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Historical and political relation of anthropology with human rights Essay

From the onset, it is necessary to define anthropology as the social science that is involved with studying the inherent relationship patterns and origins of human beings. As a juxtaposition, the concept of human rights refers to the intrinsic freedoms and rights to which all and sundry (human beings) are entitled, if only by virtue of belonging to the human race, and these are broadly categorized into two main classifications, including the socio-cultural and economic rights, which pertain to the rights to education, food, work and participate in culture.

The other distinct grouping of rights and freedoms are those of civil and political nature, encompassing the ideology of people being equal before the law, the right to liberty and life, and also, the freedom to freely express oneself, provided that this does not interfere with that of other people.

It is noteworthy that the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a non-binding declaration by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 – reiterates the equality of all humans as relates to their rights and dignity, further acknowledging that each individual was equipped with the vital tools of a rational conscience and logical reasoning, and thus, all subsequent inter-personal relationships ought to reflect a communal spirit of brotherly co-existence.

This cognition is widely viewed as being the framework for justice, peace and freedom in the globe today (Goodale, 2004:18-29). From a historical perspective, the anthropologist is more concerned with deciphering the linkage between the afore-mentioned rights and the prevailing localized cultures, from whence an understanding of the basic outline of social justice against a backdrop of cultural relativism is investigated.

The general concession is that indeed, deliberation into the historical aspects of anthropology reveals a contribution to both the practical and theoretical facets of human rights workings. Select case studies closely related to this postulation include the current crisis in the Middle East, pitting the Israelis against the inhabitants of the Gaza strip, the Rwandan genocide (Bowman, 2000:31-49) and the topical issue of gay rights in Southern Africa. The former predicament entails Israel devastating, over the recent past, a population of some 1. million inhabitants in Gaza, with their arms tied behind their backs, owing to the fact that there is no active army in Gaza. Statistics reveal that close to 1300 Palestinian casualties are on record, as opposed to a measly 13 Israelis in the raging conflict, largely regarded as a modern day case of ‘ethnic cleansing’. Since the year 2006, Israel placed a blockade into the Gaza region, thus inhibiting the delivery of necessities such as medicine, food and fuel.

Previous attempts to foster harmony and well-being in the region, with cease-fires being disrespected severally, have led up to the present situation in which the stakeholders in the conflict, chief amongst which is the Hamas, the Islamic Palestinian socio-political faction that has been in control of the Gaza strip, and Israel itself, have agreed to permanently seek a lasting solution to avoid more bloodshed.

The possible recommendations to aid in arriving at a peaceful co-existence is scenario where Israel takes the front row in ensuring a sense of hope to the Palestinians, via the action of taking the political risk and dismantling the illegal West Bank Settlements. On their part, Palestinians should institute measures to ensure they elect purposive leaders into power, if only to militate against the eventuality of history repeating itself iteratively.

Hamas should in turn cease firing missiles into Israel, which only serve to wound and kill majority of the innocent civilians, and the large scale smuggling of arms, so as to avoid the likelihood of the situation degenerating into another “United States versus Al Qaeda” affair. Also, the other stakeholders in the conflict, namely Jordan and Egypt, should seal all loopholes that enable the military exploits of the Hamas to fall through.

This being said, the International community should actively ensure they do not turn a deaf ear to the conflict, to be spearheaded by the United Nations and the European Union. The latter, in detail, involved South Africa holding its second, fully democratic elections in the year 1999, which were characterized by the recognition of a wide array of groups and previously neglected factions of the population, such as the gay and lesbian community.

Earlier on, the country made history by pioneering non-discrimination on the basis of an individual’s sexual orientation, with gay and lesbian activists championing their cause by widely challenging the very constitutionality of laws that infringed on their freedoms, organizing workshops to educate voters on their rights, plus lobbying for the drafting and resultant implementation of rules and legislations guaranteeing equity in the rights of all citizens (Goodale, 2004:43-54).

They also went a step further and created working relationships with non-governmental organizations like the Human Rights Commission and the Commission on Gender Equality, in addition to forming outreach programmes for the members of the gay and lesbian community, especially those that lived in townships. Of particular note is the fact that sodomy has been decriminalized before the South African courts, thus recording another victory in the war for adequate recognition of this community.

Of significance is the assertion that, these developments were achieved even with the realization that the South African populace was still divided along ethnic and racial boundaries (Riches, 1986:16-29), and more importantly, within the indigenous cultural groupings in the country, homosexuality is deemed non-existent, or on the best case scenario, a foreign acquisition. Thus, in a nutshell, this case study can be assessed from the view that it not only shapes social patterns, but also, it is instrumental in the democratization of regimes, as influenced by the civil society.

Yet another occurrence was witnessed in an iconic court case in Japan (2008), involving the challenging of the historical definition of whom the concept of “human rights” is meant to apply. The immediate bone of contention was that the court of the day had proceeded to expand the rights of the children of Japanese fathers and non-Japanese mothers to claim Japanese citizenship, and thus by extension, such definition by the justices in the case served to only ensure the protection of the fundamental human rights of Japanese citizens, excluding those of other non-citizens.

In this way, this can be said to expressly alienate those people who did not have papers certifying their Japanese citizenship. However, this ought not to be the case, as the rights in question should be guaranteed to every human being, as the very name suggests. In a publication by one Professor Jones regarding this case, he posits that there is a sorry state of affairs in Japan, citing that the tendency of the Sovereign state to mediate the citizens’ claims against each other should be sharply contrasted against the Anglo-American system, which is characterized by human rights being the limiting factor of the state’s power over individuals.

In this way, the case is illustrative of how culture and history can affect and/or influence human rights in society (Kurtz, 2001: 43-52). Whilst still appreciating the historical contribution of anthropology to human rights, it is worthwhile to take mention of the concept of hegemony, defined as the utter domination of a state over its allies, and how this has over time influenced historical changes, especially on the cultural frontier.

As a focal point, hegemony facilitates the comprehension of power within the confines of routine daily activities, as may be underpinned by cultural (customary) practices (Asad, 1991:13-27). On a more positive note, it is fit to state that the anthropological theory has over the years succeeded to come up with a contested, unbounded and widely flexible supposition of the term, which consequently goes a long way in uncovering the cultural understandings and how these in turn shape power relations, naturalizing domination and acting to suppress different manifestations of resistance in the society (Gledhill, 2000:29-44).

Again, drawing from the South African example, although in a different context, it can be established that, quite ironically, the evangelical work of missionaries can be termed as being part of hegemony, although it heightened societal consciousness, going on to spark a form of resistance that gave rise to the awareness of the black community, fuelling the fight against apartheid.

Of particular contention is the debate whether, as an interpretive issue, resistance in society should require consciousness and be collective in nature, or whether on the other hand, an end of attaining justice should be envisioned from the onset. Also, it is disputable whether the concept at hand should be extended to incorporate such actions as may be influenced by a sense of non-cooperation or discontent. In the recent past, there has been great agitation in the anthropological circles, wherein the concept of culture has been scrutinized in detail.

Earlier anthropologists focused chiefly on societies that were virtually unaffected by factors such as colonial influences, for example, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel since, today, greater emphasis is being laid on flexibility of the frame of thought of culture, as afore-mentioned, now not only being affiliated to habits and daily practices of a people, but also, being engrained in the values they abide to and the ideas subscribed to.

In other instances, there have been historical documentations of indigenous communities confronting resistance from the perspective of laying claim to various resources, more so when these individuals are challenged to prove an authentic affiliation to the culture under consideration (Rejali, 1994:49-60); disqualification usually results from the assertion that certain social groups have already undergone cultural changes.

In a strange twist, it can be seen that the concept of ‘culture’, as formulated by twentieth century anthropologists in a bid to champion the rights of small-scale communities in the wake of colonialism and other civilizing projects, has in present times been apposite to differing political ends of resisting reform in certain sectors and turning a deaf ear to the claims of indigenous people’s claims to reparation (compensation). On a transitional note, the political inclination of anthropology to human rights can be deduced by critical analysis of the two disciplines (Cohen, 1978:34-57).

Such relationship necessitates a vivid conception of the said human rights within a template of anthropologically conceived ideas or principles. A brief intermission here is the appreciation that, as an academic discipline, anthropology seeks to study the various forms and bases of human unity and relative diversity, while the other side of this coin practically applies the acquired knowledge to actively solve problems that may plague the human race (Gledhill, 2000:59-83).

This being the situation, politically-oriented anthropologists should concern themselves with instances where the denial of certain rights is pegged on the differences in one human aspect or the other. The validity of using ‘human difference’ as an indicator of human rights is that it incorporates the very specificity of what we as humans – be it collectively or from an individual stance – have evolved to be, both culturally and socially.

It is worth noting that the term ‘difference’, as applied in this context, refers to the linguistic, socio-cultural and/or biological characteristics of people, relative to the initial human capacities that facilitated their production in the first place. On the flipside, as may relate to human rights, these ‘differences’ may principally represent the products of the realization of social relations, personal identities and cultural forms (Goodale, 2004:98-110). The general implication of the above argumentation is that specific human rights may be advocated for by calling upon the trans-cultural, but positive, right to difference.

This analogy can be stretched further still by acknowledging the unwritten law that anthropologists who study and research instances of societal injustices and assorted cases of human rights abuses do, in the actual sense, bear an ethical obligation to find lasting solutions to these predicaments. In particular, those working with marginal and/or indigenous communities shoulder the responsibility of supporting these groups by all means available, including advocacy as mentioned above (Fried, 1967:61-69).

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