Evelyn Kallen
Department of
Profile Publications Research


Dr. Evelyn Kallen

Ph.D., F.R.S.C.

Professor Emeritus of Social Science and Anthropology


The contribution of anthropology to international human rights


Reports from all kinds of media continually give accounts of World Chaos. Wars, gun violence, human trafficking, rape and murder of women, child slave labour and so on. These are extreme violations of human rights. This paper will attempt to describe the international framework of human rights under the UN, which is designed to prevent such atrocities.


Under current United Nations human rights instruments, treaties, conventions, declarations etc., human rights are held to be internationally endorsed moral principles, which apply equally to all human beings without distinction.


All human beings belong to the same biological species, homo sapiens, which identify them as human and distinguish them from other species of animals on earth.


All human beings can stand and walk erect. All share a highly developed brain capable of abstract reasoning and capable of culture and language building.


The biological unity of human kind means that all human beings are equally hhuman. No human being is less or more human being than other.


There are of course many observable (and not observable) differences in characteristics of different individuals and groups within the human species.

Physical anthropologists have demonstrated that the biological affinities between human groups within the species are far greater and more significant than differences between them. Accordingly all human beings as such share the same fundamental human rights.


International human rights principles are prior to law. As it has been amply demonstrated through out time, laws can protect human rights but they can also violate them.


Hitler’s laws during WW2 in Germany sentencing Jews death in extermination camps led to genocide of more than 6 million European Jews under the Nazi regime.

Indeed it was these atrocities, which sparked the development of the present international UN human rights system.


The very first UN declaration in 1948 was the identification of genocide – the deliberate attempt to exterminate people - as a crime against humanity. Also in 1948 the universal declaration of human rights came into being and this declaration established three cardinal of fundamental principles of human rights. They are freedom (freedom to decide), equality (equality of opportunity) and dignity (respect for each and every human individual).


Human rights are not absolute. As moral principles, fundamental human rights can be said to be inalienable rights, but they are not absolute: in the exercise of his or hers fundamental human rights, each human being must not violate; indeed must respect the fundamental rights of others. Human rights, then, are not unconditional: they are conditional on the exercise of social responsibilities or duties to others.


There is no hierarchy of human rights. All rights are of equal value, and none is absolute. The key to resolving the issue of rights in conflict lies in the social dimensions of human rights: all human rights entail social responsibilities. In a situation where rights are in conflict, what must be determined is the relative harm to society or good to society of each choice.


Twin principles of human rights:


Universal principles of human rights are rutted in the dual nature of human kind - biological unity and cultural diversity. The unity principle underscores fundamental individual human rights; the diversity principle underscores collective cultural (group) rights.


Every human being is born into a cultural community with the distinctive language and culture. No human being is born into a cultural void. The development of language and culture unique to human kind requires that human beings communicate and interact with other human beings within the same culture.


              Culture (ethno culture) refers to the dis­tinctive ways of viewing and doing things--eating, dressing, speaking, worshiping, loving, making a living, governing themselves-- shared by members of a particular people, (ethnic group), and transmitted by them from one generation to the next; it is the unique design for living of a particular ethnic community.  


              Social and cultural anthropologists have demonstrated that in the past before invention of modern means of transportation and communication, geographical barriers like mountains and oceans separated populations living in different areas of the world. In order to survive, widely dispersed peoples adapted their ways of living to suit very different geographical areas and environments. A key characteristic of human beings is that they are highly flexible and adaptable creatures. Different human populations, making use of the resources available in their particular locales, have developed a broad range of distinctive cultures and communities, each adapted to its particular environment. 


               What does this cultural aspect of being human mean when we are considering the ideal of universal human rights? Put simply, it means that the collective rights of all of the world’s peoples and cultures, like the individual rights of all human beings, without distinction must be equally recognized and respected.  Just as there is no hierarchy for fundamental individual rights, there is no hierarchy of cultural rights.  Members of every ethno cultural community have a collective right to express their culturally distinctive ways of viewing and doing things, together with other members of their community. As a community, they have the right to speak in their own language, to practice their own religion, to cherish and carry on their own customs. But, the same proviso that limits individual rights applies to group rights…the cultural practices of any human group must not violate fundamental, universal principles of human rights. This applies both to relations among members of the same cultural community and between members of different cultural communities.


              Today, many countries across the world are home to a variety of different peoples, coming from many different places, each with their own distinctive ways of life (ethno cultures). And, the countries accommodating them are commonly referred to as “multicultural” societies.


              This multicultural context sometimes leads to a situation of rights in conflict - not a conflict of individual rights, but a conflict of collective, cultural rights. In democratic, multicultural societies, all citizens must obey the laws of their country. But sometimes, these laws come into conflict with the traditional laws or customary religious practices of members of particular ethno cultural communities. For example: The custom of Muslim women wearing the Jihab to cover their face in the presence of non-related adult males conflicts with the Canadian law which requires that a person face must be visible when they are giving testimony in court.


This example highlights the dilemma posed by cultural rights in conflict.


Another factor, which complicates the situation, is inequalities in power between different groups in society. World chaos then can come from the attempt of one government to impose its will and it’s cultures on others. This can happen within society or between societies. In the case of governments these are authorities with more power than the people they impose on are easily able to violate their fundamental human right. This violation of their human rights often leads to minority protest movements against the oppressors.

A stark current example is the Idle No More aboriginal rights movement. The government of Canada has violated the treaties with aboriginal people, has usurped their lands, relocated and resourced the poor areas and destroyed their cultures (what some anthropologists refers to as a cultural genocide). As a result, Canada’s aboriginals peoples – first nations Metis and Inuit – now live in object poverty in reserves or settlements often without water, without schools and without any opportunities for advancements. The suicide rate of aboriginal youth is 10 times higher than the national average rate in Canada.


The refusal of the Canadian government to meet with aboriginal leaders to discuss this situation has given rise to the Idle No More aboriginal rights movement – a movement, which Canadian anthropology strongly supports.


If human beings respected the UN declarations on Human Rights instead of violating them, we would not have this chaos in the world. Instead, we would have a peace and harmony.









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