The term human rights refers to a set of legal and normative standards according to which all humans are ordained with certain rights irrespective of the cultural or social circumstances of their lives. Although the concept has considerable historical antecedents, modern human rights can be said to have been inaugurated with the establishment of the United Nations (UN) after World War II and that organization’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, the number of organizations, treaties, and resolutions dedicated to human rights has multiplied dramatically.
The intersections between anthropology and human rights are numerous due to the increasingly vast range of issues covered under the rubric of human rights and the variety of topics addressed by anthropologists. The relationship between human rights and anthropology is made even more complex by the coexistence of a strong undercurrent of a commitment to social justice and skepticism of human rights’ emphasis on universalism in anthropology. Indeed, much of anthropology’s early engagement with human rights specifically targeted the issue of relativism and the cultural specificity of ideas of human rights. Although most anthropological work prior to the 1990s did not explicitly examine human rights, anthropology has given rise to a rich body of work addressing pressing social problems, such as the impact of poverty and violence on the communities in which anthropologists do research. This body of work has given us a detailed record of the psychological effects of collective trauma, the use of cultural creativity as a coping mechanism, and the search for dignity in the midst of abject poverty. A recent offshoot of the anthropology of war and violence examines peace processes and attendant mechanisms such as postconflict tribunals and truth and reconciliation processes and their role in nation building. The idea of human rights is not merely a subject of study for anthropologists, however, but an increasingly significant influence on anthropological practice and how anthropologists interact with a range of interest groups. The emergence of claims to tangible and intangible cultural property rights and their subsidiary issues, such as that of the repatriation of material culture or skeletal remains to cultures or nations claiming those artifacts as part of their identity, has underlined the obligations of anthropologists to the communities in which they conduct research.
The History of Human Rights and Cultural Relativism
The foundational document of contemporary discussions of human rights is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a statement of aspirations and principles adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948 as an expression of a commitment to a just world order, in which the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust would not be repeated. While the Universal Declaration drew upon a rich history of political thought and struggles against injustices, including the French and American Revolutions and the abolitionist struggle against the Atlantic slave trade, it signaled the hitherto most extensive commitment by many countries to a range of rights, including political, social, economic, and cultural ones. The Universal Declaration has been expanded upon, further specified, and sometimes made legally binding through numerous subsequent conventions and resolutions. These include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and conventions on the rights of women, slavery, and children’s rights, among other issues. Important human rights work is also carried out by specialized UN agencies, such as the International Labor Organization (ILO), which has played a leading role in defining labor rights and the rights of indigenous peoples, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which has played a leading role in defining rights to education and cultural rights. The three regional human rights systems in Africa (the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights), Europe (the European Court of Human Rights), and the Americas (the Inter-American Court of Human Rights) add another layer of institutions dedicated to the protection and promotion of human rights. Finally, numerous nongovernmental organizations and research centers contribute to the global propagation and strengthening of human rights. International humanitarian law (the set of laws that governs the conduct of conflicts, including the Geneva conventions), while historically and conceptually distinct from human rights, increasingly overlaps with human rights law and is often included in discussions of human rights. Consequently, human rights do not constitute a coherent whole, but are an amalgamation of standards, norms, and principles that are not always wholly compatible and are not easily slotted into a hierarchy of importance. Indeed, many human rights controversies, including particularly contentious matters, such as female genital mutilation, are made more complex by conflicts between different rights, such as between the right to practice one’s beliefs as one sees fit and the rights of women. In addition, human rights are often not justiciable; that is, there is often not a clear legal recourse available to groups or individuals who believe their rights have been violated. Where such a resource exists, it is often subjected to significant restrictions. Nonetheless, the importance of human rights as a global normative discourse is difficult to overstate, as it animates and legitimates a wide range of political and legal claims.
The American Anthropological Association was among the organizations consulted by UNESCO at the time of the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The response was submitted to UNESCO in 1947, but there is no evidence that it was passed on to the drafters of the Universal Declaration. It was drafted by Melville J. Herskovits, a prominent anthropologist and a proponent of the idea of cultural relativism that had in some form dominated American anthropology since the work of Herksovits’s teacher, Franz Boas. Cultural relativism was intended as a methodological or heuristic principle that held that a given practice can be understood only in the context of its culture. Informed by cultural relativism, the statement was a strongly worded argument for the tolerance of diversity and the biological unity of the human species, as well as a critique of racism and colonialism. It also suggested that values vary across cultures and any declaration of rights purporting to be universal must take that variation into account or simply be the expression of a particular culture’s (or group of cultures’) values. The worry, not unique to anthropologists, was that a list of rights and freedoms grounded in Western political thought and experience would be imposed on other cultures. Set against the background of European imperialism and the rhetoric of a civilizing mission justifying the colonization of most of Africa, South Asia, and other parts of the world, this admonition was wholly consistent with the anticolonial stance of the statement.
Cultural relativism has since then been largely misconstrued in many human rights debates into a version of moral relativism, suggesting that a cultural practice cannot be judged as right or wrong as long as it makes cultural sense. Cultural and moral relativism are not mutually exclusive, but the former does not necessarily lead to the latter. Despite occasional attempts by anthropologists to alter the terms of the debate, cultural relativism and universalism have remained the two poles around which much of the discussion has taken place. The proposition that human rights are a Western construct imposed in an imperialist fashion on peoples and cultures in the third world had considerable traction during the Cold War, during which the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies were proponents for different sets of rights (civil and political rights and socioeconomic rights, respectively). Proponents of “Asian values” similarly asserted that economic development should be prioritized over political freedoms and that many human rights, such as freedom of speech or assembly, reflect a Western individualistic culture and not the communitarian ethos attributed to Asian cultures. Anthropologists have addressed these and other deployments of a crude cultural relativism for political purposes by noting the discrepancy between claims to cultural difference made by political leaders and the lived reality of their subjects, and by searching for cross-cultural equivalencies of human rights.
With the notable exception of the rights of indigenous peoples, anthropology was largely insignificant in substantive human rights debates beyond the issue of cultural relativism until the 1990s. Concern over discriminatory laws and policies, violence against indigenous peoples with the acquiescence of state authorities, the exploitation of indigenous people’s territories by industrial operations, the harmful effects of environmental spoliation and degradation, and vulnerability to disease and substance abuse have prompted anthropologists to act as spokespersons for indigenous groups on every continent. Often working with indigenous scholars and activists, anthropologists have worked to rescue the history of indigenous peoples from the grand narrative of colonial expansion and to highlight the continued discrimination against and repression of indigenous peoples. Anthropologists have frequently argued against portrayals of indigenous groups as primitive remnants of an earlier age and advocated for the appropriateness and vitality of indigenous practices often overlooked by development and funding agencies in the management of natural resources. Anthropological research on the cultural traditions of indigenous groups has also been used by nationalist and indigenous movements to bolster claims to indigenity. Anthropologists have, finally, also been actively involved in international efforts to promote and protect the status of indigenous peoples, such as the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues or nongovernmental organizations like Cultural Survival.
The research and advocacy on behalf of the status of indigenous peoples is but one instance in anthropology’s disciplinary history of addressing social injustices and being a voice for marginalized groups. An early example of this commitment is Franz Boas’s struggle against bigotry and racism in the United States. In the 1960s and 1970s, many anthropologists, often influenced by Marxism or some version of dependency or world systems theory, sought to document the impact of global capitalism on local communities and the third-world laborers whose work sustains the wealth of the West and local elites. This work draws our attention to the fragmentation of social identities under global capitalism and the resultant vulnerability of communities, as well as the linkages between pauperization and economic exploitation on one hand and political and cultural marginalization on the other. Other work emphasizes the vitality of cultural traditions and the power of cultural practices and rituals to rearticulate impersonal corrosive global and regional forces into vernacular understandings of power and authority, hence making these forces approachable and ultimately contestable. More recently, other anthropologists have focused on the effect of structural violence on social problems, like famine or public health issues, such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic, arguing that these are often the result of, or exacerbated by, political decisions or willful ignorance. This work is, in turn, part of a long-standing interest in the social consequences of biomedical policies, particularly where they have consequences for human rights as in cases of forced sterilization.
Thus, since Boas, many anthropologists working under banners such as “action anthropology,” “engaged anthropology,” “public anthropology,” and “public interest anthropology” have sought to address social injustices and promote social change. This scholarship, while for the most part not referencing human rights explicitly, nonetheless mirrors many of the concerns with the global human rights movement. Nonetheless, these partial exceptions aside, the scarcity of anthropological engagement with the growing international human rights regime is notable. Indeed, several anthropologists in the 1980s and early 1990s disapprovingly noted the paucity of anthropological studies of human rights and the institutions and individuals participating in their expansion.
The End of the Cold War and the Anthropology of Human Rights
The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s saw a resurgence of human rights and much talk of the victory of a Western liberal conception of human rights and the free market. The seemingly universal acceptance of human rights did little to stem the continued violent excesses and “dirty wars” of authoritarian governments, stop the outbreak of war and genocide (most notably the nearly simultaneous genocides in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the Somalia crisis), or alleviate the crushing poverty of many third-world countries exacerbated by an accelerating HIV/AIDS crisis. Within academia, cultural relativism lost some of its saliency, and the skepticism with which many scholars from across the social sciences and humanities had approached human rights receded by the first half of the 1990s. Anthropology itself underwent a dramatic period of self-scrutiny in the 1980s and paid a considerable amount of attention to the epistemological claims of anthropology, how these claims are constructed, and the relations of power and influence that enable those constructions in the first place.
A consequence of this period of theoretical upheaval was the transformation of the culture concept. The idea of a world of discreet cultures with their own conceptions of rights became increasingly untenable given the view of culture as a practice and something contested and negotiated. With the focus on power relations and the social maintenance of cultural boundaries, itself a mainstay of anthropology since the early work on ethnicity in the 1960s, statements of what a culture really is are increasingly difficult to make. Processes of globalization have further destabilized notions of culture to a point where the movement of goods, images, and ideas, including human rights, between culturally diverse contexts is part of the anthropological study, rather than a distraction. This confluence of factors has helped to propel human rights to the forefront of the anthropological imagination. As an institutional expression of this shift, the American Anthropological Association issued a new Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights in 1999, which explicitly referenced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and associated legal instruments as the baseline for anthropology’s social commitment.
The reorientation of the relationship between anthropology and human rights away from previous discussions of relativity and cultural specificity to one where human rights themselves are considered cultural practices with particular social trajectories is an additional outcome of these shifting emphases within anthropology. From this vantage point, the question of whether particular human rights originate in a particular culture or have their equivalency in some other culture becomes less urgent. Instead, it becomes more important for anthropologists to study and describe how human rights are produced, by whom, in what contexts, and for what purposes. These human rights are disseminated through channels of communication and interaction that are empirically traceable by anthropologists, and received and elaborated on by actors for specific strategic interests. Working in this mold, anthropologists have produced studies of the “arrival” of human rights in different countries that detail how local grievances are translated into human rights concerns and thus tap into a globally legitimate political idiom and transnational networks of organizations, knowledge, and resources. A subset of this body of work focuses squarely on the legal and political institutions and meetings that produce human rights laws and standards, examining the cultural and social precepts and expectations brought to bear on the drafting processes themselves. These institutions, it is often argued, form a technocratic, legalistic, “culture of rights” that is roughly analogous to ethnic cultures in that they are premised on shared understandings, maintenance of social boundaries through educational and professional requirements, and frequent interaction.
In conjunction with a focus on the social processes of human rights, anthropologists have built up an extensive corpus exploring the effects of political and structural violence and war on groups and individuals. An important part of the anthropological study of violence in conflict is to understand the cultural and social logic that shapes how violence is enacted. Research conducted on the conflicts in Rwanda and Sierra Leone, for instance, have demonstrated that violence is often not random or gratuitously grotesque, but follows a particular rationality. These studies offer a counterpoint to popular representations of non-Western conflicts as particularly nasty or barbaric by foregrounding how violence is expressed in a culturally and socially relevant manner and thus follows an instrumental logic, however unpleasant the result may be. Anthropologists have generally argued against totalizing interpretative models, suggesting that all conflicts are ethnic or between competing religions, and advocated paying attention to the multitude of cross-cutting social relationships of kinship, ethnicity, religion, nationality, and class that may be factors in the emergence of armed conflicts.
Other studies have emphasized the international dimension of ostensibly domestic conflicts, demonstrating how such conflicts are often embedded in global capitalist processes, fueled by the international trade in arms, drugs, and commodities, and exacerbated by corruption and the grinding economic inequalities between regions, countries, and groups. Other anthropologists have focused on the effects of fear and violence on communities, foregrounding the effects of trauma and impunity on social attachments and civil trust and how cultural identities are shaped by the militarization of everyday life. Drawing on work in Guatemala and Northern Ireland and other countries and territories, anthropologists have approached political violence as one of the ways through which a government or alternate authority structure creates and maintains a particular order and may suppress some voices while legitimizing others.
The resolution of conflicts, peace processes, and the aftermath and remembrance of war have attracted considerable anthropological attention as well. Anthropologists have brought a range of perspectives to bear on these matters, ranging from the study of the juridical processes intended to punish perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity (such as the international criminal tribunals for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia) to the commemoration of the victims of war and genocide. Truth and reconciliation processes, most notably the South African transition from apartheid, have generated a significant body of work in which anthropologists have scrutinized their underlying assumptions, most notably the assumption that societies are analogous to individuals and that speaking out would work as a therapy for the nation. A few studies have also examined how some grievances are made part of the official version of the peace processes and others shunted to the side.
War and violence are not always easily amenable to ethnographic analysis, however. The methodological challenges are numerous and include the difficulty of tracing processes spanning multiple locales and the difficulty of securing reliable information. Some anthropologists have also voiced concern about the ethical responsibilities of anthropologists in situations of conflict, noting that there is a shortage of anthropological studies of the perpetrators of human rights abuses but cautioning against seeming to morally justify these abuses. The paramount concern, however, is the personal safety of the anthropologist as well as the individuals or groups he or she studies and for whom he or she may be an advocate. The murder of Myrna Mack, a Guatemalan anthropologist who had advocated for the rights of rural indigenous communities, is a well-known example of the risks anthropologists may take when speaking up for a marginalized group in a context of violence.
Rights, Cultural Property, and Anthropological Research
Human rights are not just a subject of anthropological research, but as a body of norms and laws, a factor impacting the conduct of anthropological research itself. This impact ranges from general provisions applicable to everyone (freedom of movement, for instance) to sets of rights specifically concerning areas of traditional anthropological expertise, such as cultural rights and the rights of indigenous peoples and minorities. Both of these areas of rights have seen a dramatic expansion of late as the UN and the regional human rights systems are increasingly seeking to frame the rights of indigenous and minority groups not just as protection from discrimination, but as a right to have their cultural heritage protected and promoted. Cultural rights refer to an amorphous set of rights to both cultural identity in the sense of a way of life, ethos, or worldview and the material expression thereof, and the right to create and enjoy particular genres of what is often referred to as “high” culture, such as art or music. Cultural rights consequently butt up against a range of other rights, including the right to freedom of expression, rights to education, and intellectual property rights. This distinction is muddied, however, by the increasingly common adoption of a model of property rights to matters of the cultural heritage of indigenous and minority groups.
As the obligations of states to protect and promote aspects of minorities’ and indigenous people’s cultures are strengthened, anthropologists may find themselves caught between the requirements of research and their human rights obligations toward the people they study. There is an emerging global consensus that material culture or biological remains linked to a culture or nation should not be removed from that culture or nation except in particular authorized circumstances (such as on loan for a museum exhibit) or that where such items have already been removed (be it due to war, colonial conquest, or theft), they should be repatriated. Well-publicized disputes such as that over the Elgin Marbles (a series of reliefs removed from the Parthenon by an English nobleman, Lord Elgin, sold to the British government in 1816, and now on display in the British Museum) have generated an extensive debate as to what the grounds for repatriation should be: whether the return of a few archaeological items would set a precedent that would force many major museums to give up significant parts of their collections and whether the retention of an artifact might be permissible if its return to the culture or nation would endanger it due to limited resources for its conservation or its potential to be resold on international art markets.
As a response to these concerns, many countries have enacted legislation intended to protect the rights of indigenous and other cultural groups to their patrimony. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed by the U.S. Senate in 1990 and established requirements for the repatriation of Native American and indigenous Hawaiian items to their descendants and culturally affiliated groups, as well as a process for the claiming of Native American cultural items. While the anthropological community’s reaction to NAGPRA and similar initiatives in other countries has been overwhelmingly positive, the resultant tension between the requirements of scientific research and the right to cultural patrimony has occasioned several disputes, such as that of the “Kennewick Man.” The Kennewick Man is a skeleton found in the state of Washington, in 1996, with the potential to complicate our present understanding of prehistoric America. The discovery and efforts to identify the origin of the skeleton pitted Native American groups against anthropologists and other researchers (the very name Kennewick Man is itself contested). The former group argued that the skeleton was Native American and thus had to be repatriated to them as required by NAGPRA, and the latter group argued that the association between the skeleton and the Native American groups is not easily scientifically demonstrable and that the scientific right to study the skeletal remains for the benefit of the broader community cannot be limited by NAGPRA. The debate also implied an argument, ultimately won by the anthropologists, over whether or not oral traditions were equal to written sources of history and scientific findings in terms of their validity and reliability.
The protection of intangible cultural heritage raises similar questions of ownership and cultural property. Efforts by UNESCO and other groups to codify standards and obligations for the protection of cultural practices such as music and folklore (most recently, the 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage) seek to establish lists of cultural practices under threat and recommend measures to be taken by governments to prevent their disappearances. Anthropologists have noted, however, that by seeking to preserve particular instances of cultural expression, one essentially makes that instance the paramount expression, contrary to our contemporary understanding of culture as fluid and negotiated. The process for deciding what practices will be singled out for protection by government is not always transparent and might conceivably be abused by special interests. The call for the safeguarding of intangible culture, moreover, entails a judgment of what culture change is desirable and what is not without providing any clear guidelines for making that determination. Finally, some anthropologists have expressed dismay over efforts to transform cultural practices into property that can be legally protected and exchanged as commodities (for example, the treatment of indigenous pharmacological knowledge as an intellectual property).
These concerns are weighed against the ethnographic reality of culture loss, where communities feel that their cultures are under siege from external pressures. Anthropologists and activists have also expressed concern over the phenomenon of “language death,” or the decrease in the speakers of a language to a point where it is no longer used. Many of these worries are not new to anthropology, however. Early anthropology under Franz Boas and his students contained an exhortation to “salvage ethnography,” or the recording of cultural and linguistic data for posterity, premised on the assumption that if linguistic and cultural diversity are diminished, humanity at large is poorer. More recently, the responsibilities of the anthropologist with regard to ethnographic data have become of increasing concern. The aforementioned epistemologically reflexive turn of the 1980s, mindful of anthropology’s reputation and sometime collaboration with colonialism, was particularly concerned with how ethnographic authority is established, the collaborative nature of field research, and the ownership of ephemeral cultural data recorded by the anthropologist. While it widely held that anthropologists are obliged to share the results of their research with the communities they study, the allocation of responsibility for data past that point is uncertain. The ownership of a recording of a performance, for instance, may be said to belong to the anthropologist who did the recording or to the informant who performed. Whether or not these kinds of cultural artifacts can or should be repatriated remains unclear.
Irrespective of the legal or scientific merits of these and similar discussions, some anthropologists have expressed dismay over the adoption of a model based on ownership and property for the protection of groups’ cultural heritage, as the presuppositions of that model are not necessarily appropriate for matters of cultural identity. These concerns include whether one can stipulate that a given artifact or practice is somehow necessary or important to the survival of a particular cultural practice and the underlying reification of a cultural group as an entity whose integrity is measured by the retention of material objects. Other anthropologists question whether an approach based on rights is efficacious and whether it may trap negotiations of culture in a legal framework and thereby distort them. These misgivings notwithstanding, most anthropological researchers are broadly sympathetic to the aims of NAGPRA and similar national and international efforts.
In addition to these cultural rights, anthropologists follow the same guidelines for research on human subjects used by other social and natural scientists. These guidelines overlap with well-entrenched human rights norms, like prohibitions on forced labor and the right not to participate in a scientific experiment without informed consent. These normative standards are given formal expression in national laws, university regulations, and professional codes of ethics and conduct. Accusations of violations of these and similar rights by anthropologists are rare, but a notable exception is the debate surrounding anthropological research conducted among the Yanomami (an indigenous group in Brazil and Venezuela). The controversy was sparked by a book by an investigative journalist alleging that the researchers, including several anthropologists as well as medical and biological scientists, had purposely started an epidemic as a scientific experiment. An inquiry into these charges would eventually conclude that they were unfounded, but the controversy nonetheless foregrounded the ethical responsibilities of anthropologists.
Episodes like that of the Yanomami are exceptions to the fertile interaction between anthropology and human rights and the numerous contributions made by anthropologists to alleviate specific human rights problems. Anthropological expertise has also been marshaled in support of forensic investigations into genocide and ethnic cleansing. The often rare cultural and area expertise of anthropologists is often called upon for political and legal proceedings such as asylum cases. Anthropology remains central to the effort to protect against the involuntary fading away of linguistic and cultural practices, whether tangible or intangible. Finally, anthropologists often effectively speak out against abuse and injustice, drawing upon a rich legacy of commitment to tolerance and human rights.
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