The role of social workers as human rights workers with
Indigenous people and communities
By Tom Calma, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner,
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
Social Work Orientation Week Seminar
12 February 2008
I would like to begin today by acknowledging the traditional owners of the
land we meet on today, the Ngunnawal people.
Thank you to the Australian Catholic University for inviting me to speak
today. As you no doubt know, I am a social worker by training , graduating in
1978, so it is wonderful to have an opportunity to address you. It is great to
see so many upcoming social workers here today, as well as a number of you who
have a wealth of experience and do so much good in our communities. It’s
a tough job at the coal face. One that you often do in difficult circumstances,
with little support, not to mention little money!
Also, thank you to Christine King for her introduction. On the eve of the
national apology to the Stolen Generations from the Australian Parliament, it
seems timely to pay tribute to Christine for her tireless work as the Co-chair
of the Stolen Generations Alliance. Christine, her sister Rosie and their Mum,
were all victims of forced removals so tomorrow will be a big day for Christine
and her family. Christine also provides leadership in her role as the chair of
the National Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Workers.
Us Indigenous social workers are only a small group so organizations like this
provide support and guidance to help us grow strong, and attract more people to
Sometimes working in human rights, it seems like I am surrounded by lawyers
and caught up in the big picture processes like the United Nations, legal cases
and legislation. All of this is crucially important, but sometimes it seems a
long way from what I learnt at university as I was preparing to go out into the
world as a social worker. What I want to talk to you about today is actually
how close these two worlds are.
That is, social workers by very definition are human rights workers. Social
workers help individuals realise their rights everyday and are ideally placed to
help communities claim their collective rights.
Indigenous people and communities are very often ‘social work
clients.’ By shifting our focus to human rights I will discuss how social
workers can move towards more empowering, rights based practice that develops
individual and community capacity.
This will provide an opportunity to discuss some important areas where social
workers can play a role like: the Northern Territory intervention; more broadly
how we can address family violence and abuse in Indigenous communities; and
moving beyond the apology. All of these areas connect with human rights at a
number of levels.
Social work is a profession that is built on, according to the AASW’s
Code of Ethics:
the pursuit and maintenance of human well-being. Social work aims to
maximize the development of human potential and the fulfillment of human needs.
The Code of Ethics goes on to state that two of the key values and principles
are: human dignity and worth; and social justice. Human dignity and worth means
that social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of every person and
respect the human rights expressed in the United Nations Universal Declaration
of Human Rights. Social justice encompasses the satisfaction of basic needs;
fair access to services and benefits to achieve human potential; and recognition
of individual and community rights.
These values and principles in the Code of Ethics already establish the
foundations for human rights based social work practice. They readily
acknowledge human rights principles, explicitly the Universal Declaration. But
what does human rights based social work practice look like in real life? To
sketch some of these issues I will be borrowing from Professor Jim Ife and his
work on human rights and social
Human rights are often categorised as first, second and third generations.
First generation rights are civil and political rights, like the right to vote,
freedom of speech, freedom from discrimination, fair trial etc. Second
generation rights are economic, social and cultural rights, like the right to
health, housing, social security and education. Third generation rights are
collective rights, such as the right to development and self determination.
In terms of social work practice, realising first generation rights means
advocacy either on behalf of individuals or disadvantaged groups. Social
workers working in advocacy might be involved in the protection of civil and
political rights through advocacy groups, refugee action groups or prisoner
reform. In relation to social work practice with Indigenous people, the
advocacy work that led to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody
and the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Children from their Families comes to mind.
Working to realise second generation rights is the bread and butter work of
most social workers. It involves putting services in place to meet rights like
the right to education, health care, housing, income and so on. So, every time
a social worker takes a client to Centrelink to assist them to get income
support, or liaises with the Department of Housing to find accommodation, or
refers them to a community health centre for physical, social or emotional
support they are engaging in a form of human rights work.
A related point on these second generation rights is that unless services
actually exist, these rights cannot be met. I’m sure I don’t need
to tell any of you about how chronically stretched our community health and
welfare services are. Social workers have a vital role in exposing these
service gaps to show just how many Australians are missing out on having their
fundamental rights met. This is important work that can be done both inside and
outside of bureaucratic processes.
An example of campaigning for second generation human rights is the
‘Close the Gap’ campaign for Indigenous health equality that I have
been coordinating with 40 of the leading Indigenous and non-Indigenous health
peak bodies. As I set out in my 2005 Social Justice Report, Indigenous people
have a right to health, which means that they should be able to expect the same
level of health care and related services to be healthy. Given that there is a
17 year life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians we
can safely say that this right is not being met.
I urge social workers, both at an individual and collective level through
structures like the AASW to throw their support behind this campaign as a
practical way of supporting human rights. There is more information available
at the HREOC website, including links to getting involved. We will soon be
convening a national summit on the issues and I am quietly optimistic about our
chances of securing some government action.
Third generation rights are collective rights which intersect perfectly with
the social work practice of community development. Community development, the
discipline I focused on in my career, is a way of working with, rather than for,
communities to increase their capacity and ability to find their own solutions
to problems. Social workers are facilitators for this process of change that
occurs from the grass roots in a bottom- up way.
Professor Jim Ife and Lucy Fiske have argued that the relationship between
community development and human rights is so symbiotic that:
Community development needs a human rights based framework if it is to be
successful, and human rights needs a community development framework if they are
to be realized.
The marrying together of community development practices and human rights
principles is being increasingly recognised at the United Nations level. The
United Nations Common Understanding of a Human Rights Based Approach to
Development Cooperation sets out necessary elements of policy development
and service delivery under a human rights based approach as follows:
- People are recognised as key actors in their own development, rather than
passive recipients of commodities and services.
- Participation is both a means and a goal.
- Strategies are empowering, not disempowering.
- Both outcomes and processes are monitored and evaluated.
- Analysis includes all stakeholders.
- Programmes focus on marginalized, disadvantaged, and excluded groups.
- The development process is locally owned.
- Programmes aim to reduce disparity.
- Both top-down and bottom-up approaches are used in synergy.
- Situation analysis is used to identity immediate, underlying, and basic causes
of development problems.
- Measurable goals and targets are important in programming.
- Strategic partnerships are developed and sustained.
- Programmes support accountability to all stakeholders. 
To me, these principles reflect what social workers are striving
for and of course, how many social workers are actually practicing already.
Community development has a special role in working with Indigenous
communities as many of our communities are struggling with enormous problems and
disadvantage. The problems that we face are so complex and often so entrenched
that it can be counter productive to just intervene at an individual level.
Let me paint you an all too common picture. An Indigenous child, say living
in one of the larger remote communities in the NT, comes to the attention of the
social workers at the child protection service. There have been notifications
made about neglect - it looks like the child is not getting enough to eat, may
be in poor health and is only attending school sporadically. It is known that
the child’s parents drink quite a lot and the living circumstances are
poor at home, to say the least.
So the social worker needs to decide what to do. Let me say firstly, the
most important thing is ensuring that the child is safe and their best interests
are met. This is a fundamental human right found in the Convention on the
Rights of the Child which Australia is a signatory to.
But what does this mean in practice? It soon becomes very clear that the
social worker is not just dealing with the child or their parents but broader
social and community patterns. In this situation, it is likely that the
community has very few viable employment options (and even fewer if CDEP has
been taken away); housing is no doubt overcrowded and in poor condition (it is
not uncommon for up to 20 people to be living in houses in NT remote
communities); alcohol is probably a problem in the community; with that comes
violence, restarting that cycle of destruction all over again. On top of that
the social worker also has to contend with the fact that as part of the
‘welfare’ they probably don’t have a very good reputation in
the community and it may be challenging to build a cooperative relationship.
Let’s not forget that the Stolen Generation is still within living memory
of many Indigenous people. Similarly, when we look at the systemic failure of
the child protection system highlighted in the Little Children are Sacred
report, Indigenous people are rightly wary and lacking in confidence in the
child protection system.
I paint this picture not to fill you with despair or suggest that the role of
social workers in Indigenous communities is hopeless. I paint this picture to
show just how important it is that we address these community wide, structural
problems rather than looking at short term individual band aid fixes. Many
communities are really struggling but I am a firm believer that they
nonetheless, hold the answers to their problems. The role for social workers is
enabling them to access these solutions and strengths, consistent with their
This brings me to the Northern Territory intervention. June last year saw
the introduction of the Northern Territory intervention to protect women and
children from violence and abuse. Like many other Indigenous leaders I welcomed
the government’s intention to finally do something about this long overdue
situation and provide protection for Indigenous women and children, but have had
some serious concerns about how they have actually gone about implementing their
In my forthcoming Social Justice report, I provide a full human rights
analysis of the NT intervention, including some pertinent recommendations to
But for today I would just like to consider the intervention in terms of
community development principles and the practice of social work.
If community development is about building capacity through participation and
local solutions, the NT intervention flies in the face of this. The NT
intervention is a classic example of a top down approach which misses crucial
opportunities to actually ask communities what they want and how they think
problems should be solved. Interestingly, the first recommendation of the Little Children are Sacred Report which led to the NT intervention, is
that governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in
designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities.
This, like most of the 97 well thought out and considered recommendations put
forward by Pat Anderson and Rex Wild, seems to have been ignored by the
Some would argue that the ends justify the means. That is, we need to be
pragmatic and act now to stop the violence. This might mean that things like
consultation and community participation are too time consuming and get
forgotten about or intentionally disregarded. However, I am firmly of the
opinion that the ends simply don’t justify the means in this case.
This is the case with the fact that the NT intervention is potentially in
breach of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA). The RDA was enacted in 1975 to
fulfill Australia’s human rights obligations under the International
Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination. Some
of the other human rights issues, especially around non compliance with the
Racial Discrimination Act and special measures, are quite legalistic. If you
are interested in looking into these further there is information in our
submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee on the NT
intervention on the HREOC website, or keep an eye out for the Social Justice
Report in the coming months.
What I would like to say is that you cannot expect to create good policy that
is in breach of human rights. Human rights are universal and indivisible. Or
in other words, they apply to everyone equally and no human rights should be set
above others. Obviously the government has an obligation to act to protect the
rights of women and children from violence and abuse but this cannot be at the
expense of the right to non discriminatory treatment. If we start privileging
some rights over others we get into the slippery situation where governments
pick and chose which rights they think are important to uphold and which are an
inconvenience, and so don’t get met. And we know that it will always be
the most disadvantaged and powerless that will have their rights violated as
they do not have the voice or means to be heard.
If there is one thing that we can learn from good community development
practices, it is that the process is often just as, if not more, important than
the outcomes because it equips the community to then be able to do things for
themselves. Or to revive a term that slipped out of use under the Howard
government, it is about self-determination.
Without a sense of control over life, people quickly slip into a state of
powerlessness. We know from experts like the respected Indigenous psychiatrist,
Associate Professor Helen Milroy, that if the NT intervention results in further
dispossession or an extreme sense of powerlessness, this will constitute a
‘re-traumatisation’ of Indigenous people. In her opinion, this will
have a negative effect on:
- Mental health including possibly higher rates of depression, stress and
- Social and emotional wellbeing through increasing anxiety and uncertainty
and hence this may precipitate family and community despair and dysfunction,
poor or maladaptive coping and contribute to substance use and possible violence
as well as loss of trust; and
- Physical health as there is a strong relationship with chronic stress and
poor health outcomes including diabetes and cardiovascular
These unintended consequences will contribute to the problems of
community dysfunction rather than create an environment for meaningful
The eve of the Apology to the Stolen Generations is also a good time to think
about the consequences of interventions that breach human rights standards. A
joint media release from the National Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Social Workers Association (NCATSISWA) and the Australian Association
of Social Workers (AASW) and other social work peak bodies, put out in response
to the Northern Territory Intervention and states:
The experience of the Stolen Generations has taught us that well intentioned
interventions with children and families can have long term consequences. Social
workers have acknowledged with regret the part we have played in that policy and
we are determined that it should not happen again. Long term solutions can only
be found by working closely and respectfully with Indigenous
I note that the AASW, back in 1997, endorsed a Statement of Apology on
behalf of Australia’s social welfare sector. I thank the AASW for making
this apology so long ago and also for the work of so many social workers in a
professional and personal capacity to get behind the push for a national
apology. This momentous occasion has come about because Indigenous and
non-Indigenous people from all walks of life have demanded we do what is right
to move forward together.
The apology from the AASW was an important step because we know that social
work and other welfare services were often instruments of the separation of
children from their families. However, as I mentioned briefly before, the
legacy of the role of social work and welfare services sometimes lives on in
compromised relationships with communities where the ‘welfare’ is
still associated with the devastation of separation and the Stolen Generations.
Without pointing the finger of blame at social workers either individually or
as a profession, I would argue that this legacy still lives on today because of
the unacceptably high number of Indigenous children being taken into care. For
instance, an Indigenous child is six times more likely to be involved
with the statutory child protection system than a non-Indigenous child but fours
times less likely to have access to a child care or preschool service
that can offer family support to reduce the risk of child abuse. Also, almost
40% of children nationally are not placed in accordance with the
Aboriginal Child Placement Principle.
Obviously, there is still a huge amount of work to be done in this area, but
I would like to reflect on the positive groundwork that has been laid by
organisations like the AASW actually making a formal apology to the Stolen
Generations. It shows a real maturity as a profession as well as compassion and
empathy for those that were stolen. An apology validates the experiences of
those that were stolen from their families and the grief and pain that followed.
Validation and recognition are part of acknowledging our shared humanity. Our
shared humanity is really the basis of all human rights.
The AASW realised back in 1997, off the back of the Bringing them home
Report, that a formal apology was a necessary basis to move forward and develop
more constructive relationships between the social work profession and
Indigenous communities. I’m happy to say that I think this is happening.
I note that social work curriculums across the nation all devote a
significant amount of time and focus to looking at skills for working with
Indigenous people and communities in the context of historical, social, economic
and cultural considerations, so that the social workers of tomorrow are well
versed in issues that impact on their Indigenous clients.
Importantly, I think we have seen social work shift to a more critical focus
where students are given the skills to question power and structures at both a
macro and micro level. This can be seen in the way reflective practice is
taught to students. This makes them more aware of their own position as social
workers (and the power that often holds) and challenges them to continually find
better, more inclusive ways of working. On going reflection and learning keeps
us from falling into the traps of the past.
It is great to see a growing number of Indigenous people entering the
profession. More Indigenous workers who are accessible to their communities
will ultimately improve community perceptions of the profession. Once again, I
pay tribute to organisations like the National Coalition of Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander Social Workers who help make this possible.
However, I think it is also important to reflect on the particular challenges
of being an Indigenous social worker. Social work is a demanding job for anyone
and requires personal resources to help people in great need. I’d argue
that for Indigenous social workers it is especially hard. Because we often work
in our own communities, with our own families, it is a 24 hour job where you are
always unofficially on call. This can be exhausting and also creates its own
challenges when a ‘tough call’ needs to be made because it can be
hard to separate the personal from the professional.
I’d also urge you in your work to remember that not all Indigenous
people who work in community service, health or welfare services have had the
chance to gain formal qualifications like Social Work. Because of this and the
hierarchies that exist in some work settings, they can feel like their
experience and knowledge is not always valued. While these workers may not have
a piece of paper stating their qualifications, I’d hazard a guess that
many of them know more about social work and human rights in their communities
than all of us put together. Social workers need to continue to work in
partnership with Indigenous people and communities.
Again, to give you a sneak peak of my forthcoming report, I have looked at a
range of case studies of programs that are working well to address violence and
abuse in Indigenous communities. Some of these are community development
programs, some are client focused casework and counselling services. All of
them reinforce the same key messages - namely that there are things that are
working often against incredible odds. And those things that are working are
either generated directly by the community or the funding agency has taken real
steps to engage with the community at every step of the way. Some of the
stories are inspirational and there are some lessons that I am sure will
resonate with your own thinking and practice.
In some ways, none of this is news for social workers who work in alliance
with individuals, families and communities to deal with the consequences of
family violence and child abuse every day. But I would challenge you to look at
these problems, your interactions with clients and communities in terms of human
As I’ve shown, human rights are not just lofty principles that get
talked about at the United Nations. They are our everyday experiences of
getting our needs met and an expression of our shared humanity. They give
social workers a framework for their advocacy, direct service and community
development work, especially when social workers can often be the ones caught in
the middle of the political mine field which is policy implementation. Human
rights are above politics and ideology so they are a useful tool in arguing for
I’d also suggest that a human rights based approach to social work is
about making clear targets, ensuring targets are met and outcomes are evaluated.
We are entitled to expect that public policy will be:
- evidence-based and informed by best practice models;
- consistent with human rights laws and principles;
- designed to meet targets and deliver measurable benefits over time;
- subject to rigorous and transparent monitoring, evaluation and review, and
- that governments will employ a learning framework so that past mistakes will
not be revisited.
Rights do not come without responsibilities. By
this I mean that just as governments have an obligation to protect rights, they also have a responsibility to ensure these rights can and are
met. Social workers have long been involved in advocacy and campaigning for
social justice but I’d also ask that you continue to ask important
questions that provoke accountability. Social workers, with their strengths in
reflective practice and learning from practice, are ideally placed to be arguing
for better evaluation and evidence led policy to ensure rights and
responsibilities are met.
You are also ideally placed to disseminate information about best practice
models and approaches – to draw governments’ attention to what is
working in Indigenous communities both here and overseas – and to advocate
for changes that will deliver the best possible outcomes and opportunities for
our children and our communities.
Human rights based social work is important in all the work we do, but
perhaps even more so for Indigenous people and communities. As I mentioned in
the example of the health campaign, Indigenous people are low on a number of
social indicators, so they are often starting from a base where they do not have
the same life chances as non-Indigenous Australians.
But Indigenous people also have special rights as outlined in the United
Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which was only
passed by the UN in September last year. The Declaration reaffirms that
indigenous individuals are entitled to all human rights recognised in
international law without discrimination. But it also acknowledges that without
recognising the collective rights of Indigenous peoples and ensuring protection
of our cultures, indigenous people can never truly be free and equal. This is
where social work community development can support Indigenous communities in
ways which are empowering, based on partnership and recognising culture to move
Your expertise, commitment to the fundamental principles of social work and
hard work on the ground is critical to assist Indigenous people meet their human
 Ife, J., Human Rights and
Social Work, Cambridge University Press,
 Ife,J. and Fiske,L.
‘Human rights and community work: Complementary theories and
practices’, (2006) 49 (3) International Social Work, p307.
 United Nations, Frequently Asked Questions on a Human Rights-Based Approach to
Cooperation, United Nations, 2006, available online
accessed 5 October 2007. For discussion of a human rights based approach in the
Australian context see: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice
Commissioner, Social Justice Report 2005, HREOC Sydney 2005, pp138-146.
 Email correspondence from
Associate Professor Helen Milroy with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, 9 August
 AASW, NCATSISWA, ACHSSW,
ASSWE, Don’t TAMPA with our aboriginal children, Media Release, 28