Creative Scholar &
Professional Intellectual

NEW PUBLICATION: New paradoxes in Human Rights

It’s always a pleasure to see the fruit of hard labour in print! This time it’s a particular joy to welcome along with my chapter the entire SAGE Handbook of Cultural Anthropology – an impressive resource which will hopefully be useful for students & scholars alike.

My short essay on ‘Contemporary critical dynamics’ discusses new paradoxes of human rights contextualised around the theme of movement – which I have been working on for a while (and which will be a part of a book that will be ready one day!)

In particular I reflect on how the Covid-19 pandemic may alter our visions & practices of world improvement, and the consequences that increasing global focus on sustainability has on activism for human rights.

New Paradoxes in Human Rights, Introduction (SAGE Handbook of Cultural Anthropology, 2021)

In the spring of 2020, the world has been brought to an unprecedented standstill in a collective fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Things that only weeks before felt like the imaginings of post-apocalyptic science fiction have been normalized, leaving metropoles desolate and transforming an ordinary trip to the local supermarket into the epitome of adventure. 

While no one knows how long this current state of exception – formally declared in numerous nations – will last, many are already casting their gaze to the future. Compelling questions are directed towards the economy: how long will it take before the production and circulation of goods recover? Via what kind of actions could this be facilitated, both at national and international levels? 

Whereas many such reflections echo an attempt to deduce how we could return to an earlier state of ‘normalcy’, a growing number of voices are questioning whether this will happen:

will what awaits for us after the pandemic instead be a reality that has forever changed – a new ‘normal’, the exact composition of which nobody knows or can accurately predict?

One central theme of the questions being asked concerns issues of movement. Facilitated movement of capital and goods, accompanied by the meticulously regulated movement of people, have been defining features of our globalized post-Second World War era, engraved, for example, in the founding of the European Union. 

In his classic 2001 essay, ‘The Anthropology of the State in the Age of Globalization’, Michel-Rolph Trouillot discusses how movement is an integral part of capitalism, due to its necessity to remain forever in ‘motion’: ‘to cross borders inasmuch as it must find new places to integrate into the sphere of capital’ (Trouillot, 2001). 

Tim Ingold takes the idea of movement a step further as he phrases ‘[w]herever there is life there is movement’ (Ingold, 2011: 72). Simultaneously, the collective pace in the world has continuously accelerated, concretizing what Lars Hylland Eriksen characterizes as overheating  (Eriksen, 2016).

Accelerated movement – and its abrupt halt with the COVID-19 pandemic – are also defining features of post-Second World War international human rights.

This chapter reflects on the role of movement in UN human rights monitoring, as well as what the COVID-19 pandemic reveals of the novel challenges characterizing human rights, and anthropological reflections thereof.

Importantly, although the urgency of these questions has been intensified by the pandemic, they are nonetheless emblematic of long trajectories. During the past decade, there has been a direct backlash againsthuman rights in numerous states, embodied both by sidelining of them in policy making and political rhetoric, as well as direct attacks by various populist politicians (Speed, 2016).

These developments have challenged the triumphs achieved in human rights from many perspectives for a brief period at the end of the Cold War. Second, the monitoring mechanisms of the UN have suffered from recurrently decreasing resources for a significant period of time (Halme-Tuomisaari, 2020). This, in turn, has created a dire need to economize the operations of the treaty bodies (Geneva Academy, 2020). Proposed budget cuts also earlier posed threats of temporary shutdowns (New York Times, 2019). 

Finally, there is an undoubted ideological shift happening globally such that attention has moved away from human rights and towards sustainability, paired with a concern for climate change.

This ideology, in turn, is challenging both the accelerated pace of global commerce, as well as directly questioning the ethicaljustification for continued air travel, both for leisure and for work.

This intervention discusses each of these tendencies briefly, simultaneously illustrating the intrinsic role of movement as capturing success with regard to UN human rights monitoring. It builds upon two decades ofwork in the anthropology of human rights, during which this has grown into a vibrant subfield of political and legal anthropology, as well as more recently of the anthropology of international organizations and bureaucracy (Billaud and Cowan, 2020; Dembour and Kelly, 2007; Kelly, 2011; Merry, 2006, 2015; Müller, 2013; Niezen and Sapignoli, 2017).

Together, this scholarship has yielded a multifaceted and nuanced analysis of the practices and institutional settings of human rights activism, including the motivations of participants in it. This intervention stretches the scope of debate by linking human rights to two of the central dynamics of our time, namely those of movement and expansion, both of which are also integral to the vast global phenomenon that has formed around questions of human rights over the past seven decades. 

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