Anthropology and Human Rights in 2015 and Beyond

Survey Graphic: CfHR surveyby Tricia Redeker Hepner, CfHR Chair 2015-2018

It was the 2013 Annual Meeting of the AAA, and Carole McGranahan, Eva Friedlander and I faced a full house. At least fifty AAA members and conference attendees had turned out for the public forum of the Committee for Human Rights. Our chair had run into travel hitches and was unable to attend. As we moved to the front of the room a dizzying heat crept from the pit of my stomach to the top of my head. How to lead a forum for which we had no available agenda? As newly elected members to the committee, Eva and I looked to the veteran, Carole, for guidance. “Well,” she whispered with a grin, “we’re going to have to wing it.”

Finding myself standing at the podium following Carole’s recap of the committee’s mission and past activities, I summoned the grit accumulated from years of teaching and thinking on my feet. “We’d like to open the forum to hear your suggestions for issues and tasks the committee might address in the coming year.” Locking eyes with my doctoral student, Julia Hanebrink, I silently willed her to come up with something good. As if on cue, she raised her hand. “How about working on a new statement on anthropology and human rights?” Clutch! Thanks, Julia!

The suggestion resonated, a lively conversation ensued, the public forum was a success, and a goal emerged that felt both natural to CfHR and to me personally. Every year when I teach the Anthropology of Human Rights, my students and I carefully read and discuss the 1947 and 1999 AAA Declarations. Aside from being important documents in their own right, these two statements have also have reflected, summarized, and guided the way anthropologists have thought about and positioned ourselves relative to human rights for almost seventy years. They are also historical artifacts in a sense; archives and outcomes of the evolving conversation about a dynamic arena of laws, policies, norms, values, practices, and struggles.

Julia’s suggestion demonstrated more than what she learned in my course, however. It pointed to the reality that the world changes, anthropology changes, and so too have the concepts and institutions associated with human rights. In the late 1990s, far fewer anthropologists were thinking and writing about human rights than they are today. And the vast interface of legal, political, and cultural dynamics we reference with those two small words has also been transformed. And so, since that cold December day in Chicago, the Committee for Human Rights has worked to continue developing this conversation among ourselves and with other AAA members.

As we think about capturing once again the evolving relationship between anthropology and human rights in 2015 and beyond we seek the input of our colleagues and we hope to continue fostering a healthy and lively debate in our discipline. This blog, and the survey we have designed to help generate feedback on the ideas proposed for a third declaration, are another step in that direction. We invite you to participate!