Human Rights Day 2015

Today (12/10) is Human Rights Day!  

Members of the AAA CfHR Reflect on Why Human Rights Matter

(We welcome responses via the comments section below…)

Tricia Redeker Hepner: “Human rights matter because humanity matters. And perhaps more importantly, because humanity has a responsibility to itself and to all other forms of life on this planet. As we survey the conditions facing us at the end of 2015, we witness exploding violence, the rise of hateful and exclusionary political ideologies and practices, massive economic inequalities, extreme displacement, and possibly irreversible degradation of our natural environments – to name but a few. While cynicism and disengagement are tempting, the shared values articulated by human rights concepts provide a hopeful referent and higher standard to which we must hold ourselves and one another. It is the responsibility of anthropologists – the students of humanity par excellence – to remind humanity of our best capacities, especially as we confront our worst.”  

Marnie Thomson: “Human rights matter in the ways that anthropology matters. Both pertain to the condition of being human. Taking the human as the common denominator means recognizing what unites us all and using that as a foundation for security, equality, and dignity. It also means respecting human distinctions–such as nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender, economic status, sexual orientation, or political opinion–by not taking these differences to be divisive. Human rights matter because, like anthropology, they honor the simultaneous unity and diversity of humanity.”

Benjamin Lawrance: “Human rights matter because everyone has them if everyone defends them. Every day we see people’s rights violated and people’s rights questioned. Twenty years ago Hillary Clinton loudly declared women’s rights are human rights in Beijing. President Obama asserted his authority globally and declared LGBT rights are human rights. Today, on this day, we need to acknowledge that Human Rights are HUMAN. And whereas they may be violated, impinged, or unrecognized, they cannot be taken away or undone.”  

Kate Riley: “’Human rights’ is frequently understood to mean that human beings depend on some other force outside ourselves to give us access to the material stuff (land, food, water…) and symbolic stuff (freedom, justice, security…) to which we believe we have a right.  The implication is that we must organize, demonstrate, revolt, or policy-make, legislate, adjudicate …in order to wrest those rights from the hands of that alien power structure.  Given the present state of things, that is absolutely true in many cases.  And yet, “human rights” can also be interpreted as the obligation to be human in order to deserve those rights. We cannot expect the earth in all its plenty to continue providing for us nor the workers of the world to continue laboring to produce the food and shelter we need, if any of us continue to behave inhumanely by extracting, exploiting, and excluding in inhumane ways. Human rights come with the responsibility (something humans are uniquely capable of) to listen well and dialogue hard to find the common ground on which we all dwell while supporting the great diversity that the earth and humanity have developed. Anthropology is all about this, and anthropologists have a role in reminding humans of this.” 

Rebekah Park: “Human rights matter in the same way it matters to inform ourselves about the world around us. We will all come across moments in our lives when we are faced with moral quandaries and we are given an opportunity to act. But we can only act righteously if we are informed, if we are attuned to the world and those around us. These moments can pass by quickly, and the window in which we can choose to act can close so quickly that our actions must become nearly automatic, as a result of moral preparation. We may not act on every injustice we read, witness, or come across, but every one of us will continue to come across moments in our lives in which we have the opportunity to act on the behalf of others. And those moments have consequences for the larger state of humanity. These moments may be minor, or they may make the difference for thousands. Human rights is the concept, the language, in which to uphold that core belief that our engagement with the world matters, that our moral selves matter.”

Alayne Unterberger:  “When most people think of human rights, their minds automatically seem to go first to ‘human wrongs.’ They think about our dark history of the Holocaust, slavery of many types, sometimes wars, and sometimes conversations about human rights end with a kind of “that was back in the day” comment.  On the other extreme, some people are depressed by the seemingly endless accounts of human rights violations in the present.  But I think that the idea of human rights is so much more powerful when we think of how far the world has come.  Human rights are rights that should apply equally to everyone, regardless of where on the planet they live, how much money they have, skin color, religion, language, sexual orientation or gender.  What a powerful concept!  It was not always the case that a person of lower economic means or social class would be automatically granted the same rights as a person of higher economic means. In fact, it was not the case for many centuries. These rights that were gained were gained through hard fought solidarity movements that included those most affected and others who helped as allies. My hopefulness about human rights comes from those kinds of stories, which are common.  We all need allies.  People across the planet should be able to live free, healthy, pursue happiness and the ability to dream. That’s why it is so important for students to understand their power as allies to oppressed groups.  One great example is the Student Farmworker Alliance (SFA) that works across US campuses to build solidarity with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), who plant, take care of, and harvest the majority of Florida’s tomatoes that go into fast food and/or restaurants.  You don’t have to be a farmworker to know that they have rights. But a student has the ability to help them achieve better rights by working with them to advocate for human rights and dignity.  The idea of solidarity is that in helping one group secure rights, everyone’s rights are more secure.  Allies of farmworkers have been able to help them gain 15 signed agreements under the Fair Food Agreement, a living document which brings corporations like Taco Bell and Whole Foods to agree that rights must be protected, and enforcement through monitoring of the terms of the agreement.  In Florida, a state that has no Department of Labor, the Fair Food Agreement helps to enforce labor laws that would otherwise be ignored.  Miraculously, the Fair Food Agreements have changed farmworkers’ lives for the better by forcing crew leaders to give workers shade, water and pay them to attend classes on safety and their rights.  All this and more is possible when students and allies understand that the road to human rights is a shared one that requires constant vigilance.  (see or visit Student Farmworker Alliance on FB).”

Jaymelee Kim:  “Human rights matter because they illuminate imbalances in power; draw attention to deprivation; reveal violence in its structural and overt forms; interrogate legal, ethical, and theoretical assumptions across the globe; and acknowledge the rich diversity inherent to being human. Often transformed into languages of social justice, decolonization, feminism, or equality and equity, human rights provide an opportunity–a tool to act, to intervene, and to address humanity’s own depravity. While human rights laws, culture, ideologies, and conceptualizations shift and evolve, their very presence creates a space that fosters critical engagement with oneself, each other, and the world in a potentially profound way.”

Eva Friedlander: On human rights day we think about the various ways that we all partake of the inhumanity that we see around us. It can be in behaviour and belief, and the ways that unthinkingly we build on the lack of justice and consideration given to those in status other than our own.  It is, therefore, particularly relevant that this year there is a universal focus on issues of inequality, as they undergird so much of the way the world is organized and operates. These support and reinforce the restriction of rights in housing, health, education, living conditions, etc. in ways that turn variation into levels of difference and push opposition into violence. It is therefore an important moment to reflect on where and how we think about, become and give support to human rights supporters.”

Julia Hanebrink: “Human rights matter because they serve as a friendly reminder to those that seek to enslave, silence, torture, rape, displace, disappear, kill, or otherwise abuse, exploit, and oppress their fellow humans – especially in the name of profit (I’m looking at you, FIFA) – that they should reconsider lest they violate the basic tenets of humanity.

Human rights matter because they also serve as a reminder that one does not have to be a torturer or genocidaire to be a human rights violator, nor does one need to be tortured or killed in order to have their rights violated. For example, denying asylum or refuge to someone in need – simply because they happened to be born in Syria – violates the right to live, to be free, and to feel safe (Article 3, UDHR). Tear gassing and arresting crowds of nonviolent protesters violates the right to gather peacefully (Article 20, UDHR). The presence of corrupt political campaign finance systems that are increasingly controlled by the wealthy and special interests groups violates the right to be part of your government – or to choose the people who are – in fair elections (Article 21, UDHR). Not receiving a living wage as a fast food, healthcare, domestic, academic, or scores of other types of worker violates the right to decent pay so that you and your family can survive (Article 23, UDHR).  The list goes on, but human rights matter because they give us the vision, the language, and the means to be treated – and to treat others – with the compassion and kindness of which our species is so beautifully capable.

Human rights matter because they remind us that we do not have to be personally responsible for rights violations to be personally responsible for rights. We all have a duty to care for this magnificent rock we call Earth, and the people who share this planet with us. Human rights matter because only by watching out for each other can we achieve and enjoy peace in this world.”


Jennifer Burrell

Human rights matter because they are primary vehicle through which many people in the world articulate experiences of domination, question hierarchies and make claims to do with inequality, social justice and imbalances of power in the world.  Most of all, human rights, human rights laws and human rights structures are invested with hope and we cannot reach the dream of a better and more just world without hope.