2016 Virtual Edition: Miia Halme-Tuomisaari

Postscript to Rights and Culture—Beyond Relativism?

Rights, culture—and then what?

My review article discusses three pivotal edited volumes that were published at the turn of the new millennium, jointly paving the way for the ‘frenzy’ or ‘re-engagement’ that came to characterize the anthropology of human rights a few years later. These volumes were Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives, edited by Jane Cowan, Marie-Bénédicte Dembour and Richard A. Wilson, Culture and the Question of Rights: Forests, Coasts, and Seas in Southeast Asia, edited by Charles Zerner, and At the Risk of Being Heard: Identity, Indigenous Rights, and Postcolonial States, edited by Bartholomew Dean and Jerome M. Levi (Cowan, Dembour, and Wilson 2001; Zerner 2003; Dean and Levi 2003).

Writing the review article was a somewhat bewildering task: the volumes in question are tremendously broad in scope, and feature an impressive number of scholars focusing on highly diverse ethnographic contexts, with a vast array of theoretical approaches and writing styles. Jointly this reflects the fact that at the time the sub-discipline lacked identifiable shared approaches for such an anthropological debate. Looking back at the lists of contributors today, it is interesting to note that for many authors, their chapter has formed perhaps the only instance in which they have discussed issues related to (human) rights, with notably few authors becoming household names in the debate.

I ended up classifying my review under three simple rubrics, echoing approaches introduced also by the volumes’ editors: right to culture; rights against culture, and rights as culture. This division was further linked to my scholarly trajectory and what I had learned of human rights ‘from the other side of the fence’, a.k.a. international law. An early Ph.D. student at the time, I attempted to articulate these insights so as to resonate with ongoing anthropological debates, albeit somewhat clumsily. More specifically, the first years of the new millennium had exposed me to both ‘mainstream’ human rights scholarship – via an educational context that eventually transformed into my fieldsite (Halme-Tuomisaari 2010) – as well as ongoing ‘crit’ debates: research embedded in the ‘critical international law’ tradition, also known as NAIL (New Approaches to International Law) or TWAIL (Third World Approaches to International Law).

I learned things of crucial importance from both contexts. Observing the first group in action illustrated how the ‘contemporary human rights phenomenon’, particularly at the global ‘centres’ of knowledge production and standard setting, was both created and still dominated by activist international lawyers. My observations concretized how this group had engaged in expansive interpretations of international and domestic legal instruments so as to forward the mission of legalizing human rights, and thus also to expand the contemporary human rights phenomenon more generally. It further forwarded a conception of ‘rights’ resonant with the rubric ‘rights to culture’: rights became cast as relatively static entities resting on a distinct ‘essence’, the proper significance of which could be teased out from existing human rights law by legal specialists (Halme-Tuomisaari 2010). This notion of rights was sharply contrasted by the ‘crit’ circles, who approached rights rather as open-ended legal fiction: as empty rhetorical vessels embodied in elaborate argumentative structures of international law, caught in an eternal struggle between utopian world change and apologetic realpolitik (Koskenniemi 2005). Rights were seen as being both ‘factoid’ and universal, and thus able to straddle the border of the law, becoming both law and reason for law (Kennedy 2002).

I was struck by how, of these groups, although the latter formed in my eyes a self-evident analytical companion, a much more common alliance formed between ‘mainstream’, ‘pro-human rights’ activist international lawyers and many anthropologists. This alliance became echoed, for example, in writings that attempted to discuss the universality of human rights or acceptable limits of multicultural jurisdiction – in other words, debates that considered whether culture was against rights, and if so, when and under what circumstances. The outcome of such attempts is well captured by Iris Jean-Klein and Annelise Riles in their 2005 PoLAR piece: such writings were more directed at considering what anthropologists could do for human rights – they were embedded in a quest for relevance – rather than vice versa (Jean‐Klein and Riles 2005). As was illustrated also by some of the chapters in the books under review, the outcome at times resulted in the kind of conceptual rigidity that lacked full analytical vigor – the kind of spark that anthropologists were directing at the concept of culture in that distinct, post-‘writing culture’ scholarly moment, for example.

Of course, I realized that many anthropologists were mobilizing human rights language in efforts to advocate for the land entitlements or (cultural) preservation of groups that they were studying ethnographically – the ‘right to culture’ – approach. This was, and remains, understandable considering the dire treatment that many indigenous groups were facing from mining companies, among others, as some chapters in the reviewed books testified. In analytical terms, rights were thus cast as instruments utilized in struggles toward distinct aims that had been illustrated via ethnography, such as the importance of traditional land ownership arrangements, instead of being the targets of ethnographic inquiries in themselves.

In addition to distinct analytical outcomes, this coalition of ‘mainstream pro-human rights scholarship’ and early anthropology of human rights embodied itself on occasion also in the power dynamics of the two engaged disciplines: we saw many anthropologists mixing up the roles of the expert and informant. In other words, whether in their writing or activist engagement, many anthropologists approached human rights actors linked to UN human rights bodies, for example, as authoritative experts on just what human rights were. By contrast, I continue to argue that human rights experts should above all form informants to anthropologists on the types of values and practices that are activated via human rights. Of course, as this Virtual Edition also testifies, we have seen ample anthropological works adopting such an approach since.

In analytical terms, this early anthropological alliance with ‘mainstream’ human rights scholarship often resulted in a kind of conceptual and intellectual rigidity in regards to the concept of rights that felt strange, outdated, even disappointing in light of debates on the critical legal side of the fence. A noteworthy exception remains Annelise Riles’s The Network Inside Out, as well as perhaps even more importantly her 1998 article, ‘Infinity within the Brackets’ (Riles 2001; Riles 1998). These two by-now classic pieces shed for the first time proper anthropological light on how human rights claims are made, as well as how the institutional and social dynamics at stake impact also what were otherwise treated as issues of ‘substance’. Of course, this becomes all the more understandable as we recall that Annelise Riles was herself too at one time part of the ‘crit’ circles, as she discussed in her American Anthropologist article of 2006 (Riles 2006).

I must admit that I was quite baffled by the general state of anthropological work on human rights in the early new Millennium. I never fully understood what the 1999 Statement by the AAA was all about as I have actually always found the Statement of 1947 to be rather on point. If one reads the 1947 text calmly, one hears a very classical anthropological voice reminding of the importance of genuine human diversity, and the challenges involved in attempts to articulate our shared universality via one single document, no matter how culturally sensitive (see American Anthropological Association 1947; Committee for Human Rights-AAA 1999). All these are issues that resonate very strongly with how the European Association of Social Anthropologists, for example, defined the core tasks and goals of our discipline just last year (Executive Committee-EASA 2015).

It was from the culmination point of these insights and puzzles that I, back in 2003, embarked on writing this review essay. Some of the articles in these volumes I still find inspirational; some have become more distant. Revisiting this review article today reminds me of how much, and how quickly, things have changed for our sub-discipline, and how much in our shared debate we get to take for granted today. It is difficult not to end my postscript in less pessimistic spirits than those of my co-authors – or perhaps not: the one good thing about having commenced my study of human rights with a ‘crit’ mindset – as an utterly fascinated, yet detached inquirer –is that I do not feel quite as affected by the undisputed fading of human rights ideology that we are witnessing around us as some other contributors to this Virtual Edition. Rather, this decline awakens continually intense analytical interest in me, simultaneously maintaining the ‘contemporary human rights phenomenon’ as an endlessly fascinating object of study.

None of this means that I am not alarmed by distinct world developments – the same developments, one might argue, also responsible for the decline of human rights in political rhetorics, policy making and diplomatic action. To the contrary. It is frightening how often we arrive at diverse parallels with World War II developments as we look around us, be it toward appalling European Union migration policies or the rise of populist right-wing politics. Simultaneously, as a professional community we are more equipped than ever before to engage analytically with these developments precisely because of our more nuanced and sophisticated take on human rights themselves. This includes our ability to approach human rights not as essentially ‘static’ or ‘pre-existing’ entities that form the opposite to prevailing global societal features, as many human rights advocates insist.

Rather, our contribution arrives from our ability to approach human rights – and the vast contemporary phenomenon that has formed around them – as distinct embodiments of modernity. To continue documenting and describing their multifaceted incarnations analytically, via tools that remain true to our own discipline, may prove to be the greatest service and source of relevance that the anthropological study of human rights can offer – and simultaneously the best defense for the diversity of mankind.


American Anthropological Association. 1947. “Statement on Human Rights.” American Anthropologist 49(4):539-543.

Committee for Human Rights, American Anthropological Association. 1999. “Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights,” accessed October 11, 2016.

Cowan, Jane K., Marie-Bénédicte Dembour, and Richard A. Wilson, eds. 2001. Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dean, Bartholomew, and Jerome M. Levi, eds.  2003. At the Risk of Being Heard: Identity, Indigenous Rights, and Postcolonial States. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Executive Committee, European Association of Social Anthropologists. 2015. “Why Anthropology Matters,” accessed October 11, 2016.

Halme-Tuomisaari, Miia. 2010. Human Rights in Action: Learning Expert Knowledge. Brill Academic Pub.

Jean‐Klein, Iris, and Annelise Riles. 2005. “Introducing Discipline.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 28(2):173-202.

Kennedy, Duncan. 2002. “The Critique of Rights.” In Left Legalism, Left Critique, Janet Halley and Wendy Brown, eds. Pp. 178–228. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Koskenniemi, Martti. 2005[1989]. From Apology to Utopia: The Structure of International Legal Argument. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Riles, Annelise. 1998. “Infinity Within the Brackets.” American Ethnologist 25(3):378-398.

— 2001. The Network Inside Out. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

— 2006. “Anthropology, Human Rights, and Legal Knowledge: Culture in the Iron Cage.” American Anthropologist 108(1):52-65.

Zerner, Charles, ed. 2003. Culture and the Question of Rights: Forests, Coasts, and Seas in Southeast Asia. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.