Essay: Counting the Dead the Culture and Politics of Human Rights Activism in Columbia

Pages: 8 (2152 words)  ·  Style: Chicago  ·  Bibliography Sources: 2  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Anthropology  ·  Buy This Paper

Counting the Dead

The work Counting the Dead: The Culture and Politics of Human Rights Activism in Columbia by Winifred Tate, offers the reader a core sense of the cultural, political divergence of ideologies of Human Rights and stresses that unity is the essential goal as divergence proved disastrous for many and frequently stifled progress in Columbia with regard to Human Rights development. The work is exhaustive in its depiction of the various key figures in the Human Rights movements and stresses the nature of the lives they led but more importantly the ideas they espoused and how those ideas were supported or rejected by others.

The publishing house that supported Tate's work to completion details that the works timely nature has to do with the fact that consensus building is a current trend in Human Rights activism, on an international scale. In short the publishing house stresses that the work reflects a good reason why consensus needs to be reached as the experience in Columbia, marked by serious divergence, resulted in the death of ideas and standards, with merit but with conflicting ideologies.

At a time when a global consensus on human rights standards seems to be emerging, this rich study steps back to explore how the idea of human rights is actually employed by activists and human rights professionals. Winifred Tate, an anthropologist and activist with extensive experience in Colombia, finds that radically different ideas about human rights have shaped three groups of human rights professionals working there -- nongovernmental activists, state representatives, and military officers. Drawing from the life stories of high-profile activists, pioneering interviews with military officials, and research at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Counting the Dead underscores the importance of analyzing and understanding human rights discourses, methodologies, and institutions within the context of broader cultural and political debates.

The importance of placing the work in context, is demonstrated by the publishing house, as it details the intent of the work and summarizes its content.


At the very nature of Ethnography is a desire to represent a culture, society or individual in a holistic manner. To do so Ethnography revolves around the approaches associated with qualitative inquiry, rather than quantitative inquiry. The difficulty lies in the fact that qualitative inquiry results often result in results that are challenging to quantify and analyze. It is therefore important to establish a set of guidelines from which ethnographic studies can be analyzed to assess their value with regard to historical, anthropological, cultural and social information. To do this one researcher has developed a set of guidelines for analysis of ethnography. Richardson, offers the reader a set of five criterion from which ethnography can be analyzed:

1. Substantive Contribution: "Does the piece contribute to our understanding of social-life?"

2. Aesthetic Merit: "Does this piece succeed aesthetically?"

3. Reflexivity: "How did the author come to write this text…Is there adequate self-awareness and self-exposure for the reader to make judgments about the point-of-view?"

4. Impact: "Does this affect me? Emotionally? Intellectually?" Does it move me?

5. Expresses a Reality: "Does it seem 'true' -- a credible account of a cultural, social, individual, or communal sense of the 'real'?"

It is through this paradigm that Tate's work will be discussed as doing so will apply the concepts of ethnography as a holistic endeavor to the ethnography itself and discuss all the areas of the work that support its substantive value as ethnographic and cultural documentary view. After a brief synopsis of the work the various subheadings of this work will then correspond with the five analysis points listed above.

Brief Synopsis

Having read the work it is clear that the book constitutes a compilation of thematic biographies of both people and movements. One of the most useful tools in the work, with regard to ethnography should not be ignored, no matter the simplicity of the concept. That tool is the lengthy abbreviations glossary that immediately follows the acknowledgement section, as this aspect of the work does much to help the reader seamlessly address the many anagrams that are nearly always a part of any kind of cultural historical work. Tate opens the work by placing herself within the context of Columbia and Human Rights activism there, detailing her personal interest and experience there as human rights activist, aligned with international organizations seeking to document and protest the internal human rights violations that were reported and recorded as having been committed by the Columbian military and Police forces. In context this is important as one of the main issues in the work is the internal vs. external (both indigenous and international) ideologies of human rights. To some degree this is the main antagonistic nature of the Columbian Human Rights movement, as it is expressed in the work, i.e. whether the changes should be conceived of and fought for by external illumination and protest or internal ideologies and restructuring. Tate describes the legal and social frameworks of the international and internal ideologies of human rights in the introduction.

Then the work moves through several thematic chapters that are introduced by theme and then supported by biographical and trend information in the different Human Rights movements as they moved through time and place in Columbia. Columbia Mapping the Eternal Crisis, represents an introduction to the movement in Columbia in general, its need and its intent. Solidarity With our Class Brothers: The First Wave of Columbian Human Rights Activism, the second chapter details the initial international and internal responses to Human Rights needs and atrocities. The third chapter; The Production of Human Rights Knowledge and the Practice of Politics, details the early involvement of politics in the international and national movements to demand change in Columbia. The Emotional Politics of Activism in the 1990s, the forth chapter details the international trend toward emphasizing the emotional personal toll that Human Rights issues engendered during the period and how this affected the movement. The Global Imaginaries of Columbian Activists as the United Nations and Beyond, chapter 5, further demonstrates how Columbia fit into the international movement toward consensus on the issue of Human Rights. State Activism and the Production of Impunity, chapter 6, details the need for impunity in Columbia with regard to the intents and actions of both activists and those who were seen to be or have been violating human rights. Finally, Human Rights and the Colombian Military's War Stories, chapter seven details some of the more chilling stories of Columbian Military involvement and witness to human rights violations and challenges. The work then concludes with ideologies associated with the international and national politic of human rights knowledge.

Substantive Contribution: "Does the piece contribute to our understanding of social-life?"

The substantive contribution of this work is unquestionable as it discusses the social-lives of both those inside and outside the national development of human rights knowledge in a developing and frequently troubled nation. The work very effectively demonstrates a knowledge of "all" the international involvement, on both sides, i.e. international participation (such as the U.S.) in human rights violations of the "enemy" of the nations people. It effectively places the international intentions of two warring groups, those who trained the violators and those who used that training to destroy individuals and groups seeking change.

It also places people and ideologies in the context of serious social and political upheaval and how that has effected the development of the place and culture of Columbia.

From and ethnographic standpoint, in response to a holistic view, the chapter I found most important and interesting was chapter 4, The Emotional Politics of Activism in the 1990s. The chapter detailed a shift in thinking with regard to human rights as internal and external movements stressed the need to develop the emotional toll that human rights violations had on any given person or culture. This was done through an emphasis on the collection of oral histories and testimonies that effectively placed the individual case study into the context of both ideology and reality. This trend is foundational to the ideologies that are reflective of consensus building, with regard to universalizing politic and intervention, as it is reflected today.

Aesthetic Merit: "Does this piece succeed aesthetically?"

It is also clear that the work demonstrates a topical though broad demonstration of the myriad of ways that Colombia served as a sort of international case study for the development of consensus and development with regard to the nature of human rights. Though the work is not full of illustrations, which would have added to the emphasis of the holistic ethnographic view and the aesthetics of the work the illustrations remain textual. The work is well balanced and provides a great introduction to human rights in general, even though this is not the primary intent. With regard to asthetics the work should have contained more primary source work, as illustration, if such documentation exists, as this would have added to the highly academic content, to balance the aesthetic Tate offers the reader more… [END OF PREVIEW]

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APA Format

Counting the Dead the Culture and Politics of Human Rights Activism in Columbia.  (2009, April 28).  Retrieved September 16, 2019, from

MLA Format

"Counting the Dead the Culture and Politics of Human Rights Activism in Columbia."  28 April 2009.  Web.  16 September 2019. <>.

Chicago Format

"Counting the Dead the Culture and Politics of Human Rights Activism in Columbia."  April 28, 2009.  Accessed September 16, 2019.