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Sunday, 20 June 2010



Awarded Runner-Up Prize, Amnesty International Human Rights 2006 Exhibition, 2006.

In the past fifty years, human rights has become ‘one of the most globalised political values of our times’ (Wilson 1997:1). Human Rights are those that any person naturally deserves, merely by virtue of being human, in order to survive, enjoy well-being, and gain fulfillment. Moreover, not only does every human being have a right or claim to these essential rights, they are simply right in the sense of morality and justice. Although there are many different kinds of rights, human rights are the most fundamental, universal, and inalienable, and governments are expected to advance and defend them (Donnelly 1989).
Ideas about human rights:
Ideas about universal rights for all people developed during the Enlightenment in Europe, were codified in international conventions following worldwide concern over Nazi GENOCIDE and other horrors of World War II, and have increasingly become a central concern in modern political theory and legal practice. There are substantial international conventions on human rights, such as the International Bill of Human Rights of the United Nations, which includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant of Political and Civil Rights, and the International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. In general, these conventions encompass the following: the right to life and freedom from physical and psychological abuse including torture; freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, and accordingly, the right to a fair trial; freedom from slavery and genocide; the right to nationality; freedom of movement, including leaving and returning to one's own country, as well as the right to asylum in other countries from persecution in one's homeland; rights to privacy and the ownership of property; freedom of speech, religion, and assembly; the rights of peoples to self-determination, culture, religion, and language; and the right to adequate shelter, health care, and education (Edward Lawson 1991).

Initial isolation of anthropology from human rights concerns:
Most anthropological literature has isolated itself from mainstream discussion of these values; it has tended to regard the legalistic language and the nation-state frameworks of much discussion as falling outside its professional scope (cf. Messer 1993), and questions of better or worse socio-cultural practice as value-judgements which go against its professional ethos (cf. Wolfram 1988). While ‘human rights’, as discourse and as international law, has enjoyed enormous growth, anthropology has therefore remained aloof, if not skeptical. Anthropologists have usually remained on the periphery of human rights for several reasons: anthropology developed with colonialism and the latter depended on the violation of human rights; human rights have been largely a governmental and legal matter; scientists are supposedly neutral to maintain objectivity; and since human rights are politically sensitive, involvement may endanger the personal safety of the anthropologist, informants, or host community as well as jeopardize future research in a foreign country. Nevertheless, since the time of Franz BOAS anthropologists have occasionally become involved in human rights, as in providing expert testimony in court cases on ancestral land and resource rights for indigenous societies. In recent decades the profession has given much more attention to human rights, as evidenced mainly by the growing literature on the subject (Downing & Kushner 1988; Messer 1993) and the emergence of advocacy anthropology (R. Wright 1988; Paine 1985) and corresponding organizations like Cultural Survival, International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, and Survival International. Professional organizations such as the American Anthropological Association, Society for Applied Anthropology, and European Association of Social Anthropologists have all also established committees on human rights. anthropologists have insisted, must needs be regarded by those affected as a ‘problem’ before cultural outsiders may intervene and provide information for change. Little wonder that, as Richard Wilson puts it, anthropology is often viewed by human-rights theorists and activists as ‘the last bastion of cultural absolutism’ (1997:3); as if somehow believing that cultures contain an inherent moral rectitude, whereby one might always expect ‘underlying cultural values’ ultimately to assuage immoral political systems (American Anthropological Association 1947:543). This stance can be seen as anachronistic if not irresponsible and reactionary. In a ‘post-cultural’ world (Wilson again), a world where ‘[t]he ‘fantasy’ that humanity is divided into [discrete groups] with clear frontiers of language and culture seems finally to be giving way to notions of disorder and openness’, anthropologists remain committed to a romantic communitarianism and relativism (Wilson 1997:10). They continue to believe that, as canonized by the 1947 statement of the American Anthropological Association executive board (penned chiefly by Melville Herskovits), it is upon ‘a respect for cultural differences’ that respect for all other social and individual differences should be based (1947:541).

Cultural relativism and human rights: anthropological skepticism continues

Inasmuch as anthropology has seen its pedagogic mission as the furtherance of respect for ‘other cultures’—has argued for the rights to cultural difference, and posited cultural differences as the grounds for all others—it can be seen to have adopted a collectivist and relativistic logic. The thinking behind anthropological relativism is well rehearsed (cf. Crawford 1988; Downing and Kushner 1988). It is said that ethnography evinces no universal notion of humanity, and no commonality among those notions that do exist concerning the distribution of rights, duties and dignity. It is further said that there is no universal ‘individual’—that unified human subject with a knowable essence whom a naturalistic logic posits as the bearer of rights—only socially constructed persons. Those notions of ‘human nature’ and of ‘rights’ which derive from the fact of being human are historically and culturally bounded, it is argued; there can be no essential characteristics of human nature or rights which exist outside a specific discursive context. In particular, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 was a charter of European, post-Enlightenment, liberal—humanist and idealist, political philosophy which came to be formulated in the wake of the Second World War and the Holocaust. It can be seen as a continuation of Kantian attempts to establish an Archimedean point that provides rational foundations for universal norms of justice; and it must be understood as part-and-parcel of the rise of capitalism—a means for
individual profiteering enterprises to proceed unencumbered by communitarian obligations, traditional custom or a localized morality. In its application—in Western interference in moral issues internal to other cultures—the Universal Declaration has been responsible for a particular normative blindness towards indigenous peoples and their collectivist narratives of land ownership, political determination, selfhood and so on. Meanwhile, Western governments, such as that of the USA, feel free to pull out of UN bodies, such as UNESCO, when they feel too much emphasis is being placed on collective rights of peoples; a strengthening of group interests at the expense of the human rights of individuals is decried as the so-called ‘socialist bias’ of non-democratic societies.
But then what are the so-called human rights and freedoms of individuals as distinct from rights which people practise in the context of cltural, national and spiritual communities? To enjoy individual human rights requires community rights; individual rights cannot be exercised in isolation from the community—individual rights to join a trade union or to enjoy their culture, for instance, necessitate rights of groups to preserve their trade unions or their culture. Even in a laissez-faire Western democracy, individual rights are not absolute or immutable:
they are balanced by the rights of others and by the interests of society, so that freedom of expression, of association and assembly, for example, are subject to the maintenance of national security, public order, and health and morals. In short, removed from his communities, ‘man loses his essential humanity’ (Moskovitz 1968:169–70).

Alternative space for anthropology of human rights:
Arguments against relativistic thinking in anthropology is logically (if not equally) strong. It has morally nihilistic, politically conservative and quietist consequences. It is also imbued with a relativistic meta-narrative concerning cultural difference which is logically inconsistent; for, cultural relativism must also include the relativity of the concept of ‘cultures perse (cf. Gellner 1993). It further implies a modelling of society and of culture which many
would now see as outmoded. That is, society and culture are depicted as sui generis: as reified and as ontologically secure. They are modelled as entities not processes: hermetically discrete and internally integrated; the basis of all similarities and differences between people, the ground of their being, the bank of their knowledge. This illusion of holism might have been legitimate currency in nineteenth-century nationalism and in Durkheimian sociology (cf. Barth 1992), but it is of little account in contemporary existential contexts. Mechanistic, social-structural notions of society and culture as organically functioning wholes must now give way to notions of human groupings as purposive and contingent political entities (ethnicities, religiosities, localisms, occupational lobbies) which live on as sets of symbols and interpreted meanings in the minds of their members. As Wilson sums up, ‘bounded conceptions of linguistic and cultural systems’ are out of place in a context where ‘culture’ may be characterized as ‘contested, fragmented, contextualised and emergent’ (1997:9).
In this situation, ‘culture’ cannot be raised as a right-bearing entity over and against human individuals. Individuals may have rights to cultural attachment and belonging, rights to membership of one or more cultures (of their choosing), but cultures do not have rights over individuals or members. Hence, on this view, ‘female circumcision’ is a violation of: (a) the right to freedom from physical and psychological abuse, (b) the right to corporal and sexual integrity, and (c) the right to health and education (Boulware-Miller 1985:155–77). More generally, the noble anthropological goal of seeking to understand others in their own terms cannot be employed as an excuse to avoid making moral and ethical judgements. Individuals have the right to resist and opt out of the norms and expectations of particular social and cultural groupings and chart their own course.
For instance, an individual’s rights freely to choose a marriage partner take precedence over a group‘s rights to maintain cultural patterns of marital preferences—even if it is argued that these norms are basic to a definition of the groups identity. As the testaments of refugees and asylum-seekers attest, many women have recourse only to suicide in order to avoid being forced into an unwanted marriage, and it is the responsibility of the anthropologist to support those disenfranchised individuals who find themselves under the power of others (cf. Gilad 1996). However that power is locally framed and legitimated (as that of elder kinsmen, religious experts, or whatever), here are relations of domination which anthropology should oppose. Moreover, even though such conceptions of individuals taking precedence over groups, of individual freedom contra cultural hegemony, derive from Western liberalism, the United Nations International Bill of Rights which these conceptions have given onto (comprising the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966)) is the only framework we have by which to make decisions on globally appropriate action.
Finally, if the discourse and law of human rights are manifestations of liberalism as a modern political philosophy, then its opposition is no less political or ideological. To decry the seeming atomism of individually conceived human rights—as opposed, say, to notions of collective attachment, common good, public interest, patriotism, group loyalty, respect for tradition, and so on—is to extol the virtues of communitarianism: to wish to replace a politics of individual rights with a politics of common good, and an emphasis on collective life and the supreme value of the community. This has long had its (equally Western) social-philosophical exponents, from Toennies and Durkheim (‘[T]o experience the pleasure of saying “we”, it is important not to enjoy saying “I” too much’ (1973:240)), to MacIntyre, Taylor and Sandel today. However, as an ideology it can also be critiqued (cf. Phillips 1993). As with the aforementioned illusory notions of society and culture as sui generis, communitarianism can be said to represent a backward-looking myth of a situation of cognitive and behavioural commonality that never existed. In practice, communitarianism is often hierarchical, and always exclusionary with regard to those who do not belong—women and slaves, savages, pagans, Jews, Communists, homosexuals. In sociological usage, moreover, the ideology represents an attempt to ‘colonize’ the consciousness of individual members so that the latter are pressed into the matrices of perception of socio-cultural groupings and identify with
them completely (cf. Cohen 1994).

Relevance of an anthropology of human rights:

Anthropology has conceptual and practical relevance to human rights. Human rights are predicated on a theory of human nature, and anthropologists can contribute to this through their cross-species and cross-cultural comparisons (D. Brown 1991). Yet one of the greatest challenges to universal human rights is the concept of CULTURAL RELATIVISM, which Franz Boas and other anthropologists originated (Herskovits 1972) and others have criticized (Edgerton 1992; Hatch 1983). Some countries accused of violations of human rights have tried to hide behind cultural relativism and criticized their accusers of being Western moral imperialists. Every culture has its own ideas about morality, but these are usually not readily extended beyond its boundaries to other groups, let alone formulated as universals encompassing all of humankind. Anthropologists can help explore, understand, and mediate the cultural diversity of ideas about human rights (An-Naim 1992; K. Dwyer 1991), and they can attempt to reconcile the fundamental issues of universality vs. relativity (Renteln 1990).

At a practical level it must be acknowledged that violators of human rights often target individuals and groups based, at least in part, on their apparent biological, social, cultural, or linguistic differences. Anthropology can address this situation as the humanistic science that documents, interprets, and celebrates the biological and cultural unity and diversity of humankind. Moreover, during their FIELDWORK anthropologists often have a special opportunity to monitor and document human rights, although they must do so discretely because of potential dangers.

Anthropologists in rights:

Part of the explanation for the shift away from relativism in recent anthropological thinking must be due to the recognition that there are no isolated and bounded cultures and societies to reinforce an ‘archipelago’ view of culture. This observation comes at a point when some voices in the discipline are arguing that we live in a post-cultural world with greater emancipatory potential for individual autonomy and agency. The desire to go ‘beyond culture’ in some quarters of anthropology has led to a variety of attempts to construct new forms of anthropological inquiry – new types of ethnographic research – that transcend notions of isolated, bounded cultures. In some cases, this has provoked an interest in transnational, diasporic populations who are explored through multilocale fieldwork. In other cases, it has led to an ethnography that focuses on global institutions and global processes themselves. Such a move displaces the universalism–relativism polarity, opening space for new – or rehabilitated – forms of critical evaluation based on an analysis of power and agency.

For John Gledhill, to give one example of this new thinking, the problem is not about relativism or universalism, but access to global justice and the lack of accountability of rights institutions. Newer debates on power, globalization and transnationalism seem to have displaced the terms of the relativist–universalist polarity. The discussion has been reframed in terms of interconnections, networks and movements of people, ideas and things rather than static and discrete cultures in conflict. Nevertheless, the problem remains of ow to steer a path between the rarified and decontextualized ethics of neo-Kantian political philosophers such as Gewirth (1978) and the radical populism of simply reinforcing what informants say about justice, rights and political claims. Even more challenging is how to make that path meet the requirements of being ethical, empirically informed and conceptually sophisticated.

Recent works are increasingly focus on the anthropological issues of human rights. For example Good and Navaro-Yashin focus on the processing of asylum claims in UK and European contexts, a political issue which has moved centre stage with the rise of anti-immigration right-wing parties in European elections in 2002. These two authors raise significant questions both about the transnational processes of asylum and about the legal process more generally. In both cases, they chronicle the paradoxes of claims caught between the letter of the law and its interpretation in specific contexts. The question of rights, and the influence of debates about transnationalism within the social sciences more generally, have increasingly pushed social anthropologists into thinking harder about the problem of comparison. Social anthropology since the 1980s (excepting the Marxian political economy tradition of Sidney Mintz, Eric Wolf and others) has largely eschewed large-scale comparison in favour of fine-grained description and analyses of local social practices and beliefs.21 It has been asked, what is to be compared, when the meaning of elements being compared (religion, ethical values or political structures) not only varies enormously, but is highly dependent on local context? The expansion of rights makes rights discussions more ubiquitous but at the same time it makes comparison more difficult since social researchers must always ask themselves if they are comparing the same kinds of social processes and, if so, then what characteristics do they share?

Further reading:

Wilson, R. A. and Mitchell, J. P. (Eds.) (2004). Human Rights in global perspective: anthropological studies of rights claims and entitlements.London: Routledge

To visit a good blog on anthropological issues of human rights can be found by clicking here

To know more about Human Rights go to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: click here

Universal declaration of Human Rights - click here

1948 Roosevelt's lecture to the United Nation's general assembly click here (VIDEO)

The Rule of Law in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Click here, pdf

United Nation's Rights Council click here

Inter American Commission on Human Rights Click here

African Union click here


  1. sir just read ur work like it a lot i have herd of u alot from my mentors