Human Rights as Cultural Practice: An Anthropological Critique
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Human Rights as Cultural Practice:
An Anthropological Critique

Il faut suivre ce qui est commun, c’est-à-dire ce qui est universel. Car le verbe universel est commun à tous. Or bien que ce verbe soit commun à tous, la plupart vivent comme s’ils possédaient en propre une pensée particulière.

Héraclite in Moustapha Safouan 1993 1

I. Introduction

Forty-eight years have passed since the American Anthropological Association (AAA) issued Melville Herskovits’ now well-known rejection of “the applicability of any Declaration of Human Rights to mankind as a whole.” 2 The statement explicitly emphasized that “[t]he rights of Man in the [End Page 286] Twentieth Century cannot be circumscribed by the standards of any single culture, or be dictated by the aspirations of any single people”; 3 a situation which would “lead to frustration, not realization of the personalities of vast numbers of human beings.” 4 The following year, Julian H. Steward reconfirmed this position in rather undisguised terms: “[W]e are prepared to take a stand against the values in our own culture which underly [sic] such imperialism.” 5 Since then, anthropologists’ opposition to, or at least peripheral interest in, human rights formulations has remained somewhat commonplace both inside and outside of the discipline. Indeed, if one could point retrospectively to the major intellectual contributions of social anthropology in the twentieth century, it would consist of “[t]he observations that other people’s truths are contained in their own classifications and understanding, and that our own culture offers no self-evidently privileged standard of verity. . . .” 6 This perspective has pervaded the discipline as an ethical undercurrent despite the emergence of different schools of thought and various theoretical directions.

A recent article examining the somewhat intransigent relationship between anthropology and human rights lists five major reasons why anthropologists have been largely uninvolved in human rights research and formulations. First, there has been a clear preference among anthropologists to advocate the rights of collectivities, especially “indigenous people”; the recognition of “collective rights” as an integral part of international human rights has only recently assumed importance. Second, rather than participating in political discussions of abstract rights, or processes of drafting declarations, anthropologists have involved themselves in applied or action-oriented anthropology to improve the economic conditions and political negotiating strength of smaller-scale societies. Third, due to the particular sensitivity of doing fieldwork, anthropologists have tended to avoid extensive critical questioning of the political legitimacies of sovereign states and their actions. Fourth, despite anthropologists’ contributions to the rhetorics of socioeconomic, cultural, and indigenous rights, the UN human rights commissions continue to be dominated by legal discourse. Finally, anthropologists have tended to see the limitations of the UN documents and procedures which fail to penetrate below, or to look outside, the level of the state to identify human rights notions as well as sources of violation. 7 [End Page 287]

However, the most fundamental and pertinent reason for anthropologists’ restricted involvement with human rights issues can be traced directly to the theory of “cultural relativism.” This is exemplified by the AAA statement’s rejection of the notion of universal human rights, its emphasis on different peoples’ different rights concepts, and its criticism of a universal international legal framework as ethnocentrically Western. While this position is generally seen as a major “burden” contributing to the exclusion of anthropologists from human rights research, 8 this is not the only impact of cultural relativism. For quite some time now, the theory has, in fact, been nurturing a seemingly never-ending debate among human rights researchers on the question of the “universalism” or “relativism” of human rights. The “classical” conflict is well-known: cultural relativists see the Universal Declaration on Human Rights as enumerating rights and freedoms which are culturally, ideologically, and politically nonuniversal. They argue that current human rights norms possess a distinctively “Western” or “Judeo-Christian” bias, and hence, are an “ethno-centric” construct with limited applicability. Conversely, universalists assert that human rights are special entitlements of all persons. They are grounded in human nature and as such, are inalienable. “To have human rights one does not have to be anything other than a human...