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date: 11 December 2019

Global Human Rights

Summary and Keywords

Global human rights, writ large, impact the entire human condition. They span cultural, social, economic, ecological, political, and civic realms. They pertain to how people are treated, protected, and respected. They are interrelated, interdependent, and of importance to all people, yet in actuality—as they play out—do not apply equally to all people. They have not been formulated by representatives of all societies, have not been accepted by members of all nation-states, and have not—in any sense of an entirety or set—been formally approved by many important transnational rights-oriented organizations. However, as commonalities are considered in the way rights emerge and evolve, there are many. Certain principles are foundational. The processes are as essential as the products. The aspirations are as important as the achievements.

The subject of human rights can be addressed from many angles. Some authorities suggest that philosophy provides the overarching umbrella, dating from the era of John Locke (b. 1632, d. 1704). From one perspective of history, which features emergent religious interpretations, duties and obligations that are situated in various diverse cultural traditions are central. From another perspective of history, which features seminal events such as wars and genocides, the actions and reactions of various actors—from victims to warriors—become central. From the perspective of law, covenants and protocols designed to advise, protect, and aid prosecution emerge prominently. From the perspective of political science, the ways in which citizens engage the political process as rights and wrongs are debated is key. Other disciplines, from psychology to theology to journalism, also contribute significantly. By way of contrast, cultural or social anthropology takes an ethnographic perspective. The cultural context is specified, with case-specific narratives often featured. Documentation of encounters (one-to-one, group-to-group, institution-to-institution) is crucial. Past, present, and potential future issues are addressed. The actions of victims, survivors, and perpetrators, as well as service providers, advocates, and everyday citizens, stand out.

Field research, both theoretical and applied, is part and parcel of what anthropologists do. There is no single “theory of human rights.” However, there are a number of prominent paradigms, theories, and models that inform anthropological work in human rights. Of note are statist, cosmopolitan, and internationalist models, with the cosmopolitan of particular interest to anthropologists given its emphasis on individuals rather than states. Viewed differently, from the perspective of power and its abuses, the theory of structural violence is very useful. Case studies of perpetrators of abuse are usually more difficult to develop than those for victims, yet are particularly illustrative of power differentials. Ultimately, improvements in the ways in which abuses are dealt with and the ways in which the human rights regime (i.e., the systematized body of discourse, norms, resources, and protocols) ultimately can change for the better for everyday citizens, are tied to processes of socialization, internalization, and obligation. Rights are not static, but rather, very dynamic.

Keywords: human rights, theoretical orientations, essential traits and principles, victims, perpetrators, advocates, obligations, dignity, justice, frontiers

The Field of Human Rights

The subtitle of the seminal human rights book edited by Michael Dudley, Derrick Silove, and Fran Gale is “Vision, Praxis, and Courage” (2012). These terms capture traits essential to those social and behavioral scientists who want to do more than analyze human rights declarations, covenants, and protocols; who want to do more than discuss the differences between universalist and relativistic approaches; who want to do more than implement policy. As will be demonstrated in this article, those with a vision as to how to understand abuses best, those with an understanding of praxis—the practicalities and ethical ramifications of tackling such issues—and those with the courage to advocate and intervene on behalf of the oppressed are of special interest. Global human rights are as much about the advocates and analysts as they are about the victims and survivors, and as much about actual cases as they are about protocols and policies.

Human rights are global in that all humans are potentially impacted and involved. They pertain to people’s treatment, protection, and respect. While of importance to all, in actuality—in their specifics—they do not apply equally to all. They have not been uniformly conceived by representatives of all societies and have not been formally accepted by members of all nation-states or all transnational rights organizations. Yet, in the ways rights evolve and change globally over time, there are many commonalities. As the essential principles of dignity and justice are engaged, the processes are similar. The products are also similar.

Global human rights are clearly not the sole province of anthropology or ethnography, and so the perspectives (and references) cited in this article are no by means solely “anthropological.” The disciplines of history, philosophy, political science, law, psychology, theology, and journalism are critical (see Figure 1). Yet I have framed this article so that anthropological and ethnographic insights can readily be brought to bear on this topic, and so that the material can readily be queried by anthropology students and professionals.

Global Human Rights

Figure 1. A global human rights timeline. Developed by Peter Van Arsdale. UNHCR = United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. UNHCHR = United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Anthropologists have demonstrated an interest in human rights research since the late 19th century, although not until much later under an explicit “human rights” banner. While rights issues associated with warfare on “the Continent” began to attract the attention of early European anthropologists after the 1859 Battle of Solferino (Van Arsdale, 2006), the subjugation of Native Americans was of concern to early American anthropologists, as exemplified by the work of James Mooney (1896) on the Ghost Dance, a psycho-social communal reaction to Euro-American oppression. Ishi, the “last of his tribe,” can be interpreted through the lens of both ethnography and human rights. A member of the California Yahi tribe, Ishi died in 1916, having been studied—and, some say, exploited—by Alfred Kroeber (Starn, 2004). The sensitive photography of Edward Curtis, who visited 80 North American tribes, proved essential in illuminating the lives and values of those living in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (McLuhan, 1972). Yet it likely was the much later book edited by Ted Downing and Gil Kushner, Human Rights and Anthropology (1988), that first pulled the views of a diverse range of anthropologists together (see Figure 1). This work was followed by a seminal review by Ellen Messer (1993) that appeared in the Annual Review of Anthropology. Other human rights reviews and edited volumes featuring anthropology have followed in turn (e.g., Goodale, 2009), as have issue-specific readers that include anthropological insights (e.g., Levinson, 2004, on torture).

The modern human rights regime has evolved to embody a systematized body of discourse, norms, resources, and protocols. While still emergent, it has effectively been coalescing during the modern human rights era, dating from World War II. This owes much to the visionary work of leaders such as Eleanor Roosevelt. She went to great lengths to assure that diverse cultural viewpoints were considered as a member of the United Nations commission that created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. Commission members represented 19 nations, including Roosevelt as chair (Ishay, 2004). The following provided input: Mahatma Gandhi (India), Benedetto Croce (Italy), Chung-Shu Lo (China), Teilhard de Chardin (France), and Boris Tchechko (Soviet Union). The final document was authored by Roosevelt, the Chinese philosopher Pen-Chung Chang, the Lebanese existentialist Charles Malik, and the French scholar René Cassin.

Essential Traits

A number of traits that are essential to the individuals and agencies pursuing human rights could be considered here. Following Dudley et al. (2012), I have chosen three traits that stand out, with three examples for each. All have proven of interest to applied anthropologists working in the field.

Vision

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights exemplifies what vision means—on-site, in the field, under the most difficult of circumstances. It is a British-based group that monitors the civil war in Syria through a network of some 200 volunteer analysts, activists, and advocates. While decidedly pro-opposition and anti-Assad, it nonetheless is widely seen as a solid source of information (MacFarquhar, 2013). It serves as a resource for news agencies such as the Associated Press and Reuters, and also is in regular contact with rights- and humanitarian-oriented non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and inter-governmental organizations (IGOs), including several United Nations agencies. It has provided pivotal reporting about chemical weapons attacks. Since well over 400,000 Syrians had been killed, and several million more displaced, as of early 2018 (Specia, 2018), the work of the Syrian Observatory remains essential (see Figure 1).

The work of Father Patrick Desbois and the organization he founded in 2004, Yahad-In Unum (YIU) (“together” in Hebrew), illustrates tremendous vision. A Paris-based non-profit, YIU is dedicated to the systematic identification and documentation of obscure Jewish and Roma mass execution sites dating to World War II. Many have been in danger of being forgotten. Working in Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova, Romania, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine, surviving witnesses—nearly all Christians—are interviewed, ballistic evidence is collected, and archival records are combed for details. One aim is to create a more complete account of the Holocaust, since many of these executions did not occur in concentration camps. Another aim is to provide reputable evidence that refutes Holocaust deniers. Still another aim is to provide proper respect for the victims’ burial sites, with more than 1700 identified so far (see Figure 1). Educational programs, often presented under the title “Holocaust by Bullets,” are held worldwide (American Friends, 2017; Desbois, 2008).

As of 2019, the human rights abuses occurring in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Myanmar, and Syria are among those which are the most egregious and the most well known. Among those which are not well known are those impacting Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank and Israel. Daoud Nassar is the leader of a non-profit organization called the Tent of Nations, based in Bethlehem. A Palestinian Christian, he is described by some as a visionary. His motto is “We refuse to be enemies.” Aided by several other groups, some of which are led by Jews, trees were planted to ring the property, as symbols of peace and as signs of the land’s integral importance. Environmental farming is a major thrust, within the broader umbrella of environmental justice and non-violent resistance. Although Israeli authorities soon bulldozed the trees “for security reasons,” he and his colleagues carry on (Fadil, 2013; Feldmeir, 2018). The Tent of Nations received a World Methodist Council Peace Award in 2017.

Praxis

A useful definition of praxis is the intersection of on-site practicalities (as interventions or analyses are made) and their ethical ramifications. The analysis of rights abuse and the implementation of rights redress, including improved policies, benefit from the careful consideration of praxis. A massacre, an ethnic cleansing, or a genocide often requires years to interpret correctly. An example—subsequently referenced by a number of anthropologists owing to its human rights importance (see, e.g., Binford, 1996; Stephen, 1995)—is the El Mozote massacre that took place in El Salvador on December 11, 1981. Details were slow to unfold; the reason for the massacre may never be fully known. Forensic anthropologists, excavating human remains 11 years later, were among those whose work made a difference in understanding the massacre. It took another year for a Truth Commission, in concert with other activists and investigators, to confirm culpability (see Figure 1). Units of the Atlacatl Battalion, affiliated with the Salvadoran Army and charged with a counter-terrorism response, systematically killed more than 200 men, women, and children—none of whom was a terrorist. This group constituted the entire civilian population that had been captured the preceding day (Danner, 1994).

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), originally conceived and mounted in Uganda, has persisted in various iterations for more than three decades. Tracking its history, paying careful attention to praxis, has been Peter Eichstaedt (2013). Working on-site as journalist cum ethnographer, he has been able to interview LRA members, former members, collaborators, victims, and adversaries. Although not able to interview the LRA’s still-elusive leader, Joseph Kony, Eichstaedt nonetheless came to understand Kony’s motives and methods. In one sense, this army could better be described as a rebel movement, fighting the regime of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, though Kony insists his are “army troops,” not rebels (p. 79). The LRA’s precursor was founded in 1985 by the charismatic visionary Alice Auma (later known as Alice Lakwena), under the name “Holy Spirit Movement.” Claiming strong Christian ties, it aimed to establish a new order. When it faltered and Lakwena fled, the door opened for Kony in 1988. He forcibly recruited soldiers, many of them children. Attacks and counter-attacks, against Ugandan troops and others (including priests), have proven to be sporadic, intense, and consequential. Ethics and morals have been disregarded. Clandestine activities and battles have bridged the amorphous borderlands of Uganda, Sudan, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The sale of illegal ivory has been one LRA income source (Christy, 2015). Information on the pursuit of justice regarding the LRA is presented later in this article (see the section “Justice”).

Those entreated with trying to understand violence and suffering include anthropologists. Concerns for praxis are at the heart of the account provided by Julia Dickson-Gómez (2004) about conditions in postwar El Salvador. She wrestles reflexively with the impact that violence has had on those who experience it and those who study it. “The brief exposure to violence that a researcher experiences cannot be equated with a lifetime of violence and war. [Yet what] counts as suffering to campesinos [farm workers] corresponds in a disturbing way to media images of violence, because the memories of campesinos have been shaped in encounters with foreign relief workers and human rights activists into trauma narratives” (p. 146). A culture of violence emerged in El Salvador in a civil war lasting from 1980 to 1992 in which over 80,000 were killed and another 500,000 displaced (either internally or externally). This culture, transcending the postwar era, has fed the nation’s institutional instability (Van Arsdale, 2006). Working in the mid-1990s in a community roughly split between sympathizers of the FMLN (Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front, the guerilla force) and the government, Dickson-Gómez heard accounts of both guerilla and government “death squads.” Praxis is essential as the “practices of documenting the ‘truth’ of people’s political victimization [are examined:] they may sometimes do further harm to victims” (p. 152). Anthropologists work diligently not to misappropriate the suffering of others.

Courage

The modern human rights era dates from World War II. Among its early exemplars of courage was Nicholas Winton, an unexpected secular savior—a person I would call a “radical other” (see Figure 1). On holiday in Prague in 1938, the word started to circulate that this visiting British stockbroker might be able to help at-risk children, most of them Jewish. Many had been orphaned or abandoned; all feared for their lives under impending Nazi oppression. They started coming to his door and he started making lists. Using contacts in the British Home Office, he was able to arrange entry permits and foster family contacts. By late 1939, 669 had been rescued from Czechoslovakia. He later said that he was simply doing what any decent person would do (The Economist, 2015).

Irena Sendler was another person whom I would call a “radical other” and an early exemplar of courage. While working for Warsaw’s social welfare department as the war broke out, she watched as Germany—invading Poland—packed 350,000 Jews into the Warsaw Ghetto. A Catholic, she foresaw what their fates might be. Sendler joined Zegota, an underground network of activists, taking on the name “Jolanta.” She soon was tasked with smuggling children out of the ghetto to safety. Aided by an increasingly sophisticated network, she eventually saved the lives of nearly 2500 children (Attoun, 2003).

Still another person whom I would call a “radical other,” demonstrating exemplary courage, was Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty of the Vatican. During World War II, working from 1943 through early 1945 he helped hide nearly 4000 American and British servicemen, as well as many Jewish civilians, from Nazi and Gestapo forces. His daring earned him the nickname “Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican.” Equally remarkable, after the war he befriended one of his former Nazi enemies, sticking with him and consoling him in prison, remaining his only regular visitor (Doino, 2013).

Of course, numerous other, more recent and more famous exemplars of courage could be cited. Many such as Bishop Desmond Tutu are active in the early 21st century. The three cited here stand out because of their selflessness, persistence in the face of tremendous odds, and “unexpected” abilities to succeed, without formal humanitarian training. They set the stage for those to come in the modern human rights era.

Essential Principles

A number of human rights principles, reflecting foundational assumptions and ethical precepts, have emerged and been clarified over the past four centuries. While the Euro-American influence has been profound, it has by no means been exclusive (Freeman, 2017; Ishay, 2004; Mayer, 2007). Two principles of paramount concern to anthropologists, as they are to the representatives of other disciplines, are dignity and justice (Van Arsdale, 2017). I provide three examples of each in turn. It should be noted that the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the world’s largest membership organization for anthropologists, has endorsed these and related principles in its Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights, first adopted in 1999 and since modified. Members of the International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (ICAES) and the Association of Social Anthropologists of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth (ASA) also have spoken out boldly on behalf of these principles.

Dignity

When people are respected, complimented, and revered for who they are, and for what they do, dignity is enhanced. When horrendous abuses and atrocities occur, and when institutions oppress, dignity is assaulted (Farmer, 2003). “Dignity reflects self-awareness and self-respect. Its sister concept is autonomy, referring to the valued independence of the person in mind, body, and spirit. In tandem, dignity and autonomy indicate a personal sanctity that is not to be violated by others” (Van Arsdale, 2017, p. 9).

Skye Wheeler, an ethnographically attuned researcher with Human Rights Watch, has covered the plight of the Rohingya refugees, forcibly displaced from Myanmar to Bangladesh during the past several years. Targeted as Muslims and outcasts, they have been viewed as second-class Myanmar citizens for decades. A campaign of ethnic cleansing, including village pogroms and massacres, has taken place. Yet as some consider repatriation back to their homeland, they are confronted with continuing fear of rape and sex trafficking, as well as other forms of abuse at the hands of soldiers. Wheeler stressed the need to respect their dignity, complemented by a concern for their safety and autonomy as individuals, as agencies moved to assist them (Yang, 2018).

Dignity is denied when purposeful abuse is inflicted. As the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region spread during the early 2000s, systematic abuse became more widespread. Spurred by the janjaweed, so-called “devils on horseback,” villages were razed, crops destroyed, and residents tortured, killed, and forcibly displaced. A Masalit tribesman, who as a refugee later became an eloquent spokesman, reported that one of his friends became a victim. She had been a college classmate, but he had lost track of her as the violence spread. Another friend delivered the ominous news. She had become pregnant, and a few months later was captured by the janjaweed. As a “rite of passage,” a janjaweed youth—chastised for his apparent lack of aggression earlier—had chosen her as his victim. He killed her, slit open her belly, and impaled the fetus on a spear, to the acclaim of his colleagues (Van Arsdale, 2006).

In 1927, a young African American anthropologist named Zora Neale Hurston introduced herself to an Alabama man—a former slave—named Oluale Kossola, aka Cudjo Lewis. They subsequently met on a number of occasions, and his remarkable story of unremitting dignity and strife unfolded, a story not published until more than 90 years later (Hurston, 2018). When a teenager, his Yoruba village (in what became the nation of Benin) was raided and he was taken to the stockades to await sale. With about 100 others, in 1860 he was transported across the Atlantic to Alabama, where he subsequently worked as a slave laborer through the Civil War. When emancipation occurred, he and other now-former slaves were left adrift. Not being able to buy passage back to Africa, a home for which Kossola desperately longed, they creatively choose a second option: to work to buy land from the very man who earlier had bought them. There, the new community of Africatown was established; it continues on. Hurston’s editor, Deborah Plant, stresses that this emergent anthropologist (who died in 1960) “revealed the humanity that was at the core of everything that was expressed in terms of the life and culture of African-American people” (Rothman, 2018, p. 51), while also having to navigate the abusive Jim Crow laws of the southern United States. That Kossola was likely the last known surviving African from the last known slave ship to the United States makes the story even more gripping. That he wanted his story to be told, reflecting “African soil,” speaks to his dignity.

Justice

Justice is much more than “doing what’s right” for those who are abused and oppressed. It includes the design of constitutions tied to the rule of law, the effective management of the political order, stable socioeconomic organization, and the appropriate role of civil disobedience. It far exceeds what is codified in international law (Donnelly & Whelan, 2018; Ishay, 2004).

Those entreated with enacting justice are often lawyers and jurists. Their successes have been notable (see, e.g., Scott, 2017). However, the mere fact of being appointed does not ensure success. As East Timor (aka Timor-Leste) gained its independence from Indonesian rule and sought redress from Indonesian abuses, a number of Timorese judges were selected to hear criminal cases, several of which had strong human rights implications. All failed a competency examination in 2005 (West, 2007). A crusade for justice and the “moral high ground” does not always translate to justice for those abused. As anthropologist Pardis Mahdavi (2014) warns, we must be wary of moral crusades.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is charged with pursuing justice regarding human rights violations, emphasizing genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression (see Figure 1). Based in The Hague, it was chartered via the Rome Statute in 2002. One of its most difficult cases involves Joseph Kony, Ugandan leader of the LRA (see the section “Praxis”). In 2005, as Eichstaedt (2013) notes, the ICC unsealed documents against Kony and his top commanders. The overall charges include, among others: “a pattern of brutalization of civilians by acts including murder, abduction, sexual enslavement, mutilation, as well as mass burnings of houses and looting of camp settlements [with children having been] forcibly recruited as fighters, porters and sex slaves” (p. 9). Former LRA member Richard Opio’s story is one of the brutal yet touching accounts provided by Eichstaedt as the need for justice is considered. As of 2019, Kony had yet to face the ICC, where he remains listed as a fugitive.

American Senator John McCain was outspoken about what he called “equal justice.” Originally a U.S. Navy pilot, he was shot down in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War. He was held captive in a Vietnamese prison for over five years. While imprisoned, he was tortured on multiple occasions. Several years after his release he entered politics. In 1986, having previously represented the state of Arizona in the U.S. House of Representatives, he was elected to serve in the U.S. Senate, a post he held until his death. Having served in the military, having run for the presidency in 2008, and having served as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, his views on justice and human rights—with specific concerns for torture—remain widely regarded. He linked his notion of equal justice to liberty and rights, believing that the United States should serve as an exemplar (McCain & Salter, 2018). As issues of “enhanced interrogations” of terror suspects by the United States—including waterboarding—were being debated, he was among the most outspoken; he believed that torture of any kind is immoral (DeBonis, 2018).

The Ethnographic Approach

Early American and European anthropologists and ethnographers were intrigued by cultural customs, rituals, beliefs, languages, and lifestyles (see Figure 1). They did not focus on human rights. As Irving Hallowell wrote in his seminal essay, “The Beginning of Anthropology in America” (1960, p. 3), “highly diverse cultures [posed] questions involving the human status and capabilities of the Indians, questions of their origins and migrations, questions concerning linguistic and cultural connections with people of the Old World.” In investigations in Africa, often led by European ethnographers, seemingly exotic and exotically labeled Bushmen, Hottentot, and Pygmy peoples (among others) were studied with great interest, but were viewed as “the Other.” Issues of racial determinism further complicated attempts to understand the status of members of such societies (Harris, 1968). The interplay of what constitutes “race,” “progress,” “civilization,” and “primitive” compounded and constrained interpretations of human rights early on.

Yet ethnographic approaches yield important insights into rights-related cases, and cases from diverse and multiple cultural contexts are foundational to the study of global human rights. A few date to the 19th century. My version of what Faier and Rofel (2014) call “ethnographies of encounter” shines light on the beliefs and actions of perpetrators. Cases about abuse can be extraordinarily informative. Three are presented here.

“I Like to Do It!”

One of the earliest ethnographic accounts of rights abuse was authored by a college-educated sailor who later became a lawyer. Richard Henry Dana Jr. left Boston in 1834 bound for California via Cape Horn aboard the brig Pilgrim. He returned two years later. He kept a meticulous diary and clearly had a keen eye for details both nautical and cultural. His book Two Years Before the Mast (2007; orig. 1840) became a bestseller. It is still in print.

While at sea Dana became fascinated by nautical practice and protocol. Although he was a rookie, working on a commercial vessel as a common seaman for the first time, he readily picked up on long-standing traditions, behaviors, and attitudes. The captain was all-powerful, but dependent on other officers to implement orders for running the ship. From raising the mainsail to scrubbing the deck, orders were passed down hierarchically in precise fashion. But when a sailor was judged to be out of line, either in behavior or attitude, the captain would take over. Particularly troubling to Dana was an incident where a sailor was accused of talking back. In gripping narrative (pp. 102–104), Dana recounted the captain’s words: “Will you ever give me any more of your jaw?… Seize him up! Make a spread eagle of him! I’ll teach you all who is master aboard!” He then proceeded to flog him repeatedly with a large rope, “like a beast.” Dana was sickened, and then even more so when another sailor who spoke out on behalf of the first was beaten just as badly. “Can’t a man ask a question here without being flogged?” the sailor had asked. Nobody could ask a question, the captain replied. “If you want to know what I flog you for, I’ll tell you. It’s because I like to do it!”

During Dana’s time as a schoolboy, “his early learning remained in the hands of masters who believed in daily floggings in schoolrooms ‘governed by force and fear’” (Spencer, 2007, p. xv). When Dana himself received 12 blows for supposedly having feigned illness, he began to wrestle with what injustice and honor really meant. His time on board ship years later convinced him that regulations needed to be changed, and that—if he became a lawyer—he could help. Soon after his return to Boston he earned a degree from Harvard Law School, specializing in maritime law. In 1841 he published The Seaman’s Friend, a guide to sailors’ rights and a first of its kind (see Figure 1). His human rights concerns eventually expanded to include the injustices of slavery.

“I Had to Do It.”

Dana’s early ethnographic account of a perpetrator’s role and feelings has been followed by others. Equally gripping but more recent is that by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela (2003), another lawyer cum ethnographer, who in this instance is able to share insights into human rights abuse in South Africa.

Gobodo-Madikizela was among the many black South Africans who celebrated the prison release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, and even (as she later admitted) celebrated the fighting that accompanied the end of the apartheid system. When asked to join the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in the mid-1990s, she gained access to one of the previous regime’s most notorious members, Eugene de Koch. He had been imprisoned having been implicated in the killing of three black policemen who had threatened to expose fellow (white) officers in the deaths of black activists. Numerous other abuses were alleged to have occurred at his hands while he served as head of covert police operations at the Vlakplaas “death farm.”

A number of interviews with de Koch enabled Gobodo-Madikizela to get past the abuses, to get past his reputation as “Prime Evil” (p. 37), and to see inside him. What initially opened the door was not something de Koch said, but something the widow of one of those who died said: she offered forgiveness in the face of ominous abuse. Gobodo-Madikizela came to see a bit of humanity, a bit of remorse, and a bit of compassion—including for black Africans—as her in-prison interviews of de Koch continued. He had grown up on Afrikaner nationalism, on the principles of apartheid, and on the notion that the traditional state system had to be maintained. He felt that he had to do it.

The issue of understanding perpetrators is fraught with difficulty, Gobodo-Madikizela admits, since “tension, contradiction, and complexity … are forever present when one comes face-to-face with the coexistence of good and evil in human beings” (p. 17). At one point, she literally touched his “trigger hand,” which led to both the opening and closing of certain interview topics. She tried to separate the deeds from the doer. That a black person was showing genuine interest was a first for him, especially since he had “laid waste to a million dreams” (p. 42) of black citizens, as a strategist of mass violence. He had lost count of how many had died at his hands, many of whom had been members of the African National Congress (ANC). Yet he claimed, with seeming sincerity, that he was not a racist, but a nationalist, an apartheidist. He claimed that he had the nation’s best long-term political interests at heart.

De Koch’s darkest hour may have been when, after one return trip from the killing field, for the first time he couldn’t rid himself of the odor of death—in his clothes or on his skin. “A human being died that night in the murder operation” (p. 51): the old de Koch. A gradual transformation to a different person began, and eventually led—while he was imprisoned—to his ability to assist the TRC significantly in its human rights investigations.

“I Need to Do It.”

Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick (2017) has written a definitive ethnographic account of perpetrators of modern slavery, building on his field work in India. Bonded laborers there are part of a complex socioeconomic dependency network, working at a wide variety of tasks in both urban and rural settings; agricultural activity is featured. While those that hold the rights to such workers are, indeed, contemporary slaveholders, they often are respected members of their communities, viewing themselves in no sense as “labor extractors” but as “employment promoters.” Through numerous interviews with both slaveholders and laborers, representing a diverse array of interactive patterns and exploitative arrangements, Choi-Fitzpatrick found that it is too simple to view slaveholders as “crudely drawn villains”; they can more accurately be viewed “as human beings going about their own lives” (p. 5). In many instances they abuse and repress those that work for them; in other instances they help them substantially. One slaveholder said: “We are like family” (p. 46).

Choi-Fitzpatrick frames his overall arguments through the lens of both human rights and social movements, with culture as a kind of analytic foundation. Rights violations often occur “at the intersection of culture and capital” (p. 2). Centrally, and of particular interest to anthropologists, he asks how “structure, agency, and culture shape collective action” (p. 6), since Indians are engaged in a good deal of activism and collective action as they fight contemporary slavery. He reminds us that such action against slavery represents the world’s oldest type of social movement activity. As seen in the work of Free the Slaves, which employs a social movement strategy for global abolition, such action also represents the newest (Bales, 2007).

The creative ethnographic account that Choi-Fitzpatrick uses allows us to see the variation in the lives and exploitative strategies of perpetrators, as well as of those being exploited. For example, a slaveholder with the pseudonym Aanan ran an expansive quarry operation. He claimed that “the happiness of the worker is paramount” (p. 2). Helping the laborers stay out of debt, avoid drunkenness, and remain clothed enhances their dependency and Aanan’s protective cocoon. This strategy also minimizes the chance of insurrection. Aanan stated: “The worker is my cash machine, my fate” (p. 2). To survive economically, people such as Aanan claim that they must exploit; they need to do it.

Paradigms, Theories, and Models

While there is no single “theory of human rights,” a number of salient paradigms, theories, and models have been developed. Michael Ignatieff offers an extremely useful paradigm or philosophical umbrella, under which a number of theories and models either can be classified for consideration or usefully critiqued.

A Humanistic Paradigm

As summarized by Gutmann (2001), and augmented by Van Arsdale (2006), Ignatieff provides a pragmatic, humanistic, and non-deterministic paradigm. He believes that the notion of human rights remains emergent. It is evolving. While the West certainly has been preeminent in shaping the contemporary human rights regime, Ignatieff rejects any notion that Western perspectives are more profound. Rights are, in one sense, political (or potentially so) but their interpretation must be placed in contexts that are culturally attuned, secular, and humanistic. Ignatieff is not against religion, but against interpretations that see rights as being God-given. “From his perspective it is more accurate that rights be seen as emerging through human action and discourse, evolving through history as various actors wrestle with their implications” (Van Arsdale, 2006, pp. 4–5). Ignatieff does not believe in innate rights, innate human dignity, or innate cultural characteristics. Most recently, as illustrated in Figure 2, his paradigm is reflected in the “tree of rights” metaphor developed by Van Arsdale (2017).

Global Human Rights

Figure 2. Tree of rights. The “tree of rights” serves as a humanistic metaphor for the evolution of human rights. Building upon foundational provision rights (e.g., food), discourse and debate over centuries have driven the emergence of positive rights (e.g., freedom of speech) and negative rights (e.g., freedom from torture). Dignity and justice are the ultimate, essential principles. From Peter W. Van Arsdale, Global Human Rights: People, Processes, and Principles (Waveland Press, 2017, p. 8). Used with permission.

The Humanitarian–Human Rights Nexus

Dating from efforts begun in the 1860s, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 are now “virtually universal agreements that all states in the world have ratified.… [They are reflections of humanitarian concerns and] international customary law, from which no state can derogate” (Mantilla, 2017, p. 37). In conjunction with the Additional Protocols of 1977, they constitute an international regime, “born out of a contentious mix of interest, values, and emotions” (p. 35). Relating to what colloquially can be called the “laws of war,” they codify the standards that the world’s nations have established for the humane treatment of prisoners of war and non-combatants during armed conflict. As Tannenwald (2017) stresses, with South Sudan’s 2013 accession, all states are parties to the basic treaty, a historical, universal first.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, finalized in 1948 after a great deal of wrangling, emerged as complementary to the Geneva Conventions as the modern human rights era unfolded. The UDHR should be seen as a useful, heuristically valuable set of propositions. It is not a “sacred creed.” It is not a document with which everyone agrees. It is subject to testing, debate, and revision. Human agency and decision-making are paramount, whether done by lawyers, academics, service providers, government officials, or everyday citizens. When a “new” abuse such as rendition (i.e., government-sponsored abduction and extrajudicial transfer) is exposed, the experiences and opinions of perpetrators and victims alike must be taken into account. Rights activists, as well as policymakers, must become engaged. People representing different cultural perspectives must be consulted. New covenants, declarations, and protocols often emerge. The UDHR serves as both foundation and touchstone (see Figure 1).

Models Within International Relations

As summarized by Donnelly and Whelan (2018), there are three competing theoretical models of the place of human rights within international relations. The traditional statist model sees human rights as primarily a matter of sovereign national jurisdiction. Yet contemporary statists note that human rights are not the exclusive preserve of states, that the state (while primary) is not the sole actor, and that organizations such as the International Criminal Court are useful. For statists, rights analyses and interventions defer first to the state.

The cosmopolitan model puts primacy with individuals rather than states. Cosmopolitans believe the state is challenged “from below” (i.e., by individuals and NGOs) and “from above” (i.e., by the integral global community). The focus of proof and of action is relatively straightforward as individual human rights cases are addressed. International society is considered a viable world society.

The internationalistic model, with several variations, occupies a kind of center space between the statist and cosmopolitan models. The international community is seen to be comprised of the “society of states,” supplemented by engaged individuals and NGOs. International human rights activity is sanctioned by, and permissible through, the norms of this “society.” Not surprisingly, the norms can vary as historical and cultural variations are considered.

While the cosmopolitan model is particularly appealing to anthropologists and other social scientists, Donnelly and Whelan note that it is less descriptive (about the place that human rights occupies in international relations) and more prescriptive (about what a human rights regime ought to be). They believe that some version of the internationalistic model provides the most viable descriptive framework and that the statist model is decreasing in importance.

Universalism and Relativism

Both the universalist and relativistic approaches to the categorization of human rights have proven useful, though they have been fraught with difficulties (see Figure 1). The final declaration of the Vienna Conference (1993) affirmed the universality of human rights, but conferees conceded—in a nod to certain Muslim and other participants—that this stance is problematic. A universal declaration can be perceived as interference in a state’s internal affairs. One issue concerns equality. For example, as Mayer (2007, p. 100) notes, certain conservative Middle Eastern Muslims “assume that the distinctions made between different groups of people in Islamic law are part of the natural order of things [and therefore] argue that Islam recognizes the principle of equality even while they uphold rules relegating women and non-Muslims to an inferior status.” Shannon (2018) has studied Muslim women’s rights extensively and stresses that proclamations, such as those by American leaders since 2001 regarding Afghanistan, among other nations, tout equality but are viewed by many as examples of American exceptionalism. A second issue concerns appreciation. Ron, Golden, Crow, and Pandya (2017) found, through opinion polls in Morocco, that mosque non-attendance (one measure of religiosity/non-religiosity) is more highly correlated with a greater appreciation of human rights, a trend that also seems to prevail at other sites his team has studied. The ways in which Islam is collectively practiced are key.

Cultural relativism gained ground in the 1980s and 1990s, including in United Nations debates. Anthropologist Ellen Messer (1993) took a comparative regional approach. One relativistic issue in Africa is whether human rights are individual or collective. In addition, Africans suggest that the right to development and the right to food security should take precedence over Western-oriented emphases on civil/political (“first generation,” historically individualistic) rights. The African (Banjul) Charter on Human Rights, finalized in 1986, asserts that “peoples,” not individuals, have rights and that—in some instances—individual freedoms may have to be sacrificed for development rights. By comparison, Messer noted that indigenous rights have increasingly become central in Latin America. The rights to land, cultural preservation, and self-determination in development are featured. Research into Latin American issues has proven pivotal since the 1960s, with Chilean and Argentinian political oppression being countered by investigations such as those by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. Latin Americanists’ roles as leading rights advocates, including through Amnesty International, date from this era (Kelly, 2018). Again by comparison, Messer went on to stress that in Asia, “human rights questions of cultural relativism have centered around which rights take precedence – subsistence and development or political freedoms – and whether the cultural and religious language of duties and obligations can be … reconciled with universal human rights notions” (p. 229).

Rights “play out” in terms of duties and obligations. No matter the cultural setting, an obligation has both moral (i.e., “helping is the right thing to do”) and material (i.e., “mobilizing the needed resources”) components (Van Arsdale, 2006). As Freeman (2017, p. 82) emphasizes, “Human rights do not depend on the performance of one’s obligations. However, respecting human rights entails the performance of obligations.… Obligations involve costs.”

Freeman (2017) notes that anthropologists have “deployed” cultural relativism to defend vulnerable peoples from hegemony, but have failed to show that relativism can provide a just defense (p. 121). The work of John Bodley (2015) is seminal here, in his analyses of at-risk tribal populations. It is not relativism but societal scale, stresses of inter-group contact, and strategies of adaptation and control (given available resources) that count. It may be more relevant to anthropologists that “universalism” be contrasted, not with “relativism,” but with “diversity” (see Figure 1). It also may be more relevant to anthropologists that “global” be used instead of “universal” (Van Arsdale, 2017). With these terminological changes, the contemporary discourse by anthropologists regarding agency could better be engaged. As Messer (1993, p. 227) emphasized: “The challenge is to identify commonalities and structure interpretations so that essential human rights are universally respected.”

Structural Violence

Anthropologists are interested in what institutions do, in how they work, and in the various ways they enhance and constrain human behavior and opinion. Whether state-based/public or agency-based/private or non-profit, whether local, regional, national, or transnational, and whether attuned to human rights issues or not, institutional analysis is at the heart of much contemporary anthropological analysis.

The theory of structural violence is extremely useful (see Figure 1). It targets institutions. Based on the work of anthropologist/physician Paul Farmer (2003), whose efforts include Haiti and Russia, it can be summarized by focusing on five premises (Van Arsdale, 2006):

  1. 1. Differential power relations within society create structural inequalities.

  2. 2. Structural inequalities become institutionalized by elites and create the oppressive, repressive, and ominous conditions producing human rights violations.

  3. 3. Structural inequalities and structural violence are linked.

  4. 4. Structural violence is not always manifest in harsh, aggressive physical terms (e.g., guns, death), but in the everyday situations that produce hardship and suffering.

  5. 5. Disproportionate access to needed resources is linked to disproportionate risk, the kind manifest in many marginalized communities in which residents often are unable to advocate for meaningful change.

Farmer emphasizes that through ongoing suffering, structural violence generates bitter recrimination, even if it is not heard. The problems of suffering, violence, and misery clearly exist. However, what is the best way to report them and help those involved? How can destructive forces such as racism and poverty, embodied in individuals, be dealt with effectively? How can improvements in human rights be implemented optimally? Even though he uses the phrase advisedly, Farmer believes in the importance of anthropologists “bearing witness” and speaking out about abuses they have seen. To tackle structural violence requires what Amartya Sen (2003, p. xvii) describes as a “determined encounter.”

The Generational Continuum

A kind of “time/process continuum” of human rights emergence and evolution can be traced (see Figure 1). In the modern human rights era, it is possible to distinguish—by synthesizing several similar paradigms—first generation (civil/political, e.g., individual legal protection), second generation (economic/social, e.g., entrepreneurial protection), third generation (ecological/solidarity, e.g., LGBTQ protection), fourth generation (intellectual/indigenous, e.g., tribal property protection), and fifth generation (cyber/technological, e.g., database security) rights (Donnelly & Whelan, 2018; Freeman, 2017; Greaves, 1994; Ishay, 2004; Van Arsdale, 2017). Although overlapping, these generations have evolved and become clarified serially. All remain important, but occasionally invoke strong disagreements. Ishay (2004, p. 11) noted that “antagonism between liberal (first-generation) and developing world (third-generation) rights discourses … plagues the human rights community.”

There are other well-known theoretical frameworks not covered here. Another significant one to anthropologists is the rights-based approach to development (Uvin, 2004), which emphasizes the necessity of integrating human rights interventions and policies with progressive development interventions and policies. The development as freedom approach (Sen, 1999) emphasizes individual freedom and capability, freed from any particular political tradition, as economic life benefiting citizens at all socioeconomic levels is pursued. The well-being of the most impoverished is central.

Frontiers

Human rights norms must be socialized and internalized to be maximally effective. What I call frontier rights—those still being defined, impacting lesser-known or highly marginalized populations, at times controversially—will help shape the 21st-century rights landscape. Among them are mental health impacts on rights development, gay rights for Africans, the death penalty in the United States, the right to rest (without disturbance) for homeless people, the right to privacy for those living in crowded refugee camps, fair treatment for the captured wives and children of ISIS fighters, humanitarian support for service providers working with children in combat zones, the land rights of indigenous small-holders, the issue of migrant children separated from their parents by officials at the U.S.–Mexico border, the rights of innocent people forced to assist gang members such as those associated with MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) in the United States, and the rights of persons with Down syndrome in Iceland—where nationwide prenatal screening is leading to the termination of virtually all “Down, test positive” pregnancies.

The individual–communitarian balance is, at times, at issue (Van Arsdale, 2017), but there are no inherent difficulties in integrating the two in complementary fashion. Power imbalances and hegemonic pressures are more difficult (Freeman, 2017). Accounting for societal scale, from simpler to more complex, from smaller to larger, from more rural to more urban, is crucial (Bodley, 2015). The human rights regime is not stagnant and while amenable to innovations, it also can be battered about. It continues to be largely shaped by Western thought, but other traditions continue—increasingly—to favorably impact it. The voices of outspoken dissidents such as China’s Ai Weiwei are significant. The voices of Latin American activists are seminal. Sometimes the West deploys human rights as an instrument of foreign policy, while non-Western nations sometimes use human rights to criticize Western cultural imperialism (Freeman, 2017; Mayer, 2007).

The amorphous phenomena of aspirations, expectations, and obligations remain difficult to interpret analytically and yet are essential to the marginalized folk who must wrestle with the abuses they endure. To what kind of livelihoods might the Rohingya of Myanmar reasonably aspire as they seek lives without forcible displacement? What might Palestinian Christians expect as they deal with scarce resources also precious to Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews? How can the Yazidi of Iraq be re-integrated back into their homeland after genocidal ISIS persecution? How can the opinions of tribesmen living in the world’s most remote environments, such as Indonesian New Guinea, be solicited and incorporated into the broader rights discourse? What are the obligations of activists with access to resources when confronted with oppressed people who may—or may not—want their help? Anthropologists conceptually attuned to cultural materialism, resource extraction, service intervention, and policy development in the broader context of political economy will be well positioned to help.

Global Human Rights

Figure 3. This Citak warrior, contacted in the Indonesian New Guinea jungle in 1974, had likely never met an outsider. The leader (matamu) of an egalitarian band of 30 fellow warriors, his views on what Westerners term “human rights” could not be determined. Yet his ultimate fate—years later, when missionaries, loggers, and government officials “opened” this area—was dependent, in part, upon what he said and the “cultural stance” he presented. Photo by Peter Van Arsdale.

Of great interest to anthropologists is the “view from the grassroots” (i.e., public perceptions of human rights). Yet as Ron et al. (2017) observe, most of these data for developing countries have come from ethnographic accounts and few from systematic opinion surveys. A new frontier of survey research is emergent, initially engaged by Ron and his colleagues in Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, and India. Their focus has been both on perceptions and receptions (i.e., the public’s varied viewpoints of human rights ideas and their receipt at the individual level). Linking their findings to the roles of local human rights organizations (LHROs) affords them a robust analytic context (see Figure 1). Their development of new indices, such as the Human Rights Contact Index, is notable.

Return to the Past, Return to the Future

One recent commentator has revisited the issue of lynching in the United States. Thousands of African Americans were executed in this brutal fashion over the decades following the Civil War. The last mass lynching, which does not always involve hanging, occurred on July 25, 1946. Four people died. With the investigation into that case finally closed, with no one ever convicted, it is now possible to review all the data and reflect (Shaer, 2018). One of those reflecting is former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is decrying what he calls “the lawful lynching of black and brown people by the [U.S.] police” (Corder, 2018, p. 8A). The same need to reflect has been emphasized by many who have written about 20th-century genocides, Hannah Arendt (2004) and Elie Wiesel (1982) among the most poignant.

Stephen Hopgood (2013), a forecaster, suggests that the “endtimes” of human rights may be upon us (p. ix). Significant structural defects in international humanism have contributed to deadly attacks on aid workers, the “disappearing” of al-Qaeda suspects, and the flouting of international law by leaders such as Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir. Hopgood sees the International Criminal Court as ineffective. Yet most other analysts, while recognizing these problems, see prospects for improvement, building upon contemporary accomplishments and trends. Education as the essential “enabling right,” serving as the lever allowing other rights to be pursued, remains paramount.

Asking Essential Questions

Another forecaster has written about “superhuman rights” in the future. Susan Schneider (2018) wonders what roles artificial intelligence (AI) will play. Will the year’s most anticipated legal cases be argued by lawyers aided by AI? Alternatively, will combat robots begin making decisions as to who should be helped on the battlefield?

Key cases will rely increasingly on the questions and insights of “radical others.” The documentation of encounters will prove increasingly important. Past and future, as pastor Mark Feldmeir (paraphrasing Craddock, 2011) suggests, a final question should be: “How did you respond to human need?” To paraphrase psychologist Charlie Hazlehurst (2018), a final question should be: “What did you bring to the table?”

Anthropological Education, Practice, and Global Human Rights

Professional anthropologists, as well as aspiring students, have a great deal to contribute to the field of global human rights. They can teach (both in university and non-traditional/training settings), conduct applied research, serve as advocates, work as service providers, and aid policy development. “The anthropological academy” (through institutions of higher learning) often integrates information on human rights into introductory courses on cultural or social anthropology; into mid-level courses on political anthropology; and into advanced courses on humanitarianism. Field schools and internships are co-sponsored by a number of anthropology departments in settings where human rights and related issues can be tackled by students; examples include Yale University (Himalaya Initiative), London School of Economics (Southeast Asia), Tufts University (East Africa), and University of Heidelberg (South Asia Institute). Service learning opportunities also engage anthropology students on a regular basis, with institutions in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Spain, and the United States being among the leaders. For all of these initiatives, the goal is to move beyond theory to practice.

Among books of particular importance to students considering careers that bridge anthropology and human rights (as well as other disciplines) are those by Carla Guerrón-Montero and Riall Nolan. The first, Careers in Applied Anthropology in the 21st Century (2008), includes chapters on collaborative research, public anthropology, consulting, and leadership development. The second, Using Anthropology in the World (2017), includes chapters on the history of anthropological practice, core competencies (e.g., networking and mentoring), finding employment, and career navigation.

NGOs and IGOs regularly employ anthropologists both in office and on-site settings. Persons with master’s degrees usually are as sought-after as those with doctorates. Among the so-called “seven sisters,” the world’s largest NGOs, those regularly employing anthropologists as advisers, evaluators, managers, or service providers include World Vision, Doctors Without Borders, and Catholic Relief Services. Agencies within the United Nations system that employ anthropologists include UNHCHR (United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights), UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). Many small NGOs, working in settings that range from refugee camps to detention centers, employ anthropologists as well.

Acknowledgments

Thanks are expressed to Peter Eichstaedt, Mark Feldmeir, and Charlie Hazlehurst for comments and critiques shared as this essay was being finalized.

Further Reading

Some of the most important work by anthropologists and sociologists on this topic is found in volumes not explicitly labeled “human rights.” In these instances the analyses are integrative, spanning disciplines such as education, development, health, environment, ethics, and security. The following are recommended:

Albro, R., Marcus, G., McNamara, L. A., & Schoch-Spana, M. (Eds.). (2012). Anthropologists in the securityscape: Ethics, practice, and professional identity. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.Find this resource:

Bales, K. (2016). Blood and earth: Modern slavery, ecocide, and the secret to saving the world. New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau.Find this resource:

Bodley, J. H. (2008). Anthropology and contemporary human problems. 5th ed. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.Find this resource:

Bornstein, E., & Redfield, P. (Eds.). (2010). Forces of compassion: Humanitarianism between ethics and politics. Santa Fe, NM: SAR Press.Find this resource:

Farmer, P., Kim, J. Y., Kleinman, A., & Basilico, M. (Eds.). (2013). Reimagining global health: An introduction. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

González, R. J. (2010). Militarizing culture: Essays on the warfare state. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.Find this resource:

Hickey, S., & Mitlin, D. (Eds.). (2009). Rights-based approaches to development: Exploring the potential and pitfalls. Sterling, VA: Kumarian.Find this resource:

Hinton, A. L. (Ed.). (2002). Annihilating difference: The anthropology of genocide. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

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