Afterword: A Post-Human Rights Anthropology of Human Rights?

by Julie Billaud

A relatively recent object of anthropological inquiry, human rights have become over the past twenty years an expanding field of study among anthropologists. Re-reading the articles selected for this Virtual Edition, the era of rejection that followed the 1947 AAA statement on human rights published in American Anthropologist seems to be well over. Because of the exponential increase of anthropological writings on the topic, attempting to map out general patterns from a series of articles published in one anthropology journal is inevitably a somewhat random exercise. Besides, selecting one specific journal inevitably leaves out a great number of crucial authors, as well as methodological experiments and theoretical approaches. In this Afterword, I will thus attempt to reflect on the bigger picture of the anthropology of human rights, building on the articles selected from PoLAR.

In their introduction, Halme-Tuomisaari and Clark refer to three generations of anthropology of human rights that seem to be reckoned basically in terms of (1) a ‘legalistic’ approach to human rights, which are embraced for their liberating and emancipatory potential after a long period of rejection following the 1947 AAA statement (Danforth), (2)  a re-anchoring of human rights within specifically anthropological concerns and debates, notably around the notion of culture and a focus on their fluid inscription within local repertoires of meaning and practices (Merry, Sierra, Halme-Tuomisaari), and finally (3) a turn to less classic fieldwork in international organizations and institutions of global governance, analysing the social production of documents, policies and bureaucratic subjectivities (Ballestero, Schia, Babül).

If we follow this logic, future work in this sub-field could be marked by an even more radical move away from approaches seeking to analyze human rights effects ‘on the ground’. In a context where the great utopias of the twentieth century seem to have vanished, leaving us in an ideological vacuum, human rights appear to have become a mere form shaped by bureaucratic procedures instead of a ‘real’ thing with the potential of achieving the good in the world. Writing this Afterword from Kinshasa, Congo – a country where the war economy has become a self-sustaining system and where I am currently conducting fieldwork in the context of a broader research project on humanitarianism – this impression of failure is, of course, exacerbated. However, other examples such as the incapacity of the UN Security Council to put an end to the total war currently waged against Aleppo civilians, force us to further scrutinize the institutions of global governance whose promises of international justice have been unmet.

In other words, the future anthropology of human rights is likely to be shaped by the harsh realization that there is nothing left of human rights except the bureaucratic activities that they generate. The pessimistic tone of the postscripts written for this collection tends to confirm this intuition and reflect the more recent turn of the discipline toward the study of harsh dimensions of social life (power, domination, inequality and oppression) – what Sherry Ortner (2016) calls ‘dark anthropology’ in a recent article in HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory.

In this Afterword, I intend to push this reflection further by following the path opened by Iris Jean-Klein and Annelise Riles in their programmatic article published in PoLAR in 2005, a rather visionary article considering the fact that it was written more than ten years ago, at a time when anthropologists’ engagement with the political project of human rights was broadly perceived as unproblematic and even necessary. I use some of their observations to 1) review past and current anthropological literature on human rights and 2) suggest new possible approaches to the anthropology of human rights.

Jean-Klein and Riles recommend considering the study of human rights administrations as an entry point into a broader reflection on the limits/end points of our discipline. Instead of focusing their attention on the various ways in which anthropology can be relevant to human rights, they start from the outside/in and ask: how can the study of human rights help us rethink the methods and epistemology of our discipline? Jean-Klein and Riles map out the various ethical postures anthropologists have adopted to assert the relevance of anthropological knowledge in this relatively new field of study. They identify two major trends (de-construction and co-construction) in the existing literature and advocate for a new one (disciplined description).

The articles selected for this Virtual Edition can be placed along the spectrum proposed by Jean-Klein and Riles’s typology. Because from the outset anthropologists have been ambivalent toward the ethos of ‘universal human rights’, the texts gathered here illustrate their endeavour to find a legitimate position of relevance, not only toward their informants and human rights projects but also toward the discipline itself.

This quest for relevance is unpacked in Miia Halme-Tuomisaari’s essay reviewing the writings of Cowan, Dembour, and Wilson (2001), Dean and Levi (2003) as well as Zerner (2003). Engaging with the classic debate on “cultural relativism vs universalism” that has long preoccupied anthropologists of human rights, the author reminds us that it is precisely because rights stand in tension with what constitutes a core field of concern for anthropology, namely ‘culture’, that anthropology has been and still is ambiguously positioned toward human rights. If anthropologists have historically been keen to defend a right to human difference and specificity, aware as they are that culture is rarely a matter of choice and is always entangled in broader social relations and power structures, they have simultaneously remained wearied of processes that tend to fix cultures and present them as ‘bounded wholes’. This moral dilemma between their desire to improve the world around them and their awareness of the constraints imposed by human rights frameworks, Halme-Tuomisaari argues in her postscript, has led many anthropologists to mix up the role of the expert and the informant, and lose sight of ‘human rights’ as a distinct culture requiring anthropological inquiry.

Anthropologists’ re-engagement with human rights and their gradual commitment to the political project they could potentially embody has largely contributed to this blurring of boundaries. In this sense, Teresa Sierra’s account of her personal engagement with minorities produces an ambiguous result. While problematizing the cultural instrumentalism and moral individualism that underpin dominant liberal conceptions of multiculturalism – where the option of ‘opting out of culture’ is presented as a matter of individual choice – her position as a ‘witness’ simultaneously presents the iterative shortcoming identified by Jean-Klein and Riles. By implicitly grounding her ethos in the supposed healing power of ‘breaking the silence’, the anthropologist-witness relies on the same neoliberal logics of most human rights machineries, drawing on victims’ subjective experience of discrimination in order to produce an authoritative narrative on the root causes of violations. Such a ‘witness position’ and the work of co-construction more generally carry the danger of marginalizing other forms of agency where silence is actively sought as a means to ‘secure the everyday’ (Das 2000) .

As a long-term activist for indigenous rights in Chiapas, Shannon Speed is perhaps the anthropologist who has best managed to overcome the iterative bias (Speed 2006) by transforming the relationship between the anthropologist and her informants/collaborators into one of epistemic partners. The insights she gained via her involvement with indigenous communities and human rights activists in Chiapas provide for an empirically rich and theoretically sophisticated account of the ambiguous effects of human rights discourses. Used by the Mexican state, Speed explains that human rights have been a means to circumvent and limit indigenous autonomy. But she also demonstrates that their appropriation by the Zapatistas has been part of a broader strategy to challenge the neoliberal framework of governance that sustained their marginalization. If the article she published in PoLAR in 2005 focuses on the double edged nature of human rights discourses, highlighting their capacity to serve both emancipatory projects and conservative political purposes, the postscript she wrote in the context of this Virtual Edition leaves us with a less optimistic picture. Eleven years later, Speed arrives at the bitter conclusion that none of the promises of multiculturalism, even under its watered-down neoliberal version, have materialized. Even worse, she suggests a state of affairs that would have shifted from “neoliberal multiculturalism” to an all-encompassing condition of illegality, what she calls “neoliberal multicriminalism”. Unfortunately, the dynamics she describes are not restricted to Mexico. In Afghanistan and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (to name only two contexts where I carried out fieldwork), the borders between the legal and the illegal have been blurred by the state’s lethal labour of ‘law fare’ – the judicialization of politics and the resort to legal instruments to commit acts of political coercion – to use John Comaroff’s expression.

The case of the People’s International Tribunal in Hawai’i that Merry documents is another fine illustration of anthropologists’ distinct skills for revealing the multiple and ambiguous meanings derived from international legal proceedings. Like Speed’s, Merry’s work is a nuanced analysis of the multifarious ways in which global legal discourses and practices are locally appropriated. Her postscript is nevertheless equally marked by a sense of worry toward the hegemony of the law in mediating social relations and the increasing resort to indicators in the global governance of the world. In the process of spreading these dominant forms of truth making, she concludes, the moral claims on which human rights were initially grounded, may well have been lost.

The disconnect between the explicit aims of human rights institutions, the bureaucratic apparatuses and technologies that they set in motion and the increasingly harsh reality of life under neoliberal governance around the world, reveals the moral faultlines of human rights and their structural incapacity to bring about global justice. Recent ethnographic accounts of the asylum regime in Greece (Cabot 2014), the peace process in Northern Ireland (Curtis 2014), human rights activism in Palestine (Allen 2013), and my own work on gender politics in ‘post-war/reconstruction’ Afghanistan (Billaud 2015a), are just a few examples of the unmet promises of human rights and of the neoliberal smoke screen they tend to provide for global inequalities.

Going back to Jean-Klein and Riles’s piece, these observations invite us to revisit their proposal for a more disciplined anthropology. In their view, a valid ethical position for anthropologists is to remain true to the discipline itself by ‘holding back’ and maintaining the right distance with our informants so that they can process their knowledge through us. By sticking firmly to what they call this ‘echolocation’, anthropologists widen the scope of possibility for remaining puzzled by the fact that actors interacting in the field of human rights apply their own concepts. This form of care for our own discipline, Jean-Klein and Riles argue, is ‘the ethnographic analog of promoting human rights’ (p. 190).

In my view, the last three articles included in this volume are the ones that most directly follow this agenda, by turning the gaze onto the very sites where ‘human rights’ knowledge is produced. Ballestero, Schia and Babül abandon the tradition of ‘giving voice to victims’ and focus instead on the mundane bureaucratic work of human rights practitioners and their subjectivities, therefore experimenting with the method of ‘collateral knowledge’ production for which Jean-Klein and Riles advocate. In these pieces, the people they study, far from being a source of raw data, are involved in professional practices very similar to the ones of anthropologists: having accumulated a considerable level of expertise as civil servants (Babül), human rights activists (Ballestero) or diplomats (Schia), they also produce critique and social analysis (see also Cowan and Billaud 2017). It is precisely this absence of fundamental epistemic difference that forces us to take anthropologists’ concern for relevance outside-in and consider how human rights administrations can help us rethink the epistemic and methodological foundations of the discipline itself. In Jean-Klein and Riles’s view, only an anthropology that remains true to itself and its primary heuristic: disciplined description and engagement, can overcome the challenges caused by human rights as an object of study. In other words, Jean-Klein and Riles encourage us to abandon the activist position and return to the wondrous mindset that underpins the ‘uncertainty principle of anthropology’ (Col 2013, xiii). By doing so, anthropologists might be better prepared to answer more fundamental questions about the nature of the modern human condition with its compulsive drive to constantly rationalise (Halme-Tuomisaari 2010), measure (Merry 2011) and audit (Cowan 2015; Anders 2015; Hetherington 2011) the world.

By exploring ‘good governance’ mechanisms put in place in the context of state reforms and greater NGOs’ transparency, Ballestero and Babül highlight the carnivalesque and performative dimensions of international governance mechanisms which promote the liberal idea of change for Western audiences and donors while hiding the continuity of injustice at the ‘local’ level (De Lauri and Billaud 2015). Based on long-term fieldwork among Turkish bureaucrats targeted by human rights training programs launched in the context of the EU accession process, Babül explores state representatives’ vexed relationship to human rights and the nationalist backlash that ensued as a result.  In her postscript, Babül explains that these tensions already prefigured the Turkish state’s current authoritarian shift, whereby the legitimacy of the emergency measures put in place after the failed coup of this summer is asserted by mobilizing the very same populist arguments. Paradoxically, reform of the state through sensitization to human rights can go hand-in-hand with the implementation of armed securitization policies.

This ‘dark side’ of utopia can also be found in Schia’s work among Norwegian diplomats at the UN Security Council. Building on classic social analysis of group dynamics and focusing on the everyday, Schia shows that state representatives’ desire to ‘be part of the parade’ triggers a renunciation to national interest in favour of dominant ones within the Council: a rather disastrous dynamic in light of post 9/11 polarizing world politics and the tragic events currently unfolding in the Middle East and elsewhere. This rather unconventional fieldwork is also an opportunity to experiment with methods, following networks between Oslo and New York, instead of remaining rooted within one specific location.

Finally, Ballestero investigates the efforts of a Costa Rican NGO and local residents to ‘make themselves transparent’ in order to obtain the funding necessary to reclaim their human right to water. Her account of how these actors both subvert and reproduce the neoliberal logic of the audit in order to remain in control of the story coming out of it is a rather refreshing one. Indeed, by focusing on the making of the audit instead of its outcomes, Ballestero is able to document the rich and complex social dynamics (including the liberating laughter they trigger) through which such a technology of governance acquires its ultimate form. By following the production of highly opaque forms of knowledge, Ballestero is not only able to document the bureaucratic culture of human rights projects but also to explore how people think and act inside the procedural constraints of such projects. This approach enables her to move beyond the Weberian aporia according to which bureaucratic control is unidirectional and absolute, or Foucault’s exclusive emphasis on the discursive and disciplinary aspects of governance, by giving a more nuanced view of the social dynamics at work in an increasingly complex and highly technocratic world.

These three examples of disciplined engagement with human rights and the administrations of international governance are emblematic of anthropologists’ newfound interest in giving a human face to global political processes, revealing the experiences and moral commitments—infused with hopes, ideals, and frustrations—at the origin of official findings and the recommendations of policy papers. By conceiving institutions of global governance as social worlds with distinct characters, these ethnographies invite anthropologists to adopt a new gaze and to look at the many small (including mundane bureaucratic, institutional and administrative) activities, which collectively contribute to making human rights ‘real’ in the world (Billaud 2015b).  It also requires additional efforts to remain surprised by practices that can initially appear insignificant and even at times ‘boring’ too.

Keeping in mind this recent scholarship, the future anthropology of human rights might entail going a step further by analyzing the forms of beliefs and values on which bureaucratic work relies. A daring, but potentially illuminating move, could be to revisit traditional anthropological theories of ‘magic’ in order to deconstruct the principle of ‘objectivity’ mobilized to justify the multiplication of audits, monitoring and reporting practices. In order to find answers to the aporia of modernity, unpacking the value system that sustains the fetishisation of documents (and their almost supernatural power), the infinite bureaucratic rituals that accompany their production (meetings, conferences, etc.) would be a productive way to challenge this narrative of rationalization. An in-depth exploration of the ‘secular rituals’ carried out in international organizations, of their symbolic meaning and societal effects could provide an original anthropological insight on the political imaginaries cutting across these world reforming institutions.


Allen, Lori. 2013. The Rise and Fall of Human Rights: Cynicism and Politics in Occupied Palestine. Stanford University Press.

Anders, Gerhard. 2015. “The Normativity of Numbers in Practice: Technologies of Counting, Accounting and Auditing in Malawi’s Civil Service Reform.” Social Anthropology 23(1):29‑41.

Billaud, Julie. 2015a. Kabul Carnival: Gender Politics in Post-war Afghanistan. University of Pennsylvania Press.

— 2015b. “Keepers of the Truth: Producing ‘Transparent’ Documents for the Universal Periodic Review.” In Human Rights and the Universal Periodic Review: Rituals and Ritualism, Hilary Charlesworth and Emma Larking, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cabot, Heath. 2014. On the Doorstep of Europe: Asylum and Citizenship in Greece. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Col, Giovanni da. 2013. “Strathern Bottle: On Topology, Ethnographic Theory, and the Method of Wonder.” HAU: Masterclass Series 2.

Cowan, Jane K., and Julie Billaud. 2017. “The ‘Public’ Character of the Universal Periodic Review: Contested Concept and Methodological Challenge.” In Palaces of Hope: The Anthropology of Global Institutions, Ronald Niezen and Maria Sapignoli, eds. Cambridge University Press.

Cowan, Jane K. 2015. “The Universal Periodic Review as a Public Audit Ritual: An Anthropological Perspective on Emerging Practices in the Global Governance of Human Rights.” In Human Rights and the Universal Periodic Review: Rituals and Ritualism, Hilary Charlesworth and Emma Larking, eds.  Cambridge University Press.

Cowan, Jane K., Marie-Bénédicte Dembour, and Richard Wilson. 2001. Culture and Rights. Cambridge University Press.

Curtis, Jennifer. 2014. Human Rights as War by Other Means: Peace Politics in Northern Ireland. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Das, Veena. 2000. “The Act of Witnessing: Violence, Poisonous Knowledge, and Subjectivity.” In Violence and Subjectivity. University of California Press.

De Lauri, Antonio, and Julie Billaud. 2015. “Humanitarian Theatre: The Ordinary and the Carnivalesque in Afghanistan.” In The Politics of Human Rights: Security, Aid and the Hidden Agendas of Humanitarianism, Antonio De Lauri, ed. I.B. Tauris.

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

Halme-Tuomisaari, Miia. 2010. Human Rights in Action: Learning Expert Knowledge. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. Leiden: Brill.

Hetherington, Kregg. 2011. Guerrilla Auditors: The Politics of Transparency in Neoliberal Paraguay. Duke University Press.

Merry, Sally Engle. 2011. “Measuring the World: Indicators, Human Rights, and Global Governance.” Current Anthropology 52(S3):S83‑95.

Ortner, Sherry B. 2016. “Dark Anthropology and Its Others: Theory since the Eighties.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6(1):47‑73.

Speed, Shannon. 2006. “At the Crossroads of Human Rights and Anthropology: Toward a Critically Engaged Activist Research.” American Anthropologist 108(1):66‑76.

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

Recommended Citation

Billaud, Julie. Afterword: A Post-Human Rights Anthropology of Human Rights? PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review Online, November 2016,