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.