Anthro News article (June 2014) AAA Committee for Human Rights Plans Third Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights

This article was originally published on June 21, 2014 in Anthropology-News, the newsletter of the American Anthropological Association

This coming June, the 1999 Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights will turn 15 years old. The declaration is a clarion call for anthropologists to embrace human rights concepts and a primer on how we might think about them with respect to culture. It is an implicit response to the 1947 statement that largely rejected universal human rights for their putative cultural imperialist thrust and embeddedness in Western concepts of the individual person and private property. The 1999 declaration thus primarily seeks to bridge the tensions between the universalism of human rights and the relativism of cultural variation and the individual rights-bearing subject and his/her cultural groups and contexts.

The bridging of universalist-relativist tensions is of course deeply important and remains vital for informing research, teaching, and practice. The 1999 declaration helped stimulate more than a decade of rich ethnographic work and critical theoretical and methodological advancement, arguably giving birth to what we now know as the anthropology of human rights. Like most important advances in anthropological theory and method, we do not discard or reject past insights so much as incorporate them moving forward as we respond to new empirical and intellectual conditions.

Just as the anthropology of human rights has changed considerably in 15 years, so have human rights concepts, laws and problems; and indeed, the world itself. We live in a hyper-global context dominated by the war on terror, runaway corporate capitalism, extreme ecological imbalances, climate change catastrophes and intensified migrations in which political, economic and environmental factors are blurred. We are simultaneously more closely bound together as a species—by technology, by the common fate of the shared natural and sociopolitical environments—and yet more divided than ever by massive redistributions of wealth, unequal access to resources, and polarizing ideologies. At the same time, “human rights” has become an omnipresent discourse according to which many institutions of political and economic power operate. It is also the key frame through which various social and political movements seek to address—and redress—conditions precipitated by these same institutions and related regimes of power. Human rights today is therefore a vital, even radical, discourse and strategy for transformation, and one that has been compromised or hijacked by political and economic elites.

The multitude of changes that have taken place in the international and national institutional frameworks of human rights provide new and different mechanisms for complaint and redress. They include the establishment of the Human Rights Council, the adoption of new Conventions, Optional Protocols and treaty based bodies, as well as the increased and growing focus on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, enabled largely by the work of civil society organizations and individuals, including anthropologists. New legal mechanisms, including the European Court of Human Rights and various transitional justice measures, have enabled states to redefine human rights laws and the norms of what is and is not acceptable, both in terms of violations and capabilities. The AAA Committee for Human Rights (CfHR) seeks to identify the ways in which anthropologists can play a role in understanding and shaping these processes.

Anthropologists, through their work as researchers, teachers, trainers and with the public, engage with key law and policy institutions on which they have an impact. Though human rights is often expressed and applied through legal theory and instruments, anthropologists bring a unique contribution to defining how human rights are embedded in the social rather than as abstract entitlements. Through fieldwork, anthropologists can document abuses and educate the public on what is cultural and how change occurs. Not only do we have the ability to witness, but also the means to proactively shape the future agendas for human rights campaigns and continue to build relationships with key institutions that inform law and policy.

Rooted in this understanding, the CfHR proposes the issuing of a Third Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights. We pose the following questions to ourselves, to the AAA membership, and to the broader discipline: What does “human rights” mean today and how should anthropologists think and act moving forward? What empirical conditions should concern anthropologists with respect to human rights? What aspects of existing human rights law, discourse, and concepts are especially relevant to informing a contemporary anthropological orientation?

We invite the AAA and the broader anthropological community to engage with us around these questions as we prepare to draft a third declaration. Please visit our new Facebook page at and email us at to participate in the discussion leading up to the 2014 Annual Meeting in Washington DC. And mark your calendars to attend the CfHR Public Forum where we will continue the conversation.

Jeanne Simonelli is editor of Human Rights Forum, the AN column of the AAA Committee for Human Rights. She may be contacted at