1999 Statement on Human Rights

Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights Committee for Human Rights American Anthropological Association

Adopted by the AAA membership June 1999

This Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights defines the basis for the involvement of the American Anthropological Association, and, more generally, of the profession of Anthropology in human rights. Comments and queries from members regarding the Declaration’s content are welcome.


The capacity for culture is tantamount to the capacity for humanity. Culture is the precondition for the realization of this capacity by individuals, and in turn depends on the cooperative efforts of individuals for its creation and reproduction. Anthropology’s cumulative knowledge of human cultures, and of human mental and physical capacities across all populations, types, and social groups, attests to the universality of the human capacity for culture. This knowledge entails an ethical commitment to the equal opportunity of all cultures, societies, and persons to realize this capacity in their cultural identities and social lives. However, the global environment is fraught with violence which is perpetrated by states and their representatives, corporations, and other actors. That violence limits the humanity of individuals and collectives.

Anthropology as a profession is committed to the promotion and protection of the right of people and peoples everywhere to the full realization of their humanity, which is to say their capacity for culture. When any culture or society denies or permits the denial of such opportunity to any of its own members or others, the American Anthropological Association has an ethical responsibility to protest and oppose such deprivation. This implies starting from the base line of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and associated implementing international legislation, but also expanding the definition of human rights to include areas not necessarily addressed by international law. These areas include collective as well as individual rights, cultural, social, and economic development, and a clean and safe environment.

Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights

The American Anthropological Association has developed a Declaration that we believe has universal relevance:

People and groups have a generic right to realize their capacity for culture, and to produce, reproduce and change the conditions and forms of their physical, personal and social existence, so long as such activities do not diminish the same capacities of others. Anthropology as an academic discipline studies the bases and the forms of human diversity and unity; anthropology as a practice seeks to apply this knowledge to the solution of human problems.

As a professional organization of anthropologists, the AAA has long been, and should continue to be, concerned whenever human difference is made the basis for a denial of basic human rights, where “human” is understood in its full range of cultural, social, linguistic, psychological, and biological senses.

Thus, the AAA founds its approach on anthropological principles of respect for concrete human differences, both collective and individual, rather than the abstract legal uniformity of Western tradition. In practical terms, however, its working definition builds on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, and on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights, the Conventions on Torture, Genocide, and Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and other treaties which bring basic human rights within the parameters of international written and customary law and practice. The AAA definition thus reflects a commitment to human rights consistent with international principles but not limited by them. Human rights is not a static concept. Our understanding of human rights is constantly evolving as we come to know more about the human condition. It is therefore incumbent on anthropologists to be involved in the debate on enlarging our understanding of human rights on the basis of anthropological knowledge and research.