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Statement of the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Šimonović, at the 29th Annual Social Work Day on “Human Rights and the Global Agenda”

26 March 2012
United Nations
New York


Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues

It is a pleasure to join you for this Social Work Day at the United Nations for a couple of good reasons. Firstly, it always feels good to be among friends of human rights. If human rights affirm the dignity and equality of all human beings, social work is in many cases what makes it happen, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable individuals and groups in society.

Secondly, on a personal note, I have been involved in the social work education and social welfare. For twenty five years, I have been teaching at Zagreb School of Social Work, a member of the Alliance of Social Work Schools. My teacher, mentor, my first boss and a great friend was the late Eugen Pusić who served form 1964 to 1968 as the president of the Council of Social Welfare.  As you have already heard, I served in 2002 as President of the Economic and Social Council of the UN.

Thirdly, I was very pleased, to find out that your Global Agenda is very much centred on human rights. It is not by accident that when I was handed the agenda, I held it up high. It deserves to be held high. Not only do you seek the full and effective realisation of all human rights for all persons, but you also single out the groups - such as children, older persons, women, persons with disabilities and indigenous peoples – which are most vulnerable to discrimination.

Frankly, I couldn’t have proposed a more human rights-friendly agenda myself.

I will therefore not give a critique of your Global Agenda. Rather, I will just make a few suggestions on how we can work together to achieve that agenda, which is as much yours as it is ours.

First, as people who are at the frontlines of addressing social inequalities, injustices, exclusion and discrimination, how we approach, conduct or even talk about our work makes a big difference. Sometimes, we have responded to these social ills either as a matter of charity for those affected, or a matter of seeking favours from the authorities.

Consistently using international human rights law standards, which countries have committed themselves to, empowers those we seek to help. And it provides a basis for demanding accountability from the authorities.

This, of course, is not to downplay the value of charity, philanthropy or corporate social responsibility. These have an important place in our work as a reinforcement, rather than substitute, for human rights.

Let me illustrate. In Cambodia, a country with one of the highest number of landmine victims, the efforts of different organisations to address the problem were, for many years, focused on providing prosthetics. A laudable endeavour, no doubt, but one that didn’t ensure the legal empowerment of the victims and their protection from discrimination. Although Cambodia has not yet ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities adopted in 2006, the awareness generated by the drive for ratification is helping to focus attention on the full range of the rights of persons with disabilities beyond providing prosthetics or other forms of material assistance.

I would suggest, therefore, that as a social worker, one of the most valuable things you can have in your toolbox is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments.
Second, engagement in policy-making, both at the national and international levels, can help in advancing not only your Global Agenda, but human rights more broadly. As social workers, you probably know more about the needs – and the fears – of vulnerable individuals and groups than many of the people making the policy decisions. Your experience and perspectives can certainly enrich the policy-making process a great deal. For instance, the United Nations is engaged, at the moment, in a process on how to better protect the rights of older persons. Who knows more about older persons than social workers, apart from the older persons themselves? The potential value of your engagement in the process couldn’t be more obvious.

On this note, I am pleased to learn that preparations for a post-2015 development agenda is a major focus of your Global Agenda. I have no doubt that your involvement will significantly increase the prospects of an agenda embedded in human rights.  We look forward to collaborating with you on these efforts.

Third, the United Nations human rights mechanisms can give teeth to your work on the ground. From the work of the treaty bodies to special rapporteurs, independent experts, working groups, and the Universal Periodic Review, the United Nations human rights mechanisms make decisions, conclusions and practical recommendations that can empower social workers in fighting for the rights of the people they serve. You can bring situations of injustice, discrimination and human rights abuse that you encounter to the attention of these mechanisms. And you can demand answers from the authorities on measures taken implement their recommendations..

Finally, I would like to say that you can count on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights as allies, as much as we count on you

Thank you very much.