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Committee for Human Rights Guidelines

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Committee for Human Rights Guidelines

The following Guidelines were approved by the AAA Executive Board on October 7, 1995. The Guidelines were developed and proposed by the Committee's predecessor, the Commission for Human Rights. The Commission's submission to the AAA Executive Board included various appendices, which are listed following the Guidelines. Many of those appendices, in updated form, are found elsewhere in these web pages.


The capacity for culture is tantamount to the capacity for humanity. Culture is the precondition for the realization of this capacity by individuals, and in turn depends on the cooperative efforts of individuals for its creation and reproduction. Anthropology's cumulative knowledge of human cultures, and of human mental and physical capacities across all populations, types, and social groups, attests to the universal uniformity of the human capacity for culture. This knowledge entails an ethical commitment to the equal opportunity of all cultures, societies, and persons to realize this capacity in their cultural identities and social lives. Anthropology as a profession is committed to the promotion and protection of the right of people and peoples everywhere to the full realization of their capacity for culture, which is to say their humanity. When any culture or society denies such opportunity to any of its own members or others, the American Anthropological Association has an ethical responsibility to protest and oppose such deprivation. This implies expanding the definition of human rights to include areas not necessarily addressed by international law, to wit, collective as well as individual rights, cultural, social, and economic development, and a clean and safe environment.


The AAA established the three-year Commission for Human Rights in 1992 and charged it to develop concrete recommendations for the operation of a permanent Committee for Human Rights and to bring those recommendations to the Executive Board at the 1995 Annual Meeting. Specifically, the Commission was asked to (1) develop a conceptual framework for an anthropological approach to human rights; (2) formulate a plan to network and educate the members of the AAA, the media, policymakers, and the population at large; (3) devise mechanisms for action to protect and promote human rights; and (4) raise funds to underwrite these activities.


There are several interrelated reasons that underlay the decision to form a permanent Committee within the AAA.

1. The AAA has long been involved in human rights, beginning with its submission of a "Statement on Human Rights" to the United Nations Committee on Human Rights in 1947. Later, it adopted the Principles of Professional Responsibility, which provides a compelling rationale for the establishment of a permanent Committee for Human Rights. That statement reads as follows:
Anthropologists' first responsibility is to those whose lives and cultures they study. Should conflicts of interest arise, the interests of these people take precedence over other considerations. Anthropologists must do everything in their power to protect the dignity and privacy of the people with whom they work, conduct research or perform other professional activities. Their physical, social and emotional safety and welfare are the professional concerns of the anthropologists who have worked among them. . . . The rights, interests, safety, and sensitivities of those who entrust information to anthropologists must be safeguarded (AAA 1990).
What is more, the AAA formed the Yanomami Commission and various other commissions and committees dealing with hunger and famine, AIDS, homelessness, involuntary resettlement, and refugees; it has passed numerous resolutions having to do with human rights at annual business meetings; and it designated Human Rights as the theme of the 1994 Annual Meeting.

2. At a time of growing concern about violence, social transformations and the future of the state system, anthropology adds a professional social science voice to debates and discussions. The increasing gravity and urgency of human rights violations and issues demand an organizational response. In many instances an organization can have far greater impact than individual actions alone, although individual actions are also useful.

3. Indigenous peoples and political and economic minorities of all kinds with whom anthropologists most often work are among the least powerful segments of society economically and politically as well as the least vocal, and they are often the most endangered by threats and abuses of human rights. Many existing human rights NG0s focus on individual rights, and they treat violations of civil and political rights to the exclusion of economic, social, and cultural rights and indigenous and environmental rights.

4. Members of the AAA increasingly face intolerable human rights abuses to those with whom they work, and sometimes they may be placed in positions of professional conflict, for if they act, they, and perhaps their colleagues, may be refused further research permission and their subjects of research may be exposed to retaliation. To do nothing is intolerable, but anthropologists have no organization that understands their unique situation to consult with or resolve dilemmas or to ask for help in taking action to ameliorate these abuses.

5. Members of indigenous groups and ethnic minorities are turning to anthropologists for help in their fight against human rights abuses and are bringing cases to the profession for response. The profession has a moral responsibility to those who have helped its members in their fieldwork to provide help in return. This can best be done through a formal committee with knowledge and experience to deal with these problems.

6. The demonstrated centrality of human rights to the global community, as evidenced by the burgeoning numbers of non-governmental human rights organizations worldwide, include the formation of committees within most professional and scientific organizations.

7. The demonstrated centrality of human rights to the discipline, as evidenced by the growing numbers of courses, books, articles and organized symposia at national and international meetings.

8. The call within the new Long-Range Planning document for an anthropology that is relevant to social problems, and capable of training students to take an active role in formulating solutions to those problems.

For these reasons, in addition to the need to respond to violations of human rights, the AAA needs a clearinghouse to provide information to the membership on cases of violations. The Association also must provide human rights education, expand the application and understanding of human rights, and develop methods of obtaining compliance.

Conceptual Framework

In light of the above, the CHR has developed a working approach to human rights that we believe has universal relevance:

People and groups have a generic right to realize their capacity for culture, and to produce, reproduce, and change the conditions and forms of their physical, personal and social existence, so long as such activities do not diminish the same capacities of others. Anthropology as an academic discipline studies the bases and the forms of human diversity and unity; anthropology as a practice seeks to apply this knowledge to the solution of human problems.

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, where "human" is understood in its full range of cultural, social, linguistic, psychological, and biological senses.

Thus, the CHR 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. In practical terms, however, its working definition converges with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Cultural, Economic, and Social Rights, the Convention on Torture, the Convention on Genocide, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and other treaties and covenants which bring basic human rights within the parameters of international written and customary law and practice. The Commission's definition thus reflects a commitment to human rights consistent with international principles but not limited by them. Human rights is not a static concept. Our understanding of human rights is a constantly evolving vision as we come to know more about the human condition and its vulnerabilities. It is therefore incumbent on anthropology to be involved in the debate on enlarging our understanding of human rights on the basis of anthropological knowledge and research.

Goals and Objectives

After considerable discussion, the Commission has established the following long-term goals and accompanying objectives for itself and for the succeeding permanent Committee for Human Rights. These should be understood as preliminary, nonexhaustive, and intertwined.

Goal 1: to promote and protect Human Rights.


a. establish policies and procedures to respond to claims of human rights abuses.

b. develop appropriate action to recommend to the Executive Board in instances of human rights abuses. The Commission has considered a number of human rights abuses since 1992 and will continue to do so to the extent of its resources.

c. encourage anthropologists and others to bring case material before the Commission (and Committee).

d. document cases of human rights violations for publication for purposes of taking action, to provide educational materials, and to serve as a data base for research.

Strategy and Tactics
a. develop methods to encourage compliance, including writing letters to heads of states, publicity, working through human rights organizations, to organizing a working group of lawyers to take on pro bono cases, etc.

b. activate networks of concerned and real knowledgeable experts, a task that has already begun.

c. liaise with other human rights committees within the profession (e.g., the Europeanist human rights committee). The Commission has established regular contact with a number of other organizations and will continue to expand its networks.

d. develop networks of anthropologists and anthropological organizations in other countries.

e. serve as a clearinghouse for reports on human rights violations, using other human rights organizations when possible.

f. request AAA members, the President and Executive Board to write letters of protest.

Goal 2: to expand the definition of human rights within an anthropological perspective.

This is one of the primary goals of the Commission and thus requires some amplification. There are a number of areas in which anthropologists can make concrete contributions to cross-cultural and transdisciplinary discussions of human rights. These include but are not limited to an examination of:

  • cultural relativism and the universal applicability of definitions of human rights;
  • comparative studies of behavior norms and practices as they relate to the legal and political human rights framework;
  • the communitarian view of human rights, which stresses duties to the polity versus the individualistic view of human rights and individual human rights.
a. disseminate human rights materials to colleagues and to all AAA Sections and Interest Groups

b. form informal working and discussion groups

c. train ourselves and students, in and out of the classroom

d. motivate others to involve themselves and share the work

e. address general issues in addition to dealing with specific cases

Strategy and Tactics:
a. create a network directory

b. encourage and sponsor symposia, sessions, and workshops at professional meetings

c. expand the collection of teaching syllabi which the Commission has begun and make it available to the membership of the AAA

d. lobby departments to include human rights as part of required curricula

e. create professional structures for the promotion and protection of human rights

f. create policies, procedures, and principles governing membership involvement

Goal 3: to work internally with the membership of the AAA, to educate anthropologists, and to mobilize their support for human rights work.


a. develop and disseminate curricula and bibliographies

b. encourage symposia, training workshops at professional meetings

c. encourage colleagues to incorporate human rights materials into courses and to use introductory text books that contain human rights material

d. encourage publication of human rights materials

e. prepare graduate students for the human rights violations they may encounter in the field

Strategy and Tactics
a. develop lists and networks which are then contacted regularly

b. formulate lists of publishers who are to be contacted

c. include calls for colleagues to include human rights in teaching, symposia and workshops, and all publications

d. develop means of communication to coordinate working groups and others

e. develop an information circular of Committee activities

f. prepare basic information on human rights that can be translated for possible distribution to host communities by researchers at their discretion

Goal 4: to work externally with foreign colleagues, the people and groups with whom we work, and other human rights organizations to develop an anthropological perspective on human rights and consult with them on human rights violations and the appropriate actions to be taken.


a. insure that all relevant others have materials

b. contribute to a comparative anthropological perspective on human rights in all venues

c. do professional training and workshops

Strategy and Tactics
a. prepare and disseminate training modules, syllabi, and bibliographies on anthropological perspectives on human rights issues.
Goal 5: to influence and educate the media, policymakers, non-governmental organizations, and decision makers in the private sector

Strategies and Tactics

a. inform anthropologists about specific media, policy and decision makers to whom their professional views should be expressed

b. develop and network of anthropologists able to provide briefings on demand on specific issues

c. prepare a white paper on human rights from an anthropological perspective to be distributed to U.S. government offices and international governmental organizations

d. work with AAA press office to contact journalists in order to publicize anthropological human rights concerns

e. obtain from various federal and international agencies, financiers, and institutions their human rights policies and guidelines

f. establish contacts with appropriate agencies and media and provide materials to them

Goal 6: to encourage research on all aspects of human rights, from conceptual to applied


a. create an intellectual atmosphere in which human rights is a taken-for-granted aspect of anthropological research

b. research and write about human rights ourselves

c. encourage colleagues to think, write, and do research that touch on all areas of human rights and the mitigation of their abuses

d. encourage research on a cross-cultural inventory of conceptions of human rights as a start to dealing with the issue of cultural relativism

e. involve anthropologists in addressing human rights issues and violations that occur within the United States as well as elsewhere in the world

f. encourage research on the development of leading indicators of impending human rights violations

Practical Aspects of the Formation of the Committee

We propose the following mechanisms for the creation and operation of the permanent Committee:

1. Membership of the Committee shall be eight persons, with half appointed by the President and half elected by the membership.

2. One appointed and one elected member shall be seated each year to replace present Commission members.

3. The AAA nominating committee shall consult with the present Commission and present a slate of nominees in time for the regular spring 1996 elections.

4. The election to the Committee should be in spring of 1996. The President shall appoint an additional member during the summer of 1996. Appointed and elected members shall take office at the 1996 Annual Meeting of the AAA.

5. The present members of the Commission shall continue in office until a permanent Committee is appointed or elected and seated.

6. Each appointed and elected member shall serve a four-year term.

7. The President or the President-elect, the Executive Director, the Director of Government Relations of the AAA, and a representative of the External Relations Committee shall be ex officio members of the Committee.

8. The Chair of the Committee shall be appointed for a two-year term by the President in consultation with the Committee, and that there be the possibility of one reappointment.

9. The Committee have the option on the majority vote of the Committee to ask for the resignation of any member who is unable to fully participate in the work of the Committee, and the President shall appoint a replacement in consultation with the Committee.

10. There will be two business meetings each year. This will be ordinarily a full-day meeting held at the AAA Annual Meeting, and an open forum during the annual meeting to inform and respond to concerns of interested membership. The second meeting shall be held during the spring.

11. A summary of the minutes of each regular meeting of the Committee should be published in the Anthropology Newsletter.

12. Other communication among the members of the Committee shall be accomplished through regular reports from the Chair, personal and conference calls, fax, and e-mail.

13. The Committee shall also host occasional additional meetings on particularly important cases or issues, or for special training, workshops, or conferences.

14. The AAA Executive Board shall establish a budget for the Committee sufficient to fulfill the above needs and to carry out the activities of the Committee.


The initiative within the AAA to establish a permanent Committee for Human Rights, begun in the late 1980s, and the imminent establishment of that committee, represents a historic development within the AAA and the profession with potentially far reaching consequences. The undersigned members of the Commission strongly recommend that the AAA Executive Board accept its recommendations for Guidelines for a permanent Committee to carry out the above named charges.

--Leslie Sponsel (Chair)

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