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Evolving Perspectives on Anthropology and Human Rights

Photo Credit: Ovinuchi Ejiohuo/Unsplash

Webinar Description

Since 1947, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) has taken an active responsibility for illuminating human rights issues in research and learning as well as in standards of professional conduct, aiming to orient anthropologists’ work with respect to organizations that advocate for universal human rights, international laws and norms, the communities with which anthropologists work and to which they belong, and the world at large. AAA has issued three comprehensive statements.

Responding to the UN’s then-draft Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the AAA’s first (1947) statement was rooted in a principled commitment to cultural relativism and the collective survival and cultural integrity of colonized and minority groups in the new postwar global order. In 1999, an updated Declaration took a radically different stance toward human rights, offering a defense of human difference and insisting on the discipline’s and Association’s ethical responsibility to “protest and oppose” when such differences are the basis for violence and abuse. Most recently, the 2020 Statement moves beyond the tension between universalism and relativism to help orient anthropological research and practice in a world of seemingly intractable violence, inequality, injustice, and asymmetrical power. This webinar will trace the arc of the Association’s perspectives on human rights and present contemporary projects that highlight key methods and materials of anthropological research that reflect current perspectives from the field.

Dr. Leah Zani will contextualize the AAA’s human rights statements within post-WWII politics and ongoing controversies around agreements between anthropologists and the military. Dr. Jaymelee Kim will interrogate the changing face of human rights anthropology from a biocultural perspective-- taking into consideration anthropological involvement in human rights interventions as advocates for survivors and victims. She will specifically elaborate on the 1980s foray into forensic human rights anthropology in Argentina and into humanitarian action. With the changing geo-political landscape of human rights, this piece will also touch on the most recent iterations of the AAA Statement on Human Rights. Dr. Jennifer Burrell will discuss current anthropological research that investigates new technologies being used in the search for the missing in Mexico and Nigeria, including a research partnership with NGOs the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (Mexico) and CLEEN (Nigeria) as well as the AAAS’s Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program.

Speakers

Dr. Leah Zani, Independent Researcher, Oakland, CA

Leah Zani is an anthropologist, author, and poet based in Oakland, California. Zani researches and writes on the social impact of war. She has conducted human rights research with academic, museum, and development organizations nationally and internationally. Zani holds the Human Right Seat on the Advocacy Committee (MPAAC) of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). Zani is an organizing member of the Rapid Response Network, a group of experts who consult with AAA leadership on pressing political issues. She is proud to be part of the team that manages the AAA's Human Rights Statement as a living document. Previously, she served as a researcher with the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley in partnership with the Nobel prize-winning Mines Advisory Group in Laos. Zani has written two books on her fieldwork in Laos: Bomb Children: Life in the Former Battlefields of Laos (Duke University Press, 2019) and Strike Patterns: Notes from Postwar Laos (Rewood Press, 2022). Both are works of creative scholarship drawn from fieldwork with explosives clearance operators, humanitarian organizations, and bombed communities. She has presented her research on the bombing of Laos to the United States Congress.

Dr. Jaymelee Kim, Associate Professor of Forensic Science, University of Findlay

Dr. Jaymelee Kim is an anthropologist whose research focuses on improving, co-developing, and analyzing forensic intervention in the aftermath of mass violence and disasters. Her areas of expertise include human anatomy and skeletal biology, forensic anthropology and archaeology, human rights interventions, and alternative justice. She completed her MA and PhD in anthropology at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. She also earned graduate certificates in Linguistics and in Disasters, Displacement, and Human Rights. She has practiced North American and Greek archaeology, provided forensic consultation both domestically and abroad, and advised nonprofit and non-governmental organizations in diversity, grant-writing, survivor services, and organizational behavior. Since 2014 she has been employed in the Department of Justice Sciences’ Forensic Sciences Program at the University of Findlay. Dr. Kim also consults as a forensic anthropologist for the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office and assists the Detroit Police Department in Michigan, specifically with Operation United, a Joint DPD-FBI initiative to identify cold cases.

Dr. Kim will interrogate the changing face of human rights anthropology from a biocultural perspective-- taking into consideration anthropological involvement in human rights interventions as advocates for survivors and victims. She will specifically elaborate on the 1980s foray into forensic human rights anthropology in Argentina and into humanitarian action. With the changing geo-political landscape of human rights, this piece will also touch on the most recent iterations of the AAA Statement on Human Rights.

Dr. Jennifer Burrell, Associate Professor of Anthropology, SUNY Albany

Jennifer Burrell is an anthropologist with extensive research experience in the field of human rights, particularly in Latin America and among indigenous peoples.  She is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and affiliated with the Department of Latin American, Caribbean and US Latino Studies at University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY).  She worked as a researcher and consultant with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, and frequently serves as an expert for Central American asylum cases and as a consultant to international organizations. Burrell’s books include Maya After War, and Central America in the New Millennium (with Ellen Moodie) as well as numerous journal articles and book chapters.  Her research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, Fulbright, the Wenner Gren Foundation and the Gerda Henkel Foundation, among others and she has been a fellow at the Humboldt and Free Universities in Berlin. Burrell was elected to and served on the Human Rights Committee of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in 2014-2017 and was appointed to the Human Rights seat of the Members Programmatic, Advisory and Advocacy Committee of the AAA in 2021. She serves as a AAA liaison to the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition.

John W. Curtis, PhD, Principal Consultant, JWCResearch, Washington, DC (Moderator)


This webinar series is a project of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition. The team organizer is Oliver Moles, Ph.D.

To view past webinars in this series, please visit Scientific Collaborations with Human Rights Organizations.

Event Contact

Nate Weisenberg

Senior Program Associate

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