IN JUNE 1947, A. P. Elkin, professor of anthropology at the University of Sydney and a towering and controversial figure who oversaw the development of the discipline in Australia for decades, wrote an essay entitled “The Rights of Primitive Peoples.” This essay was written at the request of UNESCO for a survey it was conducting on human rights, the results of which were intended to form the basis for the new declaration on human rights being drafted by the UN Commission on Human Rights, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. Elkin was one of only two anthropologists to participate in the UNESCO human rights survey; the other was the American scholar Melville Herskovits, a Boasian and vigorous proponent of cultural relativism whose “Statement on Human Rights” went on to achieve a certain notoriety decades later as the end of the Cold War unleashed what UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan described as the “age of human rights.”
Part of what made Elkin so controversial was that he was among the most influential nonnative advocates for Australian Aborigines. He served for almost thirty years as the president of the Association for the Protection of Native Races (APNR) and vice president of the Aborigines Welfare Board. During the 1930s, Elkin and the APNR intervened during a highly charged criminal case brought against an Aboriginal man in the Northern Territories for the killing of a nonnative (described as a “white”) man, for which the Aboriginal man had received a death sentence. Based on charges of racial bias and lack of due process, Elkin’s public advocacy played a role in securing an appeal for the Aboriginal defendant through which he was eventually released. Yet Elkin’s support for justice for Australia’s Aboriginal people was grounded in the belief that their rights would best be served by being fully assimilated into majority Australian society, a position consistent with the then prevailing international legal doctrine regarding “indigenous and other tribal and semi-tribal populations” expressed in the 1957 International Labor Organization Convention 107.
But in developing a theory of human rights that could apply to Australia’s Indigenous peoples in what would become the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Elkin articulated a surprisingly nuanced and even radical position, one fully at odds with the dominant liberal conception of rights that centered on the abstract and idealized individual. As Elkin put it, in his UNESCO essay, “the question of Human Rights is one of the relationship of the individual to his fellows within a community, and of community to community. Fundamentally, the individual is a social personality, and his rights are an integral part of his place and role in his society and in its external relationships. Apart from the society he would have no rights.”
As Sarah Holcombe’s pioneering Remote Freedoms demonstrates, questions of vernacularization of human rights are not only, or even most importantly, about translation—the rendering of concepts in a way that preserves a core of meaning despite changes in phrasing, the use of different words, and a lack of equivalence. Rather, just as Elkin’s UNESCO’s essay appears to recognize, particular conceptions of human rights embody particular world-views, particular ways of conceptually organizing the worlds of the material and immaterial, of parsing their constituent categories, of classifying their chains of being (and not-being), and of laying down the moral ground rules through which humans can and should navigate within and in relation to these worlds. Thus, as Remote Freedoms reveals in unparalleled clarity, the outer limits of human rights activism are not defined by language or culture or political cynicism; they are defined by a thick, living pluralism that resists the gentle pull of even the most benevolent normative imperialism.
Ultimately, the struggle to promote human rights in a world of salutary diversity will not depend on what happens in the Human Rights Council in Geneva, or within the many international treaty monitoring bodies, or in politicized and historically fraught national debates in places like Canberra (coincidently, I write these words on January 26—known in Australia as either “Australia Day” or “Invasion Day”). Instead, the future of human rights will depend on what emerges from quiet, attentive, respectful dialogues in places like the Western Desert Lands of the Pintupi-Luritja people, in which human rights norms are fashioned into social artifacts around the fire and then, eventually, ideally, back-translated into circuits of transnational practice. For this to happen, it will be necessary to develop what Holcombe describes as the “ethno-epistemological” capacity to hear other ways of being in the world, other ways of conceiving of sociality, and to reflect critically on how “human rights”—open, contingent, normatively polyvalent—might fit into these epistemological and moral pluriverses. As the Luritja phrase for “conscience” has it, we must understand the meaning of human rights by kulirra tjungungku wangkanyi (“listening and talking together”). Holcombe’s magnificent study is a window into how this alternative social life of rights might flourish.
Stanford Studies in Human Rights