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Abstract

Anthropology has had a curious and contested disciplinary relationship with the postwar human rights project. This article analyzes the history of this relationship from the period of the drafting of the University Declaration of Human Rights to the present. After describing both political and critical approaches to human rights by anthropologists, the article discusses contemporary anthropology of human rights that emerged after the end of the Cold War. This article reviews the major topics and areas of theoretical contribution in the anthropology of human rights and concludes with a discussion of future directions.
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While the rhetoric of human rights is now globally pervasive, the reality of rights implementation patently lags behind and violations continue to escalate worldwide. An examination of recent books demonstrates that rights talk occupies an increasingly central place in all subfields of anthropology. Problematically, anthropologists are excessively invoking “human rights” to imply a higher order of magnitude for the cases they study than if those cases were framed in terms of other rights and claims. Labeling everything a fundamental human right is detrimental to both ethics and accuracy, especially in the face of acknowledged differences in cultural and historical contexts.
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This article represents a search for a different analytical language through which anthropology can engage with human rights. This effort is intended to contribute to what is an expanding range of ways in which anthropologists conceptualize, advocate for, and critique contemporary human rights. Its central argument is that current ethnographic studies of human rights practices can be used as the basis for making innovative claims within human rights debates that take place outside of anthropology itself. To do this, ethnographic description that captures the contradictions and contingencies at the heart of human rights practices is not enough. What is needed is a different understanding of how the idea of human rights comes to be formed in context. In this article, I suggest several possible ways that an anthropological philosophy of human rights can accomplish this. I conclude by locating this approach in relation to a longer history of anthropological skepticism toward universalist discourses.
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How do transnational ideas such as human rights approaches to violence against women become meaningful in local social settings? How do they move across the gap between a cosmopolitan awareness of human rights and local sociocultural understandings of gender and family? Intermediaries such as community leaders, nongovernmental organization participants, and social movement activists play a critical role in translating ideas from the global arena down and from local arenas up. These are people who understand both the worlds of transnational human rights and local cultural practices and who can look both ways. They are powerful in that they serve as knowledge brokers between culturally distinct social worlds, but they are also vulnerable to manipulation and subversion by states and communities. In this article, I theorize the process of translation and argue that anthropological analysis of translators helps to explain how human rights ideas and interventions circulate around the world and transform social life.