The recently released Draft Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights and its tack of boosting protections of certain rights while diminishing others is headed in the wrong direction right out of the gate. The American Anthropological Association’s position is that no one jurisdiction ought to impose its own interpretation of how to recognize and protect the rights recognized by other jurisdictions.
The draft commission report, which prioritizes religious freedom and property rights over the framework of international treaties and laws accompanying the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is wholly inadequate and flies in the face of a century of anthropological research and scholarship. This research places the concept of human rights in the more encompassing context of the broad sweep of cultures around the world and across human history, which defines the human element in human rights.
We find that:
Human rights are inherent in human existence – laws don’t create human rights, they acknowledge and protect them.
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.
The anthropology of human rights has demonstrated how “human rights” means something different in different cultural settings, depending on who is in power and what interests are to be protected. The meaning of “human rights” is often interpreted by the powerful to protect their self-interests, and we must carefully examine how such interpretations may adversely affect the disadvantaged and powerless.
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.