The Bizarre Relationship Between Human Rights And Anthropology

Sean Chou


A version of this article was first published in The Beaver.

As an anthropologist and human rights activist, I have pondered over the cultural relativist critique of human rights for many hours. I feel a special responsibility to articulate both the critique of human rights and their ability to provide a framework to talk about the emancipatory possibilities of self-realized human potential across transnational, global borders. My perspective is shaped by my experiences campaigning for human rights and my theoretical world-views obtained through my studies - all inclusive, which I believe can help build a multi-dimensional, dynamic model of human rights which works both in theory and practice.

The concept of human rights traces its origin to the Enlightenment era.  During the Enlightenment, many thinkers talked about ‘natural rights,’ which each person was naturally endowed with as individuals. Social contract theory spread at the time, through the influence of thinkers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant, the latter of whom argued that the rights of the monarchy should be restricted. This was supported by thinkers like Thomas Paine, who argued that the government could not violate such inalienable rights; people had in turn the legitimate right to defend against such perceived violations. As a hallmark achievement, the period led to the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, helping to found modern human rights discourse (Wilson, 1997).

A lot of cultural relativist critique is centred on these Euro-centric origins at the time of the Enlightenment. Bryan Turner, for example, criticised Kant’s philosophy for being too ‘rationalist’ and ‘individualist’, without understanding the emotive role of ethics which could help to underpin a broader ‘moral community’ fighting for human rights (Turner, 1993).

Human rights gathered momentum in the modern era and culminated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which lists 30 articles, including the right to life, to free speech and to free trial. Anthropology’s ambivalence with human rights is evident in its response to the 1948 UDHR: the American Anthropological Association released a rejecting statement in 1947 in response to the draft version of the UDHR arguing that cultural differences should be respected, could not be evaluated and prevented human rights from being applied to all cultures.

This forms the bulk argument of the cultural relativist critique. Some authors have gone further in their critique by arguing that the origins of human rights discourse in Western Enlightenment thought makes it bound to a specific historical and cultural context. According to Richard Falk for example, human rights are based on liberal and rational assumptions of human nature, problematic considering examples of collective rights holders like indigenous groups concerned with issues like land ownership or political self-determination (Falk, 1992).

These criticisms suggest human rights are socially constructed and culturally relative. However, Anthropology plays a crucial role in criticising and applying critiques in human rights to ensure that human rights discourse avoids ethnocentric, Western-imperial, top-down approaches to human rights issues.

The cultural relativist critique is in itself limited. Firstly, culture is difficult to define. Durkheimian assumptions of culture as closed, static and continuous are hard to be applied in today’s globalised world, it is difficult to pinpoint cultural contexts which have been left completely unchanged by processes of technology, development, migration and hybridisation of cultures. Furthermore, these arguments are dangerous considering how they are often utilised by authoritarian governments to defend gross human rights violations. For example, in the 1970s, the Tanzanian government introduced a policy of ‘villagisation’ which forced people to live in communal settings, criticising the corrosive influence of Western individualism, while at the same time, government officials enjoyed the influx of Western consumer luxury goods.

Thus far, we can summarise by saying the universalist stance takes human rights as inherent and fundamental to each person, whereas the relativist stance argues that human rights are a Western discourse, not readily applicable to non-Western societies. Theoretical debates about the relativist/universal divide have been so focused on cultural differences that they hamper effective political action against human rights violations. Why observe people we study without practising our ethical and political responsibilities to them? Failing to do so is no clearer example of Western privilege, detached from the hardship and suffering many people we study live in. Nancy Scheper-Hughes articulates this sentiment well in her stance of ‘militant anthropology’; she talks about an anthropology that is socially responsible, that can achieved by conceding our subjectivity in ethnographic research and using our ethical obligations to build activist relationships with subjects who we study as a ‘witness’ rather than ‘spectator’ (Scheper-Hughes, 1995).

How could we think about human rights, then? As a useful fiction. Indeed, this argument is made by human rights theorist Jack Donnelly, who argues that human rights give people the framework and language to articulate grievances against states who violate their rights (Donnelly, 2013). Human rights help create a shared sense of solidarity across transnational groups fighting against acts of injustice.

Anthropological perspectives can help to inform how human rights are influenced by their Western origins, and how those can be and are adapted to suit cultural contexts. In Eriksen’s study of Mauritania, this becomes evident: Muslim Personal Law (MPL) was introduced during the British colonial era and allowed Muslims to follow customary Muslim law in family matters. It was scrapped, however, after opposition in the 1980s, which perceived MPL as discriminating against women who found it virtually impossible to get a divorce compared to the relative ease of men seeking divorces. As a result, Eriksen argues that political outcomes made by human rights discourse could be ambiguous. Human rights discourse could politicise and empower minority groups by giving them ‘symbolic capital’ to self-organise and create political change; or, it could be institutionally imposed and lead to the ‘enforced ascription of political identities’.

Considering the background of and issues concerning human rights, it can be argued that anthropology’s relationship with human rights is justifiably complicated. As anthropologists, we have a special responsibility to critique and deconstruct neo-colonial relations, power disparities and global inequalities which human rights may exacerbate due to their neglect of collective-rights holders, support for institutional solutions and overriding of cultural norms. Nevertheless, such critiques are fruitless without proper examination of how anthropological perspectives may prop up systemic inequities by legitimising ethically unengaged foreign policy strategies and nihilistic attitudes towards humanitarian issues. Rather, we can pay attention to how anthropological interest on cultural and social issues provide unique perspectives on how human rights discourse can be taken up by people we study and used as a tool for social change.

Only when we re-orientate anthropology towards a social action-based discipline geared towards achieving positive social outcomes can we re-embed our academic interests in the political arena we participate and engage with every day. Anthropology has a profound potential to contribute to human rights discourse, by offering a dynamic, multi-lateral perspective on human rights, which takes into account the structural factors that create inequality and injustice. It does so but through the lived experiences and fluid attitudes of participants. Human rights are language we need in the fast-changing and globalised world we live in, as a way of connecting the struggles of seemingly disparate and isolated groups into demands for greater justice and the correction of historic wrongs.


Works Cited

Dembour, M.B. (1996). Human Rights Talk and Anthropological Ambivalence In O. Harris (Ed.), Inside and outside the law anthropological studies of authority and ambiguity (pp. 16 -32). New York: Routledge.

Donnelly, J. (2013). Universal human rights in theory and practice. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Eriksen, T. (1997). Multiculturalism, Individualism and Human Rights In R. Wilson (Ed.), Human rights, culture and context: anthropological perspectives (pp. 70 - 111). London: Pluto Press.

Falk, R. (1992). Cultural Foundations for the International Protection of Human Rights In A. Ahmed An-Na’im (Ed.), Human Rights in Cross-cultural Perspectives: A Question for Consensus. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Lauren, P. (2011). The evolution of international human rights: visions seen. Philadelphia, USA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Scheper-Hughes, N. (1995). The Primacy of the Ethical. Current Anthropology, 36(3), 409 -440.
Turner, Bryan S. (1993). Outline of a Theory of Human Rights, Sociology, 27(3), 489 - 512.

Wilson, R. (1997). Introduction In R. Wilson (Ed.) Human rights, culture and context: anthropological perspectives (pp. 1 - 28). London: Pluto Press.

Read, Peoplejfa