Human Rights and Heritage Ethics

By Meskell, Lynn | Anthropological Quarterly, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Human Rights and Heritage Ethics

Meskell, Lynn, Anthropological Quarterly


This paper discusses the efficacy of applying a framework of universal human rights to resolve heritage conflicts. It considers the pitfalls and potentials in particular heritage settings for both archaeologists and the constituencies we seek to represent. A distinction is made throughout the paper between invoking universal human rights, as opposed to other rights or claims more broadly. Specifically, I ask what does the mantle of universal human rights bring to heritage? What additional work might it perform, and who wins and loses when archaeologists elevate cultural heritage to this arena of urgency? If archaeologists want to pursue this route, what steps might they take to be conversant with human rights and, more importantly, effective in practically implementing that knowledge? I then describe the situation in post-apartheid South Africa-a nation that has arguably crafted the world's most liberal constitution, yet in reality faces numerous challenges to instrumentalizing human rights. In terms of South African heritage rights, the archaeological site of Thulamela is offered as an example of conflict resolution at the local level by briefly examining the role of archaeologists and several connected communities each vying for access and ownership of the site. Following Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum I suggest that heritage practitioners might be more effective and ethically responsible by being attendant to pragmatic approaches that enhance human capabilities and human flourishing. [Keywords: Heritage ethics, human rights, heritage rights, claims, South African Archaeology, politics, fieldwork]

Forty years ago, UNESCO held a conference entitled Cultural Rights as Human Rights (UNESCO 1970) to reflect on the evolution of the concept of cultural rights in the twenty years since the proclamation in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Luminaries including Ernest Gellner, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and Breyten Breytenbach debated a now familiar set of subjects: the place of culture and tradition, group rights versus individual rights, the role of the state, and so on. Among the primary concerns were peace, the eradication of poverty, global development, the hegemony of the nation state, international intervention, freedom of media and artistic life, and education in science and technology. Looking back over this remarkably forward-thinking document is both inspiring and sobering. Ostensibly they were having the same conversation in 1968 as many of us are engaged in now. The critical failures they addressed then, understandably, have not been resolved. But what has changed is the astounding upsurge in " rights talk" and the desire to harness the urgency of human rights discourse in so many aspects of human, animal and planetary existence.

International human rights have become today's lingua franca, speaking to issues of inequality, injustice, and politics in their broadest terms (Stacy 2009). The discourse of human rights is everywhere, a pervasive and thick stratum that overlays our understandings of nationalisms and internationalisms, indigenous movements, historic repressions, and global inequities. Archaeology is no different, and one recent volume suggests that heritage and human rights are inextricably linked (Silverman and Fairchild Ruggles 2008a). However, a danger exists, in that the call for "human rights" has been so extensive as to dilute the very power and specificity of those fundamental rights as opposed to other types of claims. Before archaeologists assume that instigating human rights petitions over cultural heritage offers a pragmatic way forward to resolve heritage conflicts, it is certainly worth pausing to consider the potentials and limitations of such an approach. This discussion then revolves around two related issues. First, I consider whether heritage conflicts represent an impingement upon human rights specifically; and second, whether an appeal to an international legislative framework offers the most pragmatic way forward for affected communities. …

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