The R-word and the G-word: On counting and accountability in the case of the Rohingya

This article was contributed by an anthropologist who needs to remain anonymous given the sensitivity of the issue.

Slowly but surely, the international public has begun to acknowledge that “the Rohingya issue” in Southeast Asian Myanmar might constitute a case of genocide. Previously many aspects of the situation “on the ground” were not well documented, partly because of the long-term systematic exclusion by the Burmese government of international journalists and agencies from the area where most Rohingya live (Northern Rakhine State), and partly because of the intimidation of local journalists, fixers and human rights workers. By now, however, we do have numerous NGO reports, documents issued by UN fact-finding commissions, written assessments by legal scholars, and systematic recording and cross-checking of eyewitness accounts from the makeshift refugee camps in Bangladesh.

The international public should thus not be confused over how to categorize the refugee crisis with the highest weekly outflow since Rwanda in 1994 because of a putative lack of trustworthy information. People are finding it hard to put together how a Buddhist country, whose government is headed by the winner of a Nobel peace prize, a country that has been hailed in recent years for its “opening up” and its embrace of democracy, has now – even under the eyes of a carefully observing global audience – become a site of genocide. A common reaction when trying to come to terms with such unimaginable atrocity is to employ quantification. We count victims: mutilated, raped, disabled, emaciated bodies. Every day there are new numbers available of bodies transgressing borders, bodies crossing rivers, bodies collapsing on the side of the road, dead bodies. In her recent work on “The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking” (2016), the legal anthropologist Sally Engle Merry has observed that there has been an increase in the quantification of bodies in catastrophic situations, much to the neglect of qualitative ethnographic accounts. But counting and accountability are intrinsically connected. There lies an ethical dimension within the numerical and the representational that has less to do with numbers and more to do with how we reach a judgment or a decision, how we come to value and ultimately understand a social situation. The atrocities are what they are the moment they are committed, but the labelling shifts over time and depends not only on quantification, but also on public pressure. As scholars, we first of all have to hold ourselves accountable to keep this pressure up.

While counting can be easily done – think of handing out ID cards, food rations, housing supplies – and is easily conveyable to others beyond mere numbers – think of cameras zooming in on people standing in lines waiting for food or zooming out via drones in order to show the vastness of the crisis in terms of its geographical encompassment – accountability cannot be achieved through mere “taking stock.” It requires reflexivity and the attentiveness towards the suffering of others. Despite the reign of audit culture (Strathern 2000), however, quantifying procedures of accountability can never substitute for ethical responsibility. Therefore, what has made all the difference for me in coming to terms with the situation “on the ground” were reports of individual case stories by photographers and journalists who followed a particular family along their flight or who have encountered a particular person in the camps and tried to tell a part of their story (some of them were imprisoned in Bangladesh or Myanmar for carrying out their work). These are the stories that we need to take into account when entering discussions about what it is we are currently witnessing in Myanmar.

For years, there has been a wide and heated debate about “saying their name” – Rohingya or the “R-word” –  in international and local discourses. The Burmese government, including Aung San Suu Kyi, do not use the name Rohingya. It is nowhere to be found in local legislation, and international visitors such as former President Obama, the Head of UN Commissions or, most lately, the Pope, are advised to avoid it. While locally monks and demonstrators rally under banners of having to free the countries from “illegal Bengalis” and cry out that “there are no Rohingya in Myanmar,” the international public encourages everyone to “say their name.” In a reversal of moral standpoints, however, the international public has until recently shied away from calling the situation in Northern Rakhine state a genocide. The definition of the term is important – according to Art 1 of the Genocide Convention an official recognition of an atrocity as a genocide has to have consequences since the contracting parties to the convention are then obliged “to prevent and to punish” what is a crime under international law. In the cases of Rwanda and Bosnia – two analogies that have been frequently drawn in relation to the situation in Myanmar – the international community stuck to the label of “ethnic cleansing.” Likewise, the US state department concluded on November 22 2017, that there is “ethnic cleansing” going on in Rakhine state, a term not defined in international law and therefore marked as merely “descriptive” by the officials. In human rights reporting, journalistic documentation and anthropological analysis, however, we are not bound by the legal implications of calling the situation what it is as a state party might be once it starts using the term genocide. It would seem that our accountability requires us, in the face of the overwhelming evidence, to not only say the R-word but also the G-word, and to continue raising awareness. This might not yield immediate results, which is difficult to endure; there are no measures available to anybody but the armed forces of Myanmar to stop the atrocities immediately, and they do not seem inclined to do it. But it is imperative to take a stance even though the initial effect on Myanmar’s internal politics might be an increased closing of ranks between large parts of the population and the government/military.

“May we all learn and act on the lessons of Srebrenica,” cautioned the UN Secretary-General in 2005, 10 years after Serbian General Ratko Mladic had ordered the killing of more than 8000 Bosnian men and boys and the forceful removal of women, children and elderly in and around the town of Srebrenica. The International Criminal Court of Justice (ICC) in Den Haag convicted Mladic on November 22, 2017 with genocide and crimes against humanity. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights commented on the verdict as follows: “Today’s verdict is a warning to the perpetrators of such crimes that they will not escape justice, no matter how powerful they may be nor how long it may take. They will be held accountable.”

Literature cited

Merry, Sally Engle. 2016. The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring human rights, gender violence, and sex trafficking. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Strathern, Marilyn, ed. 2000. Audit cultures: Anthropological studies in accountability, ethics, and the academy. London and New York: Routledge.

Navigating Human Rights Issues in the US

By Jaymelee Kim

The Childhoods in Motion: Children, Youth, Migration, and Education Conference was co-sponsored by the Anthropology of Children and Youth Interest Group (ACYIG), the UCLA Center for the Study of International Migration, and the Council on Anthropology and Education. The Committee for Human Rights (CfHR) and the ACYIG co-sponsored a public forum at the conference to ask “how do we engage the public about human rights issues in the US?”

This question is one iteration of CfHRs two-year dialogue about engaging each other, students, and the public about human rights. Human rights discussions do not have to be couched in an international human rights law framework, however, anecdotally, that appears to be a common assumption, with scholars of social justice, colonialism, migration, and a variety of other relevant fields underrepresented in the conversations. As part of an effort to highlight 1) the connection between human rights and other anthropological foci and 2) discussions of human rights in practice and pedagogy, CfHR held forums at the AAA annual meetings in 2015 and 2016. The co-sponsored public forum for Childhoods in Motion is a continuation of that effort and was paired with a workshop hosted by Les Walker, the AAA Public Education Initiative Project Manager. Given the timing and theme of the conference, immigration and migration were of particular interest to participants, who generated the following suggestions:


  1. Talk to members of state legislature face-to-face. Representatives may not be familiar with systemic violence or how policies marginalize specific groups. Often a dialogue is necessary not just to declare that you are for or against a particular bill, but to explain why you do or don’t support it and how it impacts people.
  2. Urge friends and family members in states that are about to vote on discriminatory bills to contact their representatives.


  1. Support faculty impacted by changes in legislation. For example, close family members of faculty may be undocumented (and faculty themselves may have only recently become documented). Administration may be unaware of this. Considerations (e.g. leave time) could be made for faculty who are negotiating and navigating the impacts of new government policies.
  2. Ask students who are impacted by marginalizing policies what kind of support they need. Do not assume to know their need. If advocating, make sure the advocacy is relevant to the needs of particular student. Do not homogenize need.

Public Engagement

  1. Teach a publically accessible course. Arrange with administration to teach a course that is open to the public and advertise widely in local newspapers, etc.
  2. Advertise or create anthropological podcasts that address human rights/colonial/violence concerns.
  3. Teach a workshop or class at the local library and advertise widely.
  4. Think anthropologically. Given the current federal administration, American voters were driven by wide-ranging concerns. Identify motivating factors and engage in respectful dialogue, rather than promote stereotypes of a self-focused intellectual elite.
  5. Use AAA resources. AAA has created a public education project: World on the Move: 100,000 Years of Human Migration.

CfHR encourages dialogues about how human rights relate to various anthropological frameworks and how to engage students, the public, and each other in pressing human rights issues. Everyone is encouraged to attend the AAA CfHR sponsored panels, roundtables, and forums; we look forward to continued collaborations.

Between slow and sudden death in Turkey

The Committee for Human Rights is proud to host this article contributed by colleagues from Turkey and Turkish Kurdistan. The authors of this piece are signatories of the Peace Petition and preferred their names to remain anonymous. The opinions expressed in this piece are the authors’ own and do not reflect the view of the Academics for Peace.      

Between slow and sudden death in Turkey

On February 25, 2017, the picture of a young male academic who committed suicide in Turkey went viral on the social media. The photo was hashtagged with #MehmetFatihTras and the line underneath the hashtag reads: “This is a murder. Try the murderers!” Wearing hipster eyeglasses, a hooded jacket, and a bag pack, Mehmet Fatih Tras has recently completed his doctorate degree in Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences at Cukurova University in Turkey. Upon the receipt of his Ph.D., he was made multiple job offers from universities in Turkey. However, university presidents interrupted the recruitment process and terminated his contract without any justification. His last job letter submitted to an international academic institution is a testament to what this young academic had gone through. “I was blacklisted by the Council of Higher Education,” he said, “university presidents labelled me as terrorist.” Tras was one of 1,128 academics from 89 universities in Turkey who had signed a petition condemning state violence in the Kurdish region of Turkey.

Figure 1: The letter Mehmet Fatih Tras wrote to an international academic institution on February 1, 2017 circulated on the social media with his picture on the right.


The petition, famously known as “Peace Petition,” was prepared by the Academics for Peace on January 11, 2016 when the Turkish Army besieged Kurdish towns of Sur, Silvan, Nusaybin, Cizre and Silopi, and announced round-the-clock curfews which functioned as indefinite military lockdowns. “It [the army] has attacked these settlements with heavy weapons and equipment [tanks, artilleries, snipers] that would only be mobilized in wartime” the petition noted. Signatories defined these military operations- called the Cleansing Operations by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government- as “a deliberate and planned massacre”, and demanded the state to stop military operations, lift curfews, punish those responsible for human rights violations, offer compensation, and resume peace talks with the Kurdish movement. After listing their demands, signatories asserted their strong opposition: “We, as academics and researchers working on and/or in Turkey, declare that we will not be a party to this massacre by remaining silent.”

Because of the total lockdown, the extent of state violence was unknown by the time this petition was written. Within less than three months, however, we would learn, for example, that around 200 civilians were killed in Cizre. A report published by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TIHV), in August 2016, identifies by name 321 local residents who were killed between 16 August 2015 and 16 August 2016, including 79 children, 71 women and 30 people over the age of 60. According to the report, during the 79-days-long military lockdown, 10 thousand homes were destroyed. Cizre was not an exception though. Sur was under military blockage for 103 days during when 90 civilians were killed. 6,297 parcels of Sur district, which was destroyed by the Army, would then be expropriated by the AKP government. According to TIHV, there have been at least 169 round-the-clock and open-ended curfews in at least 39 districts of 10 cities in the Kurdish region from August 16, 2015 to January 31, 2017. TIHV estimates that more than 1 million 809 hundred people were affected during this period (See Figure 2).

Figure 2: (accessed 3/2/2017)

The gravity of the destruction became more evident with the Report on the human rights situation in South-East Turkey (July 2015 to December 2016) released by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) on March 10, 2017, which reported the killing of 1,200 civilians and documented “numerous cases of excessive use of force; enforced disappearances; torture; destruction of housing and cultural heritage; incitement to hatred; prevention of access to emergency medical care, food, water and livelihoods; violence against women; and severe curtailment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression as well as political participation. The most serious human rights violations reportedly occurred during periods of curfew, when entire residential areas were cut off and movement restricted around-the-clock for several days at a time.”

Dr. Tras and 1,128 other academics declared that they would not be a party to this crime when the massacre was in the making. The government did not allow any international or local institutions to monitor or report the incidents at the time. On the contrary, it banned civilian access to curfew sites both during and after the Cleansing Operations. Some curfew sites have recently been opened to civilians only after bulldozers razed the remaining buildings to the ground, removed the rubbles, and, thus eliminated any possibility for fact-finding. In its account of the situation, the AKP government resorts to the same state discourse- the “terrorists” destroyed houses, killed civilians, and displaced millions. The burden of proof lies on the shoulders of the Kurds who return home only to find a flat field in the place of their houses (compare Figure 3 and Figure 4).

Figure 3: Sur, Diyarbakir, before the operations 11/5/2014


Figure 4: Sur, after the operations 7/28/2016

No petition could end a war. It might make its signatories feel good about their politics and ethics for a second. On the next day, the life, supposedly, goes on as usual and so does the war. In the face of state denialism and censure, however, the Peace Petition had the potential to destabilize the hegemonic discourse of “terrorist” violence. It was the first time that academics collectively used their privilege to speak to expose the unfolding state massacre in the Kurdish region of Turkey as well as the violence of its defacement. Therefore, the life did not go on as usual on the next day. Instead, the President Erdogan appeared on televisions ostracizing the signatories by calling them fake and shady. “Turkey faces treason of academics,” Erdogan claimed and added “most of whom receive their salaries from the state.” He ordered public prosecutors and university presidents to start criminal and administrative investigations against those “traitors.”

As a result of this smear campaign, 312 signatories of the petition have lost their jobs in the last 14 months. Others have been suspended from their positions, charged with terrorist propaganda and detained by the police, received life threats, and/or fled the country. The already precarious labor market for academics has become even more precarious as the value of academic labor is determined by the level of loyalty academics express to the state. Those speaking back to the state have been replaced by academics speaking for the state. In other words, Turkish academia has turned into a deserted platform more akin to government mouthpiece where criticism and opposition are susceptible to accusations of terrorism. The academics that regard speaking up both as a matter of political and ethical responsibility, end up with two options: either remain silent or become traditional intellectuals of the state.

This is an alarming situation with respect to not only the right to speak but also the right to life. The Peace Petition has derived its power from tying these two rights tightly to each other by asserting that silence means complicity in state massacres. From a Foucaultian perspective, signatories acted as the parrhesiastes – the one who says the truth despite the risks involved in its disclosure. By doing so, they have also tied their fate with the ones subjected to the cruel violence of the state. While the Kurds in Turkey experience sudden death exerted by the latest offensive of the Turkish Army, academics who spoke up against it face slow death by the market. Mehmet Fatih Tras’s grim departure discloses the entanglement of our lives as well as our deaths. Ironically, on the same day when his picture was shared on the social media, another hashtag was created with the name of a village, Xerabe Bava, in Nusaybin, which was under military lockdown for 19 days. It is more urgent than ever to reconnect #MehmetFatihTras and #XerabeBava to fight against deadly forces of the market and the state that turn our lives into slow or sudden deaths.

Note: The authors of this piece are signatories of the Peace Petition and preferred their names remain anonymous. The opinions expressed in this piece are the authors’ own and do not reflect the view of the Academics for Peace.

Mi Casa (Blanca) No Es Su Casa (Blanca)

By Inmaculada García-Sánchez and Marjorie Faulstich Orellana

There’s a saying in Spanish: “Mi casa es su casa.” (My home is your home.”) It’s a kind and loving phrase, assuring people that they are welcome in one’s home, akin to the English saying, “Make yourself at home.”

The White House sent the opposite message to Spanish speakers in the U.S. when it took down the Spanish language links on on Inauguration Day.

The new administration wasted no time in engaging in all kinds of highly symbolic executive actions to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that there is a new sheriff in town.  The new winds that swirled through every institution of government on January 21st, 2017 were even felt on the White House website.  As was much publicized both in the national and international press, minutes after the oath of office, the climate change, health care, civil rights, and LGTBQIA rights pages were taken down. But the disappearance of the Spanish language links on has received much less attention.

This decision did not come out of left field, of course. The nativist tone of Trump’s campaign included ridiculing political opponents, such as former Gov. Jeb Bush, for speaking Spanish on the campaign trail. But it is still shocking in its short-sightedness, and it breaks with an almost sixteen-year tradition of providing bilingual access to government information, started by the Republican administration of George W. Bush.

How can an administration, whose avowed goal is to make America great, purposely curtail civic engagement and access to vital government information to the 41 million Spanish-speakers who currently live in the U.S.?  The measure of removing the Spanish language links from the White House website is punitive, exclusionary, and at odds with the fundamental democratic principles of our nation of equality and justice for all.

Let’s be clear. Most – a full 68% – of Spanish speakers in the US are also fluent in English (Pew Report 2015).  But, of course, the ability to speak in everyday conversation does not immediately translate into the skills needed to make sense of dense, political and bureaucratic language in its written form.  Even for young people who spend every day studying language in school, it can take up to ten years to acquire that kind of fluency.  Why, then, exclude millions and millions of people from an in-depth understanding of civic obligations and government information? How is that going to make America great?

These are the points made by authors of a new petition trending in We The People, the White House citizen-initiated petition page.   Written by Ana Celia Zentella, Professor Emerita of the University of California, San Diego and backed by scholars from the Society for Linguistic Anthropology (SLA) Committee on Language and Social Justice, the petition asks the White House to reinstate the Spanish language links on

The US has been home to millions of Spanish speakers since 1848, when the US annexed a large part of Mexican territory.  To remove the Spanish language links on is like slamming the door of the First House of the nation in the face of millions of our fellow citizens.

The text of the petition in English and in Spanish can also be found below:

We, the undersigned, are committed supporters of our nation’s democracy and its fundamental principles: liberty, equality, and justice for all. Recent actions by the Trump administration threaten those principles, including the elimination – as of Jan., 21st, Inauguration Day- of links to information in Spanish on the White House webpage,  Liberty, equality, and justice FOR ALL require access to important information. Although the majority (68%) of native speakers of Spanish in the U.S. are also proficient in English (Pew Report 2015), previous administrations have provided links to Spanish versions of written materials, to provide greater numbers of people with in depth understanding of those issues.

We urge you to reinstate the Spanish links on, so as to confirm that your avowed goal to “make America great” includes the entire nation.

Nosotros, los abajo firmantes, estamos comprometidos a apoyar la democracia de nuestra nación y sus principios fundamentales: libertad, igualdad y justicia para todos. Algunas recientes decisiones de la administración del Sr. Presidente Trump presentan una amenazan a estos principios. Una de ellas es la eliminación –a partir del Día de la Inauguración Presidencial 2017- de los enlaces de páginas Web que contienen información en español de  Para que haya libertad, igualdad y justicia PARA TODOS se requiere acceso a esta importante información. Aunque la mayoría (el 68%) de los nativo hablantes del español en los EE.UU también hablan el inglés bien (Pew Report 2015), proveer la traducción en español de la página Web del Gobierno, como en el caso de administraciones anteriores, asegura una mayor comprensión de los materiales a un mayor número de personas.

Les exhortamos a que por favor reinstalen los enlaces en español de la página, para así dar acto de fe de que la meta declarada “to make America great” incluye a toda la nación estadounidense.




By Benjamin N. Lawrance

Today, as citizens, patriots, and protesters descend on Washington DC, to observe, celebrate, or decry the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States, we must all rise to the most pressing challenge of our time – the fight for justice, accountability, human rights-based policy, and, most importantly, the definitive abolition of torture.

As a member of the AAA’s Committee for Human Rights, I’m proud that we have taken a clear and unequivocal role in fighting to ensure that torture never again becomes an accepted US tool at home or abroad. In our “Resolution Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment”—adopted by the Committee for Human Rights of the American Anthropological Association in January 9, 2017, and by the Executive Board of the AAA January 19, 2017—we recognize that anthropologists and peers in other disciplines have a clarion responsibility to be at the vanguard, defending human rights around the world.

In its 1947 and 1999 Human Rights Resolutions, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) issued a strong statement that “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.” In the 2012 Ethical Statement of the AAA, the organization calls upon all members to respect the inherent dignity and worth of the individual and strive for the preservation and protection of fundamental human rights recognizing the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.

But today, these declarations are facing their greatest test. Trump has made it clear he wants to bring back torture. Trump, has openly advocated for the reintroduction of torture, such as “waterboarding” and other techniques that “are so much worse” and “much stronger” as weapons against the nation’s enemies. Trump has also picked Mike Pompeo to head the CIA – a man who previously called the CIA’s program of torture and kidnapping under the Bush administration “within the law” and “within the Constitution.” We must be vocal and we must be vigilant. We must never allow Trump to resuscitate the CIA torture program.

A revival of torture by the US would be a foreign policy catastrophe for our country and a moral calamity for all of us. We would be the only state in the world to pull out of the Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and the first state to pull out of Convention Against Torture. Any US claims to human rights leadership would evaporate; all our efforts to criticize the records of other states would be perceived universally as hypocritical. A torture renaissance would be a triumph for the adversaries of human rights globally, an indelible stain on our conscience, and, a boon to every torturer on the planet.

Some 1.4 million survivors of torture live in the USA alone, and many suffer from long‐term, multiple psychological and physical problems. Victims of torture must have the opportunity for redress and be awarded fair and adequate compensation and appropriate socio-medical rehabilitation. Survivors of torture are to be revered and honored; and the crimes to which they were subject are to be feared and categorically rejected. These crimes should make us all shudder with horror. Torture, of anyone, anywhere, anytime, affects us all. By dehumanizing one individual, by standing by and letting it happen without speaking, we dehumanize everyone, including ourselves.

The fight against torture starts today. Human rights must be non-negotiable for the Trump Administration. As scholars, I implore you to stand up and reaffirm publicly that “there are no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether induced by a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, that may be invoked as a justification of torture.” [United Nations Declaration and Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Article 2.2].

Drawing upon the AAA’s long‐standing commitment to basic human rights, I ask you to pledge today to affirm to yourself, your peers, your family, your colleagues, your supervisors, and your students, that no anthropologist shall knowingly engage in, tolerate, direct, support, advise, or offer training or research/knowledge that facilitates the practice of torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. And I ask you to pledge today to affirm that, should torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment evolve during a procedure where you are present, you shall attempt to intervene to stop such behavior, and failing that, exit the procedure and act on your ethical responsibility to report these acts to the appropriate authorities.

On January 20, 2017, stand up and declare your unequivocal, inviolable, and trenchant opposition to torture in all its forms.


Bio: Benjamin N. Lawrance is Hon. Barber B. Conable, Jr. Endowed Chair in International Studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he is Professor of History and Anthropology, and the director of the Program in International and Global Studies. He is the author and editor of eleven books, including Adjudicating Refugee and Asylum Status: The Role of Witness, Expertise, and Testimony (Cambridge, 2015), with Galya Ruffer, and has served as an expert witness in over 380 asylum claims from West Africans, many of whom are survivors of torture.

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.




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!

Third AAA Declaration on Human Rights: Concept Note

Third AAA Declaration on Human Rights: Concept Note

At the 2013 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, the Committee for Human Rights discussed the need for a third declaration on anthropology and human rights (previous declarations were issued in 1947 and 1999). The justification for such a declaration, or statement can be found in July 2014 issue of Anthropology News.

Building on the 1999 Declaration on Human Rights, CfHR maintains that 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.” We continue to embrace the view that the AAA has “an ethical responsibility to protest and oppose” situations wherein “any culture or society denies or permits the denial of . . . opportunity to any of its own members or others.” Several key themes, and additional cross-cutting ones, form a foundation for elaborating how anthropologists can think about and position themselves relative to human rights theory, law, and practice as well as concrete struggles on the ground.

The Third Working AAA Declaration on Human Rights focuses on grounding anthropological research and practice in foundational and cross-cutting themes. Our practice uniquely places our observation of social justice issues in the context of accountability and daily life. While broad, these themes help contextualize anthropological engagement with human rights across the sub-disciplines and with respect to the complex interplay of historical, cultural, political, and legal dynamics in any given instance. These themes should “address general circumstances, priorities and relationships, and also provide helpful specific examples that should be considered in anthropological work and ethical decision-making” (AAA 2012 Statement on Ethics).

Foundational Themes:

  1. INQUIRY: Human rights law, institutions, and socio-legal practice as the subject of anthropological reflection and critique
  2. EVIDENCE: Anthropological research undertaken within human rights frameworks, investigations, and mandates
  3. ADVOCACY: Anthropological knowledge informing strategies for advocacy and activism

Cross-Cutting Themes:

  1. BEYOND STATISM: Anthropological analysis of non-state actors, from corporations and other agents of economic development (e.g. World Bank, IMF), to non-governmental organizations, armed groups, and dynamic civil rights networks, which fall outside the statist framework of most human rights laws and institutions.
  2. CHALLENGING POWER: Anthropological approaches that discern the power relations at work in claims to the protection or promotion of human rights.
  3. INFORMING PUBLIC DEBATE: Anthropological responses to reported evidence and/or allegations of human rights abuses or violations that seek to inform public understanding, consistent with the AAA mission as a whole.


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