Advocacy – a personal journey in an Australian context

Advocacy – a personal journey in an Australian context

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“One cannot level one’s moral lance at every evil in the universe.  There are just too many of them. But you can do something, and the difference between doing something and doing nothing is everything.”

Daniel Berrigan


Social Justice versus Human Rights?

About 20 years ago, one of my daughters (who was then primary school aged) asked me the question “Dad, what is the difference between social justice and human rights?”  I struggled to answer her immediately, and then wrestled with that question for a long time.

Social justice and human rights are two terms that often get rolled in together.  But throw up a few questions:

  • What do they mean?
  • Where do they differ? and
  • What do they hold in common?

Social justice is a moral standard by which we evaluate political and economic institutions.  The moral justification of our institutions depends on how well these institutions serve the interests of the poor, the marginalized and the dispossessed.  If we believe in the ‘common good’, then the basic institutions of society must sufficiently benefit all, including the least advantaged and most vulnerable members of society.  I doubt we can ever define the term “social justice” precisely.  Instead, this definition captures in a broad way what I have in mind when considering social justice.

My understanding and thinking around advocacy is based in decades of active involvement in advocacy and thinking through my daughter’s profound question of what is the difference between human rights and social justice.

Some scholars argue that the pursuit of social justice is not an appropriate goal for organisations committed to human rights, suggesting that human rights is concerned with restraints on the exercise of power whereas social justice is concerned with the redistribution of wealth and resources.

Many grass roots service delivery organisations prove that is not the case.  I say that because while human rights and social justice are not synonymous, the distinction above draws between the two concepts is based on an extremely limited understanding of what constitutes “power.”  No longer can human rights be defined in a way that renders economic, social and cultural rights completely invisible; there are now very powerful reminders all around us that human rights and social justice aspirations are inseparable.

There is strong evidence that human rights advocacy when associated with social movements, have been successful in a range of contexts in challenging economic and social injustices. Experience has shown that for human rights advocacy to bring about change in the sphere of economic and social policy, accountability must be pursued in a variety of different forms and venues, from courtrooms to boardrooms, newsrooms, classrooms, living rooms and on the streets.  The most durable change comes about when judicial challenges and policy advocacy has been part of a broader strategy in collaboration with social justice movements.

Human rights are those basic rights that belong to people because they are human beings, regardless of their nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, or religion, and without which people cannot live in dignity.  The human rights that are considered by most societies to belong to all people include the right to life, justice, freedom, and equality. Social justice is the concept that community and state activity should be based on just and equitable treatment of all people regardless of race, socioeconomic class, gender, age, or sexual preference.

The Australian context

Social justice is about making sure that every Australian – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – has choices about how they live and the means to make those choices.

Social justice is grounded in the practical, day-to-day realities of life. It’s about waking up in a house with running water and proper sanitation; offering one’s children an education that helps them develop their potential and respect their culture. It is the prospect of satisfying employment and good health.

Social justice also means recognising the distinctive rights that Indigenous Australians hold as the original peoples of this land, including the right to:

  • a distinct status and culture, which helps maintain and strengthen the identity and spiritual and cultural practices of Indigenous communities
  • self-determination, which is a process where Indigenous communities take control of their future and decide how they will address the issues facing them, and
  • land, which provides the spiritual and cultural basis of Indigenous communities.

A possible framework for advocacy

Making a commitment to community services and models of person centred delivery that:

  • structure services around the needs of the person, not around service models or program silos
  • meet the different needs of different geographic regions
  • develop place-based approaches to best meet the needs of local communities
  • pursue better collaboration between and within government, community sector organisations philanthropic organisations and the corporate sector
  • link up government and community services so there is ‘no wrong door’
  • focus on better prevention and early intervention
  • recognise the lifelong impact of trauma and strengthen cultural competence
  • use data so it supports better planning and outcomes not just processes
  • structure funding to support best practice and foster innovation, and
  • maintains and builds on the expertise and social capital of community sector organisations


“If you see injustice and say nothing, you have taken the side of the oppressor.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Stephen Hall
Stephen Hall
Lives in Perth, Western Australia.

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