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What Are Human Rights?
The 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and subsequent treaties establish that rights are inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, the right to an adequate standard of living, health, and many more. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.
The American Anthropological Association (AAA) hereby confirms and expands its commitment to the human rights principles set out in the Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights of 1999. Building on that prior vision, and reflecting more than two decades of research and engagement, we further acknowledge that:
(1) Human rights are inherent in human existence. The significance and substance of human rights are not defined by international and domestic law and institutions nor delimited by formal judicial and political processes. That is, laws don’t create human rights, they acknowledge and protect them. The laws and policies that recognize human rights in any specific region of the world and apply to any social group or human category must be formulated and ratified by all interested parties and their decision-making representatives. No one jurisdiction ought to impose its own interpretation of how to recognize and protect these rights on any other jurisdiction. Human rights aspires to uplift the entire human condition and should be applied equally to all people.
(2) The anthropological study of human rights has documented cross-cultural variation and complexity in definitions of the person, the balance of individual and collective rights, the interrelationship between rights and duties, and humanity’s responsibility to non-human life. Different words and symbols have different meanings to different cultures. These internal vernacular differentiations are a prime example of how tensions arise over competing definitions of human rights and how to actualize them. The universality of human rights is therefore rooted, at least partly, in their contingency and contextual relativity. Moreover, these differences are productive for the continual redefinition of human rights at local, national, regional, and global scales.
(3) Upholding human rights in the world-at-large, and in anthropological research and practice, requires more than the obligation to “do no harm.” While reaffirming the Association’s 2012 Principles of Professional Responsibility, our position on human rights in 2020 demands forms of research and engagement that contribute to decolonization and help redress histories of oppression and exploitation. As in 1999, the AAA and its members have a duty to “do good” by taking a stand on behalf of individuals and groups who are subject to violations based on human differences and/or power asymmetries.
It is a standard of responsible professional conduct for anthropologists to continue their research, scholarship, and practice in service of dismantling institutions of colonization and helping to redress histories of oppression and exploitation. The AAA and its members have a professional responsibility to stand with individuals and groups subject to human rights violations that are driven by human difference and inequalities of power. We have a responsibility to develop through research, scholarship, and practice a robust global framework of justice. This framework envisions a concept of justice that embraces the emancipatory potential of cultural differences and similarities, animated by an expansive professional curiosity about what it means to be human.
As the 1999 AAA Statement on Human Rights indicates, “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, where ‘human’ is understood in its full range of cultural, linguistic, psychological, social, and biological senses.” The anthropology of human rights has demonstrated how the meaning and practice of human rights varies in context, representing an arena of dynamic contestation over culture, resources, and power. Building upon this ideal, we assert that anthropological methods and findings should be used to promote and implement human rights protections; to identify and critique violations; to interrogate the actions of state and non-state actors, and to confront abuses conducted against and in the name of human rights. Recognizing that there are some instances when speaking out about human rights violations may endanger both anthropologists and affected communities, we encourage anthropologists and the Association to investigate human rights concerns in their work when possible and appropriate, and to inform the public in matters of human rights via specific guidelines and procedures approved by the Association.
In different cultural and national settings, we see differences in the definition of persons, the balance of individual and collective rights, the interrelationship of rights and duties, and humanity’s responsibility for non-human life. These differences are strengths, not limitations, and should lead to mutual monitoring of implementation practices, exchanges, and continuous improvement of rights protection strategies and tactics. Over time, we have come to recognize that previous attempts to inscribe “human rights” were culture-bound, and based on specific perspectives on the relationship between individuals and the groups to which they belong; however, these are not universal. Human rights are dynamically negotiated across time periods and social and political contexts and must be actively claimed and defended as part of broader movements for individual and collective justice. The AAA and its members have a professional responsibility to stand inside these movements as participants and social agents, and outside, as constructive critics.
The 2020 Statement: A Living Document
This foundational statement forms the basis of a living document that will, over time, expand to include information and analyses that reflect the complexities of human rights today. It provides a basis for AAA and its individual members to orient their work with respect to organizations that advocate for universal human rights, international laws and norms, the discipline and praxis of anthropology itself, the communities with whom we work and to which we belong, and the world at large.
Background: Human Rights and the AAA
The 2020 American Anthropological Association statement on human rights is the third such document in the history of the association. Each statement was the product of a particular moment in time—for both human rights and anthropology. The first statement was written by Melville Herskovits in 1947 as a response to a global survey on human rights conducted by the nascent organization UNESCO in support of the UN Commission on Human Rights, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. Although Herskovits’s “Statement on Human Rights” was written in a personal capacity, it was published in the December 1947 American Anthropologist and later came to represent something of an official position on human rights by the AAA. The 1947 Statement was highly critical of the UN’s project to make a universal declaration of human rights an important part of the postwar global order. Rooted in a principled commitment to cultural relativism and the collective survival and cultural integrity of colonized and minority groups, Herskovits argued that “universal human rights” encoded Euro-American notions of the individual and private property and would ultimately serve imperialist objectives. Indeed, the very category of “human,” and therefore concepts of “human rights,” are not historically inclusive; they embody hierarchies of difference that have continued to shape the way human rights are understood and mobilized.
Decades later, the end of the Cold War provided the impetus for a major expansion of human rights in international relations, political discourse, and development policy. At the same time, anthropologists had begun to combine research with human rights activism, notably on behalf of vulnerable indigenous populations. This shift in the anthropological orientation to human rights motivated a group of AAA members to work toward a second statement on human rights, culminating in the 1999 “Declaration on Anthropology of Human Rights,” which was adopted by a majority vote of the AAA membership. Compared to the 1947 Statement, the 1999 Declaration takes a radically different stance toward human rights, one in which anthropologists and the AAA as an organization are implored to protect existing human rights as defined at the interfaces among international conventions and local meanings and struggles and to enlarge the public understanding of human rights based on anthropological research. Perhaps the most important elements of the 1999 Declaration are its defense of human difference and its insistence on the discipline’s ethical responsibility to “protest and oppose” when such differences are the basis for violence and abuse.
Like the previous two documents, the 2020 AAA statement on human rights responds to wider developments of concern to the discipline and the Association. In particular, it reflects the kind of project imagined by the 1999 Declaration: the articulation of an anthropological vision of human rights grounded in decades of research, activism, critical scholarship, and actual human experience. Many anthropologists have personal and professional connections to regions and communities that have suffered or continue to suffer human rights abuses. While maintaining the 1999 Declaration’s commitment to the ethical defense of human difference, the 2020 Statement moves beyond the tension between universalism and relativism to help orient anthropological research and practice in a world of seemingly intractable violence, inequality, injustice, and asymmetrical power.