Paul Farmer and Human Rights as a Transnational Space

Reading Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power for a Human Rights course while reading and talking about Appaduri’s theories and discussing the concept of the transnational in class, I recognized human rights as a transnational space, perhaps even another “scape” interacting with the others that Appaduri defines. This now seems obvious, considering it is a field based on standards defined universally that implicate nations in international violations and, alternately, raise national violence against individuals to the status of international crime, and work through boundary-crossing intervention by governments and organizations.

The rhetoric that Paul Farmer, as both an anthropologist and doctor, uses to speak of human rights violations situates them contextually, rather than purely legally, rejecting a relativist or particularist stance. Human rights, for Farmer, transcends “local ideaology or longstanding tradition,” as universal, or transnational, standards whose violations cannot be considered within local norms. He repeatedly establishes local-global dependencies in his work to redefine human rights violations as products of global systems of oppression. For example, in Pathologies of Power, Farmer exposes inequality of healthcare as symptomatic of a larger structural, institutional, and societal inequality. Within the new globalized ethno/techno/media/ideo/finance “scapes,” Farmer says that a “new field of health and human rights emerges.” This “new field” is one inextricable from other global forces and, moreover, Farmer’s theorizations of human rights and public health reveal access to healthcare as an indicator of global economic and social disparity that identifies a transnational class of oppressed people. To be an advocate for these people, for Farmer, is to work on a global level that matches his redefinition of human rights issues as embedded in global systems. Attempts by national governments and bureaucracies to provide aid and relief to those with inadequate healthcare, or people suffering other human rights violations, is almost never an act separate from political, ideological, or economic interests. Thus, the pretense of human rights becomes another entry point for world powers like the US to broaden their global influence. Because of this kind of corruption, Farmer urges relief through NGOs which are also, hopefully more positive, modes of transnational influence.


3 thoughts on “Paul Farmer and Human Rights as a Transnational Space”

  1. Human rights are definitely a concept that helps us think through and imagine relations of global interconnectivity. And, as you rightly point out here, via Farmer, the horizon of interconnectivity opened up by human rights is not predicated on a sense of universality – that we are all alike and that the same norms should govern our personal and social relations – but rather in the power of local and individual particularity: the feeling that so called universal norms should be open to and conditioned by emergent and overlapping fields of necessity, and the articulation of new rights and novel claims to humanness.


  2. I like your idea of human rights as a transnational space that interacts with Appadurai’s “scapes.” Given how maternalism and feminine care was a frequent part of our class discussions, especially on Jewett and Lahiri’s texts, I wonder how care (which certainly factors into human rights) interacts with Appadurai’s “scapes,” or if it is even one of them…

    – Xanthe


  3. Interesting article. I was wondering, how does Farmer deal with the issue of certain Islamic countries claiming that The Universal Declaration of Human Rights violates Sharia law? Does he suggest that rights should be applied differently, or perhaps that there should be different rights in these countries, or does he attempt to demonstrate that Sharia law is not violated? I am curious, because although human rights can be seen as a transnational space, there are others who do not see it that way, and it would be interesting to explore Farmer’s response.



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