Wednesday, December 10, 2008

60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Yesterday marked the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Originally drafted on Dec. 10, 1948 by the UN, the declaration established a set of rights and freedoms entitled to all peoples and nations of the world.

The American Anthropological Association has developed a Declaration that we believe has universal relevance:

"People and groups have a generic right to realize their capacity for culture, and to produce, reproduce and change the conditions and forms of their physical, personal and social existence, so long as such activities do not diminish the same capacities of others. Anthropology as an academic discipline studies the bases and the forms of human diversity and unity; anthropology as a practice seeks to apply this knowledge to the solution of human problems.

As a professional organization of anthropologists, the AAA has long been, and should continue to be, concerned whenever human difference is made the basis for a denial of basic human rights, where "human" is understood in its full range of cultural, social, linguistic, psychological, and biological senses."

The AAA definition reflects a commitment to human rights consistent with international principles but not limited by them. Human rights is not a static concept. Our understanding of human rights is constantly evolving as we come to know more about the human condition. It is therefore incumbent on anthropologists to be involved in the debate on enlarging our understanding of human rights on the basis of anthropological knowledge and research.

Of course, there are some who attack the concept of universal rights as a Western construct, Barbara Crosette wrote in The Nation. Louise Arbour, former UN high commissioner for human rights, said, "Probably one of the existential issues in international human rights currently is the rise of cultural relativism and a pushback against the concept of universality." Some note that this view stems from governments in the US and Western Europe that more often observe human rights when it comes to freedom of conscience than to freedom of want.

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