Interpreting human rights among the dead and disappeared.
The Global Justice Workshop wasn’t what I expected. I had just arrived as a graduate student at Stanford after a series of jobs at nonprofit organizations, most of them in what could broadly be defined as the “human rights sector.” Eagerly joining a group of fellow graduate students and faculty to discuss scholarly articles, I soon found that global justice, and human rights, seemed to mean something very different in the seminar rooms of Stanford than in the offices of my former employers. My new colleagues could talk for hours about different accounts of the foundations of human rights, the varieties of liberalism and communitarianism, or the best theory of a just international order, often without specific reference to any real place, institution, or group of people.
Encountering theory for the first time, I was both intimidated and repulsed. This particular discourse of justice and rights seemed hopelessly disconnected from the realities to which I had been exposed: the photographs of mass graves, full of the commingled bodies of genocide victims, that I had organized into files as a research assistant to the forensic program at Physicians for Human Rights, the maps I had drawn in the South Texas “colonias” (unincorporated settlements) to show the floodplains where poor residents had been tricked into buying land, and the stories long-time human rights activists told me of receiving death threats in Guatemala or being cross-examined by Bosnian war criminals.
People who spend their days conducting human rights work in the field have different priorities, vocabularies, and ways of thinking about human rights than people who spend their days writing and teaching.
Much as academics like to complicate a binary, the theory/practice one is real. People who spend their days conducting human rights work in the field have different priorities, vocabularies, and ways of thinking about human rights than people who spend their days writing and teaching. Yes, there are individuals and even a few institutions that bridge the gap between theory and practice in extraordinary ways. But they largely do this through a deep understanding of the different audiences to which they speak—and the rhetorical skill needed to move between them—rather than simply by wandering, as I once naively imagined I could do, directly from the offices of a nonprofit into the halls of academia, as if it was all one big conversation.
Nearly anyone who has straddled the theory/practice divide in human rights has witnessed the mutual distrust—or mutual embarrassment?—that ensues when well-intentioned but ill-conceived conference panels feature theorists and practitioners side by side. At best, the two often seem to be talking past one another. At worst, the theorist may seem to be obtusely critiquing a form of daily practice she clearly doesn’t understand, while the practitioner rolls his eyes and waits for the conversation to come back to some identifiably useful terrain. But the danger in failing to build bridges between theory and practice isn’t just an unsatisfying conference panel: it’s that when these worlds fail to connect, we all wind up with an impoverished understanding of human rights.
This conviction emerges directly from life-changing experiences I had at Physicians for Human Rights, which I have since revisited as a scholar. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is the organization that coordinated major exhumations at the graves of genocide victims in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia (and has since been active in forensic projects in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, El Salvador, Colombia, and elsewhere).
While there, I heard a story that haunted me both as a member of the organization’s staff and as the grandson of Holocaust survivors. In 2001, PHR's head forensic anthropologist, Bill Haglund, had traveled to the town of Jedwabne, Poland to assist in the exhumation of two mass graves. The graves were the resting place for hundreds of the town’s Jews, massacred on a single day in July, 1941. Most of these victims, once a part of the everyday fabric of the town, had been locked in a barn and burned to death. The exhumation, undertaken by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, promised to shed some light on what happened in Jedwabne—from the basics, such as how many people had been killed, to the much more vexed question of whether responsibility for the crime belonged to German soldiers or the town’s own Polish people (both of whom were present at the executions). The investigation came to a halt, however, when a group of Orthodox Jews—including rabbis from Warsaw, Israel, and London—proclaimed that disturbing these bodies was a violation of Jewish law (other experts, such as Rabbi Joseph Polak of Boston University, disagree with this interpretation).
Much as academics like to complicate a binary, the theory/practice one is real.
This basic configuration, it turns out, has been repeated throughout the few decades during which forensic investigations have become a standard part of the global response to atrocity. Experts, armed with both scientific methods and a shared ethos of truth-telling and human rights, have prepared to exhume a grave and analyze the evidence it contains, only to be confronted with objections against the grave's desecration. When two vocabularies as transcendent and non-negotiable as human rights and the sacred meet at the same spot—with contradicting demands—how can the impasse be resolved?
The tension has been present from the beginning of the modern human rights framework, when Eleanor Roosevelt’s United Nations Human Rights Commission was debating whether or not to include references to God or a “Creator” in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (ultimately, the Commission decided to stick with more ostensibly secular values such as human dignity; though one of its members, Charles Malik, would complain that the debate was “concluded silently by sheer sensing that the prevailing climate of opinion will never admit such terms”).
Much of the scholarly literature on this subject, despite its potential relevance for people trying to carry out human rights interventions in a world of tremendous religious difference, remains at a high level of abstraction. Theorists have hotly debated the relationship between human rights, human dignity, and “the sacredness of human life”; yet little of what they say could be applied to a context where the question is not sacred human lives (which have already been lost) but the sacred places of violent death.
The bridge between theory and practice cannot be built from only one side, however. Forensic experts, like others involved in post-conflict assistance, employ a rich vocabulary of justification, including ideas such as reconciliation, the right to truth, and the needs of families of the missing. But as these experts themselves have found, every one of these terms opens up onto a universe of complexity. Urgent questions remain about what reconciliation really means and whom it serves, how shared “truth” can be produced in a divided society, and the wide array of needs amongst different families of the missing (while some seek trials for their loved ones’ murderers or a new democratic order, others may worry about their next meal or their legal ability to inherit property from someone whose death the authorities refuse to acknowledge). None of which even begins to touch upon the subject of the rights of the dead—an ethic that seems, at first glance, to undergird the entire idea of a global project to recover and identify the dead and disappeared, but which is almost never openly discussed.
Digging for the Disappeared really started, for me, with a simple question: do the dead victims of atrocity have human rights? Because I wanted to answer that question in a way that was relevant to the daily practice of forensic science and human rights—that world I had so recently departed—I wound up having to travel down new roads of human rights history, its contemporary manifestations, and alternative ways of talking about relationships and obligations between the dead and the living, such as rethinking our responsibilities to the dead as a form of “care work.”
The real groundwork of human rights happens not in drafting committees or around seminar tables, but wherever bodies—living and dead—intermingle in the deprivation, negotiation, and sometimes restoration of a mutual respect that ought to have been inviolable. Yet scholars such as myself have invaluable time and resources to invest in studying these phenomena, comparing them across contexts, and most importantly in questioning everything—even the questions themselves. The key, it seems to me, is not to settle for forced " dialogue" by asking scholars and practitioners to sit on the same panel (a supposedly neutral ground that is actually nothing of the sort). Rather, the spaces of scholarship must become more open and permeable: by inviting others in, certainly, but more importantly by moving outward.
Anthropological fieldwork is a paradigmatic example of how some disciplines operate outside of the ivory tower. But when I was working to piece together evolving truths from multiple contexts, in Digging for the Disappeared, I found myself mixing disciplines and methodologies out of both necessity and opportunism: a rare chance to spend a day with the South African Missing Persons Task Team in a Soweto township cemetery, or to be one of the last people to interview the man who catalyzed forensic science’s entry into the field of human rights, Clyde Snow, before he passed away.
During that conversation, Snow surprised me with an expression of modesty about his life’s work: “If you’re going to spend millions of dollars repatriating the dead,” he said, “you have to ask the question, could those resources be better spent in schools and clinics? And maybe that’s a better way, in many of these situations, to memorialize the dead. Plant a tree, plant a thousand trees. . . .” Here was a storied forensic anthropologist carving out space for gardeners, builders, teachers, and doctors to do for human rights what he knew he could not. It was an eloquent reminder that the first ingredient in interdisciplinarity—that buzzword of academic discourse—is humility about the powers of any one method, particularly your own.
The dead and disappeared can no longer speak to us directly. Even when they were alive, they would have done so in different languages—just as they died for different causes and believed different things. In order to unearth some of their stories, we have to become more expert listeners. That entails knowing when the tools we have brought with us—tools of theory and tools of practice—are not the ones for the job. Then it is time to step aside from the soil we have been digging, and let someone else plant a tree.