The initial reaction of anthropologists to the UN’s proposal for a universal declaration of human rights was to question it on the ground that it might be no more than an expression of the cultures of the world’s dominant powers. Human rights universalism was opposed by cultural relativism, the idea that no or few values are universally valid as values derive from particular cultures. Anthropologists then discovered that the cultural groups that they typically studied – `indigenous’ peoples – often suffered the most serious human rights violations and that ignoring this was ethically and scientifically unacceptable.
Although many anthropologists are still attracted to cultural relativism, some have not only embraced human rights but have made an original and distinctive contribution to our understanding of the human rights world in at least two respects: 1) understanding the culture of this world, and 2) understanding the real-world interaction of human rights and local cultures. Merry’s book is one of the finest examples of anthropological work that respects both the cultural diversity of the world and the potential of international human rights to solve the problems and enhance the rights of the socially powerless. It achieves this by focussing on the gap between gender violence in international human rights law and the lived experience of women.
The practical import of the study is to emphasise that international human rights advocacy, to be effective, must work with the grain of local cultures and not simply `blame’ them for their supposed shortcomings. People are attached to their cultures and their response to human rights advocacy will always be culturally inflected. The culture of international human rights law may seem `alien’ to those living in local cultures, but, contrary to the views of some cultural relativists, cultures are flexible and changeable, and so even `traditional’ cultures can be open to human rights influences. In such processes, `translators’ – those familiar with both global and local cultures – may be crucial.