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Translators, Advocates or Practitioners? Social Workers and Human Rights Localization

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Abstract

The importance of specific professions for human rights realization is increasingly recognized. Journalists, teachers, and civil servants are all considered to play a role because their work affects individual rights. This is also the case for social workers. The connection between social work and human rights is evident in the large amount of literature explaining how human rights relate to social work. At the same time there is more attention for human rights localization. These fields of knowledge are related: social workers are local professionals and if they start applying human rights in their work this may influence human rights localization. This article contributes to existing debates on human rights localization by reflecting on the potential role of social workers in local human rights efforts in the Netherlands. Since human rights localization in general and human rights application in social work are recent phenomena in the Netherlands this provides a useful case study for a qualitative analysis on whether and how social workers can be regarded as actors in human rights localization. By connecting different actors that are said to play a role in human rights localization to proposed forms of human rights application by social workers this article identifies three possible roles for social workers in human rights localization: as human rights translators, as human rights advocates, and as human rights practitioners.
Article
Translators, Advocates or Practitioners?
Social Workers and Human Rights
Localization
Alicia Dibbets and Quirine Eijkman*
Abstract
The importance of specific professions for human rights realization is increasingly
recognized. Journalists, teachers, and civil servants are all considered to play a role
because their work affects individual rights. This is also the case for social workers.
The connection between social work and human rights is evident in the large
amount of literature explaining how human rights relate to social work. At the same
time there is more attention for human rights localization. These fields of knowledge
are related: social workers are local professionals and if they start applying human
rights in their work this may influence human rights localization. This article contrib-
utes to existing debates on human rights localization by reflecting on the potential
role of social workers in local human rights efforts in the Netherlands. Since human
rights localization in general and human rights application in social work are recent
phenomena in the Netherlands this provides a useful case study for a qualitative
analysis on whether and how social workers can be regarded as actors in human
rights localization. By connecting different actors that are said to play a role in hu-
man rights localization to proposed forms of human rights application by social
workers this article identifies three possible roles for social workers in human rights
localization: as human rights translators, as human rights advocates, and as human
rights practitioners.
Keywords: implementation; local human rights; professionals; social work
* Alicia Dibbets (alicia@humanrightspractice.nl) is an independent human rights researcher in the
Netherlands who carries out research for government, educational institutions, and NGOs on hu-
man rights implementation at the local level. Quirine Eijkman is Chair of the Research Group
Access2Justice at the Centre for Social Innovation (KSI) of the University of Applied Sciences
Utrecht and Deputy President of the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights; this article was writ-
ten in her personal capacity.
V
CThe Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
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Journal of Human Rights Practice, 10, 2018, 212–228
doi: 10.1093/jhuman/huy018
Advance Access Publication Date: 9 August 2018
Article
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Introduction
In May 2016 a group of social work educators from the Netherlands and Belgium posted a
manifesto online titled: Make Human Rights Central to Social Work (Hartman et al.
2016). The manifesto argues that human rights should be part of social work practice and
education because social workers aim to eliminate exclusion of people from society,
and contribute to social justice and human dignity. Within a couple of days the manifesto
had been signed by dozens of social work educators and continues to gain attention today.
This development is taking place in the Netherlands where social workers are forced to
reposition their profession as a result of decentralizations and simultaneous austerity meas-
ures in social support and care. Tasks in this area have been transferred from the central
government to the local authorities, confronting municipalities and subsequently social
workers with different responsibilities and tighter budgets. In this changing landscape of so-
cial welfare local actors are searching for new ways to legitimize their work and to ensure
that no one suffers as a result of the reforms and transitions. Against this background em-
bracing human rights may seem a logical step. It is thus not surprising that both social
work educators and (policy-level) actors in the social work field are starting to perceive hu-
man rights as a valuable asset to their profession.
The importance of specific professions for the realization of human rights is increasingly
recognized. It is not without reason that both the second and the third phases of the UN
World Programme on Human Rights Education focus on different professional groups that
are in need of human rights education (UN Human Rights Council 2010,2015).
Journalists, teachers, civil servants and law enforcement officials are all considered to have
a role in human rights realization because their work is tied to the rights of individuals.
This is also the case for social workers. Due to the fact that social workers work closely
with people in a vulnerable position they have an inside view of the daily life of these
clients. This means that social workers may be the first to notice that someone has ended
up in a situation where her or his human dignity is not being respected.
The introduction of human rights in the social work field is a relatively new develop-
ment in the Netherlands, but the connection between social work and human rights has
long been made in other countries and at the international level. As this article demon-
strates, a large amount of ‘social work literature’ exists explaining the different ways in
which human rights can be related to social work. At the same time there is more and more
attention for human rights localization. These two fields of knowledge are related: social
workers are mostly active at the local level and if these professionals start applying human
rights in their work this may influence human rights localization. Surprisingly, no connec-
tion has so far been made between human rights localization and social work. Different
approaches to human rights localization do not mention social workers specifically as rele-
vant actors, and the social work literature has made no reference to human rights localiza-
tion concepts.
This article contributes to existing debates on human rights localization by reflecting on
the potential role of social workers in local human rights efforts. The developments in the
social work field in the Netherlands provide the case study for an exploration of whether
and how social workers can be regarded as actors in human rights localization. In other
words, why are certain stakeholders in the Dutch social work field positioning social work
as a human rights profession? And how do they understand the role of social workers in
human rights localization in the Netherlands? The Netherlands provides an interesting case
Social Workers and Human Rights Localization 213
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study for this qualitative analysis as both human rights localization in general and human
rights application in social work are relatively recent phenomena.
The article first provides an overview of different actors that are said to play a role in
human rights localization. This is followed by an elaboration on the relationship between
social work and human rights and the ways in which social workers can potentially play a
role in local human rights practice. The case study of the Netherlands then builds on these
theories by analysing the emergence of human rights in the Dutch social work field. This
exploration is based on two qualitative data sources: interviews with social work actors
and participatory observation. The methodology used for studying this phenomenon is
described in detail below. The case study looks at why and how specific social work actors
are starting to adopt human rights and what roles this professional group can play in
human rights localization in the Netherlands. It explores the potential role of social work-
ers as human rights translators,human rights advocates,orhuman rights practitioners and
reflects on how these roles are understood in the Dutch context.
Actors in human rights localization
In order to explore the connections between social work and human rights localization it is
necessary to take a closer look at the different actors that have so far been identified in
human rights localization. Human rights localization in this context is understood as the
application and appropriation of human rights at the local level (Vandenhole 2012: 81).
The term ‘human rights application’ is used throughout the article as a broader concept
than ‘human rights realization’ or ‘human rights implementation’ to denote any type of ef-
fort by specific actors aimed at improving the local human rights situation. Here, an over-
view is provided of the various actors that are considered to play a role in local human
rights application, demonstrating how social workers have thus far been largely absent as
actors in the human rights localization discourse.
The most prevalent literature on human rights localization concentrates on the value
and meaning of human rights at the local level. These approaches to human rights localiza-
tion fall within the category of discursive approaches to human rights according to which
human rights are constructed through social practice (Goodale 2007: 8–9; Vandenhole
2012: 92–3). This means that many types of actors can play a part. Goodale (2007: 24)
emphasizes the need not to privilege any one type of actor, but to include all ‘individuals,
institutions, states, international agencies, and so on, who practise human rights within any
number of different social contexts’. De Feyter (2010: 15–25) identifies human rights claim-
ants, duty holders and local authorities. Human rights claimants are groups that are identi-
fied by a common need or interest. Duty holders can be any public or private actor that
poses a threat to human rights. Local authorities are those authorities that the human rights
claimants choose to address, including the local government, lawmakers, judges, and
human rights institutions. Desmet (2014: 129–31) proposes four types of human rights
users: rights claimants, rights realizers, supportive users, and judicial users. Rights claim-
ants are the intended beneficiaries of human rights and rights realizers are state authorities.
The supportive users include any actor who supports human rights causes: ‘grassroots
organizations, NGOs, media, human rights defenders, lawyers, National Human Rights
Institutions (NHRIs) and human rights bodies’ (ibid: 131). Judicial users are courts and
tribunals that impose the implementation of human rights. Other authors stipulate that
214 Alicia Dibbets and Quirine Eijkman
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national and international actors are expected to work together to ensure that local experi-
ences are taken into account at the global level (Ore´ Aguilar 2008: 12). Destrooper (2016)
also notes that this type of local to global cooperation is necessary, but indicates that local
actors can have difficulty accessing global actors. In this context Merry (2006: 39–40)
refers specifically to ‘the people in the middle’—community leaders, NGO participants and
social movement activists, who act as intermediaries by translating local experiences to
global human rights and vice versa. Although the broad range of actors mentioned in these
approaches to human rights localization may, by inference, also include social workers, no
specific mention is made of this professional group.
In other literature on human rights localization human rights are applied to specific lo-
cal issues and considered as an instrument for local application. The starting point is an un-
desirable situation at the local level and the focus is on how local actors use human rights
in attempting to change this situation. The relevant actors thus depend on the issue that is
being addressed. Using the right to health to guarantee access to health care for homeless
families, for example, means engaging service providers, homeless hostels, civil society
organizations, and the homeless families themselves (Stuttaford et al. 2009). Addressing
housing deprivation with human rights arguments involves another set of actors: tenants,
the local housing authority, community workers, a local human rights action group, the lo-
cal government, and the human rights commission (Hearne and Kenna 2014). Taking a
rights-based approach to food insecurity (Chilton and Rose 2009) can mean involving gov-
ernment agencies, professional associations, community leaders and those who have experi-
enced food insecurity first hand. Local government institutions have also been added to the
group of actors that can foster local human rights protection by monitoring local elections,
tackling child exploitation, combating discrimination, or promoting migrants’ rights (Marx
et al. 2015). The relevant actors depend entirely on the context of the human rights issue.
As a result different professions are often mentioned if they (can) play a role in addressing
the issue from a human rights perspective. Even though, as will be shown in the next sec-
tion, much has been written on human rights in social work professional settings, studies
on human rights based approaches at the local level rarely refer to social workers. If related
professionals are mentioned, this is usually in more general terms such as ‘support workers’
and ‘service providers’ (Stuttaford et al. 2009) or ‘community workers’ (Hearne and Kenna
2014).
The proposed actors fulfil different roles in human rights localization. Although there is
no clear coherence in the literature on what these roles may be, three recurring types of
actors with corresponding roles can be identified. State actors are most frequently men-
tioned and their role involves various measures aimed at the local realization of human
rights. Another type of actor is the rights holder who plays a role in claiming individual
rights at the local level. Civil society actors support the rights holders through local advo-
cacy or act as intermediaries between the local level and the international human rights sys-
tem. No distinct roles are attributed to the professionals mentioned in the literature. State
actors, rights holders and civil society can be regarded as the ‘traditional’ actors of the hu-
man rights movement. It seems that these same actors are also found to play the predomi-
nant roles in human rights localization. The question is how social workers, as local actors,
fit into this picture.
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Social workers as actors in human rights localization
In taking stock of the numerous actors in human rights localization it becomes clear that so-
cial workers have thus far not been regarded specifically as actors in this field. This section
shows that human rights have long been considered part of the social work profession and
identifies three roles they may take up in human rights localization.
Social work as a human rights profession
The conceptualization of social work as a human rights profession is not a new develop-
ment. In 1988 the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) made a policy state-
ment that ‘social work has, from its conception, been a human rights profession’ (IFSW
1988;Healy 2008: 735–6). This was followed by collaboration with the United Nations
(UN), which resulted in a manual on human rights and social work (UN Centre for Human
Rights 1994). Subsequent scholarship has resulted in publications that further clarify the
possible role of human rights in social work (Ife 2012;Reichert 2011). But while the link
between social work and human rights has been repeatedly acknowledged, human rights
have yet to be fully embraced in social work field settings (Berthold 2015: xii; Steen et al.
2017: 9).
The relationship between social work and human rights stems from the mission and val-
ues of the social work profession. As the new global definition of social work states:
Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes
social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people.
Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are
central to social work. (IFSW 2014)
At the national level social work associations also tend to align their professional values
with human rights. A study of social work codes of ethics indicates that explicit reference
to human rights in these documents is common practice (Keeney et al. 2014).
Clearly, social work principles are found to overlap with human rights. However, be-
cause social workers can fulfil a variety of roles in practice, the ways in which a social
worker may be confronted with human rights can differ. Generally speaking, social workers
work with individuals or groups to ‘address life challenges and to enhance wellbeing’
(IFSW 2014), but the field of practice is very broad. This means that a social worker may
work with people to address issues related to poverty or homelessness, but may also work
in a clinical institution for mental health problems or people with disabilities. Within these
settings a social worker may encounter clients who have experienced human rights viola-
tions related to any number of issues from physical integrity, to an adequate standard of liv-
ing, to access to public services (Reichert 2011: 208–13).
Human rights in social work practice
Despite general agreement that there is a relationship between social work and human
rights, there is much discussion on the practical consequences of this relationship. In other
words: how can social workers apply human rights in their actual work? Although different
approaches are taken in the social work literature, three main forms of human rights prac-
tice can be identified: social workers contributing to the interpretation of human rights,
social workers using human rights as a basis for advocacy, and social workers applying
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human rights to daily work with clients. This section demonstrates how these three forms
of human rights practice are interpreted in the social work literature on human rights.
The proposition that social workers can contribute to the interpretation of human rights
by ensuring that daily realities are integrated into human rights norms is widely supported
in social work scholarship. This can be attributed to the (often referenced) work of Ife who
has written extensively on how social workers can contribute to human rights. In his view
social workers can broaden the human rights discourse by including voices that are often
forgotten (Ife 2012: 201). He suggests that ‘social work practice itself can be seen as part of
the ongoing process of the reconstruction of human rights’ (ibid: 205). In this context Ife
(ibid: 196) also addresses the necessity of local to global cooperation, stating that social
workers can interact with global actors to make local voices heard within the international
human rights system. As such social workers are regarded as playing an active role in fur-
ther defining and clarifying what human rights mean in practice. This would mean that so-
cial workers who apply human rights could take part in advancing the development of
human rights in general by helping human rights acquire meaning at the local level.
Another possibility often proposed in social work literature is that social workers take
up advocacy on the basis of human rights. This can take the form of case-based advocacy
where social workers stand up for the rights of individual clients or cause-based advocacy
where social workers challenge human rights issues on a broader scale (Steen et al. 2017:
10–11; Reichert 2011: 199–212). Case-based advocacy at the individual level involves
empowering clients by assisting them to claim their rights. Cause-based advocacy focuses
on structural change through lobbying or by acting as a whistle-blower while using human
rights as a frame of reference. For the purpose of advocacy human rights can provide a dif-
ferent perspective which helps recognize structural causes that underlie individual problems
encountered by social workers. In the social work literature human rights are therefore of-
ten presented as means to bridge the divide between micro practice and macro practice
(Androff 2016: 30; Ife 2012: 248–9). Micro practice can be understood as individual case-
work; it refers to the social worker carrying out interventions at an interpersonal level.
Macro practice, on the other hand, covers interventions in entire communities or systems.
Viewing individual challenges as human rights issues can highlight the connections between
these two levels of practice. As a result, social workers working at the interpersonal level
can recognize that interventions at the macro level may be necessary to change a situation.
Since most social workers work directly with clients, a recurring theme in social work
literature on human rights is that these norms could be integrated into clinical practice or
case management. Awareness of human rights could then change the relationship between
social workers and their clients (Androff 2016: 29). Instead of providing charity or assess-
ing and meeting clients’ needs, social workers aim to play a role in realizing individuals’
rights (Berthold 2015: 5–9). This includes adopting a non-paternalistic approach and incor-
porating human rights principles into social work practice. Social workers would, for
example, take human dignity into account by respecting a client’s autonomy and be aware
of discriminatory patterns that affect a client’s wellbeing.
These three forms of human rights application found in social work literature can be
used to specify the types of roles social workers might play in human rights localization.
Ife’s view that social workers can influence the interpretation of human rights at the global
level by incorporating local realities into human rights norms attributes a role to social
workers similar to that of Merry’s ‘people in the middle’ who translate local experiences to
global human rights (Ife 2012: 196; Merry 2006: 39–40). In this role social workers could
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be regarded as human rights translators who help clarify the meaning of human rights at
the local level. Alternatively, when social workers advocate for human rights locally they
resemble the civil society actors that are found to play a role in human rights localization.
Social workers could then be added to the list of Desmet’s ‘supportive users’ such as NGOs
or human rights defenders who play various roles in assisting the local realization of human
rights (Desmet 2014: 131). These social workers acting as human rights advocates would
then play a specific role by using human rights from a professional standpoint to address
challenges encountered in daily practice on a systemic level. The incorporation of human
rights in the interaction with clients does not necessarily create an alternative role for social
workers as awareness of human rights is added to the existing professional role of the social
worker. Although this role may be comparable to the role of the ‘service providers’ men-
tioned by Stuttaford et al. (2009: 266) integration of human rights in daily professional
practice is not explicitly mentioned in the human rights localization literature. Nevertheless
this role as human rights practitioner could be seen as part of human rights localization if
the realization of clients’ rights became an integral part of social work. In the following sec-
tions these possible roles of social workers in human rights localization are analysed in the
context of social work and human rights localization in the Netherlands.
Human rights localization in the Netherlands
Developments in the Netherlands provide an interesting case study for an exploration of
how social workers can potentially contribute to human rights localization. Dutch social
work actors are only just becoming interested in human rights and human rights localiza-
tion is still in its infancy. To provide a context for the empirical analyses of Dutch social
work and human rights a brief impression is given of the current state of human rights
localization in the Netherlands.
The Netherlands has long presented itself as a forerunner in the protection of human
rights (Krommendijk 2016: 3–4). However, much of the attention to human rights has been
directed towards other countries. Consequently domestic adherence to human rights has
served largely as a way to set an example and stimulate the realization of human rights
abroad through foreign policy (Oomen 2013a: 44–9). It is only in recent years that human
rights have come to play a role at the local level. As a result it is no longer uncommon for
human rights to be referenced in discussions about budget cuts or the placement of
refugees.
One of the first signs of local attention to human rights in the Netherlands is the appear-
ance of human rights cities. From 2009 a growing number of Dutch cities have shown an
affiliation with human rights through various means (Oomen and van den Berg 2014).
Dutch cities have used human rights as a benchmark for local policy, to unite interest
groups, and to defend local policies that are more progressive than those of the national
government (ibid: 176–81). During this time Amnesty International collaborated with the
Dutch Association of Municipalities to create a brochure on the meaning of human rights
for municipalities (Teitler et al. 2012). The Dutch national human rights institution
(NHRI) has also emphasized the importance of applying human rights at the local level by
developing a tool for this purpose (Netherlands Institute for Human Rights 2014).
Although these developments demonstrate a growing interest for human rights at the lo-
cal level, this does not mean that applying human rights is by now common practice for
municipalities in the Netherlands. There is still hesitance among local actors to refer
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explicitly to human rights as these tend to be understood in terms of extreme situations in
foreign countries (Oomen and van den Berg 2014: 181–2). Application of human rights at
the local level is also hampered by a lack of knowledge about human rights among the gen-
eral public (Oomen 2013a: 64–5). This can be attributed in part to the absence of human
rights education in the formal curriculum (Oomen 2013b: 293). Prior to even developing
means of applying human rights to local issues, actors may need to convince others that hu-
man rights are at all relevant to the Dutch situation. The following sections analyse whether
and how the emergence of human rights in the social work field can play a role in address-
ing this challenge.
Methodology and methods
The case study that investigates the potential role of social work in human rights localiza-
tion is an exploratory study of an emerging practice in the Netherlands. Background inter-
views were held from February to April 2016 with 11 key stakeholders to determine the
scope and character of the emerging interest in human rights within the social work field.
The respondents were identified through snowball sampling. Six interviews were conducted
in person and five interviews were carried out over the phone. The respondents consisted of
two social work educators from two different schools of social work, three policy officers
from two municipalities, five managers or advisers from four different social work organi-
zations and one representative of the professional association for social workers. The data
gathered from these background interviews provided some of the information for the
description of the emergence of human rights in the social work field. No citations from
these interviews are used in the article.
Based on the background interviews eight persons were selected for an in-depth inter-
view between April 2016 and March 2017. Six of these respondents had also been subjects
of the background interview and two additional respondents were identified at two schools
of social work. The background interviews indicated that human rights are currently not
explicitly used by social workers in the field. As the aim of the research was to explore the
growing interest for the use of human rights by social workers in the Netherlands, the
choice was made to select respondents based on their affinity with the social work profes-
sion and an interest in applying human rights. Six of the respondents previously worked as
social workers in the Netherlands.
The respondents consisted of four social work educators (social work educator 1–4)
from four schools of social work, three managers or advisers of social work organizations
(social work manager 1–3), and one representative of the professional association for social
workers. A choice was made to interview four social work educators because the back-
ground interviews had established that a large part of the emerging practice was originating
from within schools of social work. Interviews were semi-structured, using a topic list to
guide the conversation. All eight interviews were held in person, recorded and transcribed.
An initial coding took place based on the topics from the topic list. Further coding was car-
ried out based on common and significant themes in the interviews. The data from the
semi-structured interviews was used to identify the reasons why human rights have gained
attention in the social work field and to determine the ways in which social work actors en-
visage the application of human rights by social workers. All citations in the article are
taken from these interviews.
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As the research was taking place a working group of social work educators was set up
to discuss options for including human rights in the social work curriculum. The research-
ers attended five meetings of this working group from April 2016 to March 2017.
Participatory observation in the meetings provided insight on how social work educators
were discussing the potential of human rights for their students and social workers. The
researchers participated in the meetings and notes were taken of the discussions held.
The findings of the research have some limitations. Since no practising social workers
were interviewed, the article presents the views of actors working with or educating social
workers. In addition seven out of eight respondents for the semi-structured interviews work
in the central-western Netherlands, thus creating a regional limitation. The members of
the working group of social work educators are from all over the Netherlands and also
included Belgian members, creating a somewhat broader scope of study. As mentioned, the
choice was made to focus on social work actors already interested in human rights. This
creates a bias in the selection of respondents, as all those interviewed supported the idea of
including human rights in social work practice.
Social work in the Netherlands as a human rights profession
The emerging interest for human rights in the social work field is closely linked to recent
developments in the Dutch welfare sector, which have had a significant influence on the
professional position of social workers. Before determining the roles that social workers
may play in human rights localization this section first explains the position of social work-
ers in the Netherlands and the way in which human rights have (re-)emerged in the Dutch
social work field over recent years.
From the interviews with respondents it became clear that human rights have been
absent from the social work field in the Netherlands for many years. Social work was pro-
fessionalized in the Netherlands with the emergence of the welfare state in the 1950s. In the
1960s emancipatory social work became the norm. As a consequence paternalism and
unsolicited aid became taboo and social workers were encouraged to act with instead of for
disadvantaged people (Dam et al. 2016: 7). Three respondents who were active as social
workers during the 1970s indicated that this approach contained elements of human rights
and social workers were more politically engaged during this time. This disappeared during
the 1980s when professionalism, efficiency and market thinking were encouraged (ibid: 8).
Social workers were expected to meet targets and social work became focused on the imple-
mentation of municipal policies. As one respondent stated:
Municipalities had no interest in politically engaged social work ... signals from professionals
that people were being left behind weakened, and pressure from municipalities increased to
such an extent that social workers no longer dared to be critical. (Social work manager 1)
The current interest in human rights among social work actors in the Netherlands has de-
veloped over the last few years. The emergence of human rights within the social work pro-
fession started with individual social work educators initiating human rights courses at
different schools of social work. This became part of a larger movement when social work
educators from the Netherlands and Belgium organized themselves into a working group to
discuss ways to integrate human rights into social work curricula. The manifesto that this
working group published in May 2016 further increased the awareness of human rights
among social work educators (Hartman et al. 2016). At the time of writing a plan has been
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developed to follow up on the manifesto. While the interest for human rights among social
work educators was growing, other actors in the social work field also started paying more
attention to human rights. Managers at a centre for social development began to think how
human rights could become a moral compass for social workers, policy advisors at a munic-
ipality had the idea that human rights might serve as a tool for moral judgment, and the
professional association for social workers started raising questions about issues of privacy
in the social work field (background interviews with social work actors). At the same time
publications on human rights and social work began to appear in Sozio, a professional jour-
nal (Dijkstra 2017;Karbouniaris and Steenmeijer 2015;Lochtenberg 2015a, 2015b;
Lochtenberg and Maarsen 2015). Though the developments in the field are exploratory
and fragmented, the efforts of the social work educators may lead to integration of human
rights in social work practice.
Several factors combined have influenced the emergence of human rights in the Dutch
social work field. Respondents were asked what they believed had caused the growth in
attention for human rights among social work actors. From the interviews five different fac-
tors can be identified that prompted more interest in human rights: the decentralizations and
austerity measures in the social domain; the redevelopment of social work education; the
establishment of the Dutch NHRI; the ratification by the Netherlands of the UN Convention
on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD); and the recent refugee crisis.
All respondents made reference to the decentralizations and austerity measures in the
social domain as a reason for more interest in human rights (see also Lochtenberg 2015a;
Lochtenberg and Maarsen 2015). From 2015 onwards municipalities have become respon-
sible for youth care, labour participation, and care for the chronically sick and elderly.
These decentralizations were coupled with austerity measures. As a consequence, munici-
palities have made changes in the organization of social support, directly influencing the
daily practice of social workers. Six respondents found that both benefits and disadvantages
of these changes have led to attention for human rights. On the one hand, social workers
have gained more freedom in how they choose to carry out their work as municipalities are
starting to let go of standard protocols and are stimulating customized approaches. As a
result social workers have begun to look for other norms to guide their practice. On the
other hand, budgets for social work are smaller and there is more dependence on volunteers
(social work educator 3). Social workers therefore feel the need to legitimize their profes-
sion and human rights serve as a useful argument. In the words of one respondent, human
rights can be a ‘retort to legitimize your existence’ (social work manager 1).
The redevelopment of social work education is a response to the changes in the social
work field and also originated from a need to strengthen the profession. Nationally, the
professional competencies required of social workers have been rewritten along three
domains: community work, youth work, and social work in health care (Vereniging
Hogescholen 2017). Educational institutions have therefore begun to combine different
streams of ‘social work’ education into one social work bachelor with three specializations.
The social work educators among the respondents, who previously initiated human rights
courses at their schools, regard these developments as an opportunity to better integrate
human rights into the curriculum (see also Dijkstra 2017). In this way human rights have
become part of a larger movement for professionalization in the social work field.
The establishment of an NHRI in the Netherlands in 2012 has also had influence.
Within the social work field the NHRI has gained attention by organizing meetings and ini-
tiating conversations with relevant stakeholders. With four of the respondents, their interest
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in human rights had been sparked or strengthened by an exchange with the NHRI.
Similarly, the ratification of the CRPD by the Netherlands in 2016 was preceded by the cre-
ation of a large support base for the Convention among organizations working with per-
sons with disabilities. Consequently, several years before the Convention was ratified it was
already well known within the professional ‘disabilities sector’, united within a Coalition
for Inclusion. Respondents frequently mentioned the relevance of the CRPD to the growing
interest for human rights within the social work field (see also Karbouniaris and
Steenmeijer 2015). A final reason for the increased attention to human rights by social
workers identified by respondents is the large influx of refugees in Europe and the
Netherlands in 2015 (see also Lochtenberg 2015b). The plight of refugees is easily linked to
human rights, and social workers see a role for themselves in assisting this vulnerable
group.
Although these different factors have all had an influence on the emergence of human
rights in the social work field, no one cause can be singled out. It is relevant to note that for
all respondents the attention to human rights had not been initiated by an outside actor.
Both the background interviews and the in-depth interviews gave the impression that this
emerging practice started with individuals acting of their own accord and is slowly growing
into a movement of several actors working together. This could indicate that the develop-
ment originates from within the social work field and was not introduced by other actors.
Social workers as actors in human rights localization in the
Netherlands
In the previous section three possible roles were identified for social workers as actors in
human rights localization. Social workers can act as human rights translators who influence
the interpretation of human rights by creating links between global norms and local experi-
ences. Another option is that social workers become human rights advocates who use
human rights in combination with their professional knowledge to challenge issues encoun-
tered in daily work. A third possibility is that social workers as human rights practitioners
focusing on human rights protection during their interactions with clients. Here these roles
serve as the framework for analysis of the propositions made by respondents on how
human rights can be applied by social workers in the Netherlands.
The role of human rights translator was not reflected in the interviews with individual
respondents. It is therefore not clear from the interviews that social workers might play a
role in clarifying the meaning of human rights at the local level as proposed by Ife (2012).
The working group of social work educators did discuss the need for a ‘social work per-
spective on human rights’ instead of a ‘human rights perspective on social work’, expressing
a desire to have social workers contribute to this new perspective on human rights. This is
also repeated in the manifesto developed by the working group which states that ‘social
work should develop its own approach to human rights’ instead of the legal or ethical
approach to human rights (Hartman et al. 2016). However, the individual respondents
focused on how social workers can use human rights and not necessarily how social work-
ers can contribute to further interpretation of the human rights framework. In addition, no
reference was made to social work interaction with the international system in order to in-
fluence the development of human rights norms with a social work perspective. The ques-
tion is also whether this is realistic in the current Dutch context where human rights are
only just gaining attention within social work. For social workers to contribute to human
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rights localization by becoming human rights translators more cooperation with actors out-
side the social work field would be necessary for these translations to influence interpreta-
tion of human rights at the international level. However, the central ambition of this
emerging practice in the Netherlands seems to be focused more on strengthening social
work (education) and changing local situations than on becoming part of the broader
human rights movement.
All respondents were of the opinion that social workers should learn to draw attention
to human rights issues in their work in order to improve the situation for specific clients or
for clients in general. This reflects the role of human rights advocate and is similar to
the cause-based and case-based advocacy identified from the literature (Steen et al. 2017:
10–11; Reichert 2011: 199–212). However, seven respondents were hesitant in labelling
this use of human rights as a form of advocacy by social workers. As two respondents
stated, ‘social workers are not barricade jumpers’ (social work representative) and ‘I find
activism too exaggerated, not everyone has it in them’ (social work educator 1). Instead,
respondents preferred the term ‘human rights guardian’ which had appeared earlier in
articles by social work actors in the Netherlands and Belgium (Eijkman 2017;Lochtenberg
and Maarsen 2015;Reynaert and Nachtergaele 2015). As explained by one respondent, ‘a
guardian is someone who stands in between activism and doing nothing. A guardian feels
responsible for saying or doing something, but does not immediately stand on the barri-
cade’ (social work educator 1). Instead of turning to advocacy social workers are expected
to signal problems that they come across in their work:
As social worker you always stand in the front line, you work where certain problems occur.
You can be one of the first who signals that social policy is not working out and what this means
for certain groups in society. (Social work educator 4)
This ‘signal function’ of social work is included in the Dutch social work professional pro-
file drafted by the professional association for social work. According to the professional
profile a social worker ‘signals developments and deficiencies in society or in institutions
that affect his professional activities. He forms a reasoned opinion and speaks out about
this’ (BPSW 2016: 17). In six of the interviews ‘signalling’ was repeatedly mentioned as an
important task of social workers and directly linked to human rights. These respondents
had different conceptions of what this ‘signal function’ based on human rights would look
like in practice. Signalling human rights issues could mean standing up for the rights of an
individual client, acting as an intermediary between clients and municipalities, supporting
groups of clients with similar issues to stand up for their own rights, or attempting to influ-
ence policy. A recurring theme here was that human rights could serve as a language to be
able to emphasize the gravity of the issue at hand. Respondents referred to human rights as
‘a universal language’ (social work manager 2), a language that ‘gives words to put forward
other arguments’ (social work educator 2), and a way to make issues ‘more concrete than
just your gut feeling that this is not going well’ (social work manager 1). When talking
about the level at which social workers could signal human rights issues, respondents
mostly referred to the social worker’s place of work, the municipality, or the professional
association. If social workers were to apply human rights in such a way it would require
them to identify underlying causes of an issue and which actors can be held responsible.
In order to be able to act as human rights advocate, or ‘human rights guardian’,
respondents stressed the importance of social workers being able to recognize and connect
their work to broader and more structural issues. As in the social work literature,
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respondents related this to the divide between micro and macro practice (Androff 2016;Ife
2012). Six respondents regarded the human rights perspective as a necessary response to
the general lack of awareness among social workers of the structural causes that underlie
the challenges they encounter in their daily work. As one respondent indicated: social work-
ers ‘invest a lot in working for a client but take the political context in which they work for
granted’ (social work representative). Another respondent expressed concern that ‘if you
[as social worker] only rely on your personal experience, you know too little’ (social work
manager 3). Human rights were presented as a different way of looking at issues encoun-
tered by social workers. Three respondents explained this in terms of how poverty can be
perceived as an individual matter or a societal concern. According to them there is a ten-
dency among social workers in the Netherlands to view poverty as an individual problem:
‘if you are poor it is because there is something wrong with you’ (social work educator 4).
From a human rights perspective poverty becomes an issue with structural causes, leading
social workers to look for solutions beyond the personal circumstances of their clients. As
such ‘human rights can help how we as social workers view society: is poverty really your
own fault or is there another way of looking at it? Which [approach] fits social work bet-
ter?’ (social work educator 2). If social workers were to adopt a human rights perspective
this could place their work in a new light. It would mean the solution of a client’s problem
is no longer only a question of changing their personal situation, but that systemic changes
are necessary to solve the problem and prevent its occurrence in the future.
Another possible application of human rights by social workers proposed by respondents
was to use human rights as a moral compass in daily practice. This is comparable to the role
of human rights practitioner where social workers integrate human rights into clinical prac-
tice and case management with clients (Berthold 2015). Two respondents stressed that re-
specting human rights was already implicit in social work and that social workers work very
hard for their clients. Four other respondents were more critical, stating that human rights
could help improve the attitude of social workers who still viewed their work as a type of
charity. When talking about how human rights might influence daily work, respondents men-
tioned respect for human dignity, equality and diversity. When asked what human rights
issues social workers might encounter in the work setting, respondents referred to the protec-
tion of privacy and respect for physical integrity of institutionalized clients. Four respondents
were of the opinion that human rights might help problematize these issues and clarify that
human rights set certain boundaries. Social workers aware of this human rights dimension of
their work would act consciously to ensure that their client’s rights are respected.
From the interviews with respondents it became increasingly clear that human rights applica-
tion by social workers is still very much an emerging practice in the Netherlands. This can be
underlined by the observation that respondents generally refrained from making conclusive
remarks on how human rights would be used by social workers during their work. Respondents
were keen to explore the different ways in which human rights could be relevant to social work,
but were more careful in articulating what this would look like in practice. Respondents also
expressed concern that human rights might remain too abstract for the practising social worker,
which would create ‘a danger that it would be perceived as being separate from daily work’
(social work educator 1). A related obstacle mentioned by respondents was the possibility that
social workers inspired by human rights might be met with resistance in the workplace.
Respondents indicated that the organizational culture might not allow for a critical perspective
or that human rights could be perceived as being too idealistic or theoretical for daily work. For
this emerging practice to gain a stronger foothold in the social work field it will therefore be
224 Alicia Dibbets and Quirine Eijkman
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necessary to create both a shared understanding of the relevance of human rights for Dutch so-
cial workers and concrete ideas on how human rights can be applied in the workplace.
Conclusion
In order to determine in what ways social workers can play a role in human rights localiza-
tion it is necessary to identify possible links between social work and different actors en-
countered in human rights localization. In this article forms of human rights application by
social workers are used to establish three potential roles of social workers in human rights
localization: as human rights translators,human rights advocates, and human rights practi-
tioners. These roles are then analysed in the context of the Netherlands where human rights
are only just taking root at the local level.
One approach to human rights localization is that it is a process whereby local human
rights application informs the development of global human rights norms. In this way local
realities influence how human rights are interpreted at the global level. According to the lit-
erature on human rights localization a plethora of actors can take part in this translation
process. Social work literature describes a similar role for social workers. When social
workers act as human rights translators they play a role in clarifying the meaning of human
rights in the lives of those people they work with at the local level. For these local human
rights experiences to advance the development of global human rights, social workers
would also need to connect with actors who have access to the global human rights system.
Theoretically social workers have the potential to make a valuable contribution to human
rights localization in this way, but this is not sufficiently apparent in the Dutch context.
Although several social work actors in the Netherlands have expressed a desire to develop
a social work perspective on human rights, this movement seems primarily focused on
enhancement of the social work profession itself. The question is also whether it would be
realistic for Dutch social workers to act as human rights translators, since they are only just
starting to realize the relevance of human rights to their work. At the very least, coopera-
tion with other actors in the human rights movement outside the social work field would be
necessary for the daily practice of social workers in the Netherlands to influence the inter-
pretation of human rights.
Different types of civil society actors are found to play a role in human rights localiza-
tion by supporting the claims of rights holders at the local level through various means of
advocacy. Although literature on human rights localization does not refer to social workers
in this context, social work literature clearly considers that social workers could play a part
as human rights advocates. The function of this role would be to recognize structural hu-
man rights problems in daily practice and to challenge these by assisting clients to claim
their rights, lobby for change, or act as a whistle-blower. This possible role of social work-
ers is recognized in the Netherlands, but social work actors tend to shy away from the term
‘advocate’ and prefer to label this role as ‘human rights guardian’. Social workers acting as
‘human rights guardians’ would use human rights language to signal deficiencies in the
workplace and address these issues at the municipal level or through the professional asso-
ciation. A prerequisite for this role is that social workers learn to identify structural causes
of individual clients’ problems and are able to frame these in terms of human rights. Since
this is currently not the case in the Netherlands, the realization of this role is dependent on
the professionalization movement that is currently under way in Dutch social work educa-
tion and practice.
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Even though various professionals are mentioned in human rights localization literature
there is no consistency in what roles certain professions might play and there is no reference
specifically to social workers. The social work literature posits that social workers may also
contribute to human rights protection through their professional role. This would mean
that social workers integrate human rights in their daily practice with individual clients.
If social workers were to apply human rights in such a way this would make them human
rights practitioners. This role is also reflected in the Netherlands. According to Dutch social
work actors human rights could be used as a moral compass in the workplace. As such,
social workers would take human rights principles such as non-discrimination and personal
integrity into account in interaction with clients. Before this role can be considered part of
human rights localization in the Netherlands this ‘moral compass’ based on human rights
principles would need to be developed and widely implemented in social work practice.
Since human rights application by social workers is still an emerging practice in the
Netherlands the identification of possible human rights roles for social workers is a first
step. For these different roles to gain broader acceptance many more Dutch social workers
would need to agree on the relevance of human rights for social work. A better understand-
ing of what this could look like in practice would require additional research on possible
roles of practising social workers in human rights localization.
Despite the fact that human rights practice in the Dutch social work field is still in its
infancy, there is potential for this movement to have an effect on human rights localization
in the Netherlands in a broader sense. In a country where human rights are still rarely a
subject of discussion at the local level, any attention to human rights stands out. Moreover,
if social workers were to signal the deficiencies they encounter in their daily work as human
rights issues, this could send a clear message that human rights are significant to the Dutch
situation, further aiding human rights localization in the Netherlands.
Acknowledgements
The authors would like to thank Prof. Dr Barbara Oomen, University College Roosevelt, Utrecht
University’s Liberal Arts and Sciences College in Middelburg, the Netherlands, for her construc-
tive feedback.
Funding
This research was self-funded by the KSI, University of Applied Sciences Utrecht.
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... De groeiende aandacht voor lokalisering van mensenrechten komt voort uit het besef dat de werkelijke realisatie van mensenrechten mede afhankelijk is van de inzet van lokale actoren (De Feyter, 2010). Eén van de gevolgen van deze mensenrechtenlokalisering is dat meer diverse professionals, onder wie sociaal werkers, worden beschouwd als belangrijke actoren op het gebied van mensenrechten (Dibbets & Eijkman, 2018). Dit betekent dat sociaal werkers door middel van hun dagelijks werk invloed (kunnen) hebben op de manier waarop mensenrechten worden gerealiseerd in het sociaal domein. ...
... Met de transities in het sociaal domein, en de daarmee veranderende rol van de sociaal werker, worden mensenrechten door docenten sociaal werk aangegrepen als instrument om het sociaal werk te legitimeren en ervoor te zorgen dat cliënten niet worden benadeeld door de gevolgen van de transities (Dibbets & Eijkman, 2018). In 2016 stelden docenten sociaal werk van verschillende hogescholen en universiteiten daarom een manifest op waarin wordt gepleit voor sociaal werk als mensenrechtenberoep. ...
Technical Report
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Met de transities in het sociaal domein en de daarmee veranderende rol van de sociaal werker wordt een mensenrechtenbenadering relevanter. Het sociaal werk wordt steeds vaker geprofileerd als ‘mensenrechtenberoep’ omdat deze professionals een brugfunctie vervullen tussen de leefwereld van burgers en het lokale beleid. Sociaal werkers in wijkteams bepalend zijn geworden voor de toegang tot sociale zorg en ondersteuning. Daarom spelen zij een grote rol in de manier waarop sociaal-economische mensenrechten worden gerealiseerd. Toegang tot sociale zorg en ondersteuning kan namelijk worden gezien als onderdeel van het recht op gezondheid, het recht op een behoorlijke levensstandaard, en het recht op sociale zekerheid. Wanneer door regelgeving en beleid belemmeringen ontstaan in toegang tot zorg, brengt dit risico’s met zich mee voor de realisatie van deze mensenrechten op lokaal niveau. Deze praktijkstudie laat de invloed van sociale professionals op dit proces zien. Vier concrete belemmeringen in toegang tot zorg en ondersteuning zijn geconstateerd. Ten eerste is de toegang tot de specialistische zorg beperkt. Daarnaast kan de nadruk op zelfredzaamheid een belemmering in toegang veroorzaken wanneer de zelfredzaamheid van cliënten wordt overschat. Vervolgens bestaan er onduidelijkheden over de grenzen tussen de Wet maatschappelijke ondersteuning (Wmo) en de Wet langdurige zorg (Wlz), waardoor mensen moeilijkheden ervaren in het verkrijgen van de juiste zorg. Ten slotte kampen de wijkteams met verschillen in kennis en ervaring tussen sociaal werkers, waardoor zorgbehoeftes verkeerd kunnen worden ingeschat. Uit de interviews met sociaal werkers en teamleiders bleek hoe ze op verschillende manieren omgaan met de vier belemmeringen. De belemmeringen lijken in eerste instantie door de sociaal werkers met name op individueel cliëntniveau benaderd te worden door de eigen interpretatie en toepassing van beleid, en door de manier waarop zij de noodzaak voor (specialistische) zorg onderbouwen binnen het eigen team. Het rapport suggereert eveneens dat bepaalde belemmeringen aandacht krijgen op buurtteamniveau met maatregelen gericht op kennisdeling en kennisbehoud. Het onderzoek laat verder zien dat teamleiders en sociaal werkers met betrekking tot enkele belemmeringen in contact treden met de gemeente. Hiermee beïnvloeden zij toegang tot zorg door te pleiten voor meer aanbod van specialistische zorg, door praktijkgerichte interpretaties van beleid voor te leggen, en door te vragen om betere kennisdeling tussen de wijkteam en de specialistische zorg. Wat opvalt is niet alle belemmeringen in toegang tot zorg worden aangekaart. Daardoor blijven deze problemen op individueel cliëntniveau bestaan en is de invloed hiervan op de toegang tot zorg met name afhankelijk van het handelen van de sociaal werker.
... Popsecu and Libal (2018) stipulate that, in a context of migration management geared towards restrictions instead of protection, as well as a growing sense of xenophobia in national migration or immigration policies, there is an increased need to localise support for refugees. The challenge for mentors (including social workers) is to combine localised (re)integration support with an awareness of wider global, geopolitical structures that shape migrant experiences (see Dibbets & Eijkman, 2018;Sewpaul, 2006). This juxtaposition of the necessity of localisation at the same time as transnational (globalised) knowledge speaks directly to the concerns of feminist geopolitics -the need to recognise local-global geopolitical relations as enacted in people's everyday lives and interactions (Dowler & Sharp, 2001;Pain & Staeheli, 2014). ...
... In the context of this research it is relevant to note that practising social workers in the Netherlands are largely unaware of the human rights dimension of their work. Although the social work community has become interested in human rights in recent years, social work schools in the Netherlands still omit human rights from the general curriculum and social workers do not relate their daily work to human rights (Reynaert et al. 2019;Dibbets and Eijkman 2018;Hartman et al. 2016). Similarly, even though Utrecht presents itself as a 'human rights city' this initiative has not led to social worker awareness of human rights in relation to their daily practice (HRCN 2020). ...
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