests that other professions whose members are also covered by the broad definition of “Human Rights Defenders” have made effective use of the Declaration’s provisions and taken concrete steps to monitor violations of rights affecting their members in order to prevent and deter violence against their members. The “Committee to Defend Journalists”[6], the “International Association of Lawyers”[7], “Physicians for Human Rights”[8] are very helpful examples showcasing efforts of other professions to defend their members who face persecution resulting from adhering to their duty.

11. Despite the fact that social work currently lags behind other professions in efforts to provide effective support to each of its members facing persecution, it is our contention that once our profession develops an appropriate Mechanism of Support we will be in a much better position compared to other professions, for two reasons: a) Professional representation in social work does not experience fragmentation and internal antagonism, evident in other professions, as membership is mostly concentrated around IFSW and IASSW; b) although, existing statistics suggest that here is an increase in the number of victimized social workers, overall numbers are still small and the prospect of providing support can be considered as feasible and manageable; c) human rights considerations are an essential aspect to our professional activity, whereas other professions might consider this marginal to their primary task.

12. Considering the facts included in this report and in line with the decision of IASSW’s Board of Directors to explore possible remedies to the situation, IFSW’s concerns related to specifically to safeguarding the human rights of practitioners, and the commitment of both organisations to the ongoing Global Agenda where human rights is a key consideration, we are proposing the following creation of a joint IASSW-IFSW standing committee entitled “Committee for the Defence of Social Work Practitioners and Educators”

14. Role and objectives of the Regulation Committee

The main objective of this Committee will be to

  1. Monitor, update and analyse data with regards to social workers who face persecution resulting from adhering to their duty. In order to monitor specific incidents as well as changing global patterns, in an effective and responsive manner, the Committee will be responsible for maintaining an up-to-date data base, visualizing information in the form of an accessible and interactive map.

  2. Assess the severity and establish the relevance, urgency and validity of reports that reach the Committee and refer to incidents of victimisation and persecution.

  3. Decide on specific actions in defence of persecuted social workers. The choice and course of action will be based on a mutually agreed “Protocol of Engagement”.

15. Membership of the Committee

The Committee shall consist of: The Chair of IASSW Human Rights Committee, The IFSW Human Rights Commissioner, a Human Rights Legal Adviser (pro-bono) and at least one representative per region. Also, it is at the discretion of the Committee to decide when to recruit volunteers from the membership of the two organisations, who could provide technical support regarding data collection, data analysis, lobbying and campaigning activities. In exceptional circumstances the Committee can appoint ‘honorary members’ outside the social work profession.

16. Relationship of the Committee to IASSW and IFSW

The Committee is not a separate legal entity but fully adheres to the principles, regulations and by-laws of IASSW and IFSW. Its operation is based on a consensus between IFSW and IASSW.

Under no circumstances is the Committee allowed to take action independent from IASSW and IFSW or without consulting the aforementioned organisations. The Committee is directly accountable to the Presidents and Secretary-General of the two organisations.

The arrangements and operation of the Committee shall be designed to avoid, in all cases, tensions and conflicts arising due to differences between the Committee, IFSW and IASSW. In case when disagreements arise, the final decision will rest with the Presidents of IFSW and IASSW.

17. Protocol of Engagement

The Committee shall make recommendations to IASSW President, IFSW President and IFSW Secretary-General on how to engage with and respond to specific cases of persecutions that come to our attention. These recommendations should be reasonable, feasible, well justified and adhering to the principles of the two organisations.

Actions recommended to IASSW and IFSW shall not include a commitment for direct legal support to social workers experiencing victimisation. Depending on the specific circumstances of each case recommended actions could include:

  1. Campaigning and mobilizing membership through petitions

  2. Lobbying Governmental, Non Governmental and International Organisations

  3. Ensuring a fair trial of social workers through missions of observers.

  4. Liaising both with ‘membership on the ground’ and representatives of IASSW/ IFSW in the UN.

  5. Publicizing incidents to Press

  6. Lodging complains to the appropriate organisations.

Once there is a consensus among the Committee and the Presidents of IFSW and IASSW on the agreed and most suitable course of action, the Committee will be responsible for co-ordinating and overseeing the operationalisation of the agreed actions.

Vasilios Ioakimidis,

Chair of IASSW Human Rights Committee

Nigel Hall

Secretary of IFSW Human Rights Commission



[3] UN (Centre for Human Rights) (1994) Human Rights and Social Work. Geneva: UN in collaboration with IFSW and IASSW. Page 5






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