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Human Rights and Heritage Ethics

From: Anthropological Quarterly
Volume 83, Number 4, Fall 2010
pp. 839-859 | 10.1353/anq.2010.0023



This paper discusses the efficacy of applying a framework of universal human rights to resolve heritage conflicts. It considers the pitfalls and potentials in particular heritage settings for both archaeologists and the constituencies we seek to represent. A distinction is made throughout the paper between invoking universal human rights, as opposed to other rights or claims more broadly. Specifically, I ask what does the mantle of universal human rights bring to heritage? What additional work might it perform, and who wins and loses when archaeologists elevate cultural heritage to this arena of urgency? If archaeologists want to pursue this route, what steps might they take to be conversant with human rights and, more importantly, effective in practically implementing that knowledge? I then describe the situation in post-apartheid South Africa—a nation that has arguably crafted the world's most liberal constitution, yet in reality faces numerous challenges to instrumentalizing human rights. In terms of South African heritage rights, the archaeological site of Thulamela is offered as an example of conflict resolution at the local level by briefly examining the role of archaeologists and several connected communities each vying for access and ownership of the site. Following Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum I suggest that heritage practitioners might be more effective and ethically responsible by being attendant to pragmatic approaches that enhance human capabilities and human flourishing.