Comparative Anthropology of Conscience, Ethics and Human Rights Project

What is conscience, and where might it take us? For its proponents, conscience is a universal concept, speaking to our inner most sense of right and wrong, and goes to the heart of what it means to be human. Yet, if conscience is so important, what is it and how do we know it when we see it? How do we distinguish it from self-interest or fanaticism? And what happens when the concept, often associated with a specifically liberal or Christian history, travels across linguistic and cultural boundaries?

This anthropological research project, funded by the European Research Council and hosted by the University of Edinburgh, examines conscience as a culturally and historically embedded ethical category, whose precise meanings are always the product of particular conflicts. It examines how claims to conscience have been made and contested through sun-projects on the comparative analysis of British conscientious objectors to military service, Sri Lankan dissidents and activists, Soviet dissidents, and the history of the international human rights movement. In doing so we ask how ethical categories are made socially, politically and culturally meaningful, and what implications they have for the people who use them.

This archive is part of the Sri Lanka sub-project, led by Harini Amarasuriya, Jonathan Spencer and Sidharthan Maunaguru. The post-Independence history of Sri Lanka is dominated by the division between the majority Sinhala community, and the minority Tamil people, a division which culminated in a long-running civil war, which finally ended in 2009, with the comprehensive defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). But behind the headlines, there lies another possible history, a history of those activists who tried to escape the claims of rival ethno-nationalisms, and build alternative political projects on the island. For some these were built in the name of feminism, or Marxism, of Christian socialism, or environmentalism or human rights. Very often, the same faces would appear under different banners, as the same actors made their way from, say, early days in Christian social justice groups, to trade unionism, or as the years unfolded, NGO work.

Many were just as militant as the fighters of the LTTE; others, a few, were committed pacifists. All of them lived through dangerous times. In the North and East of the island, the LTTE systematically crushed all political alternatives, and those who weren’t killed often fled, either to Colombo or out of the country itself. In the South, a parallel Sinhala ethno-nationalist group, the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), launched two risings against the state, in the early 1970s and late 1980s. They too targeted their critics on the left as well as those aligned with the Colombo government.

For our strand of the Anthropology of Conscience project, we have been interviewing the survivors of the turbulent decades of war, at once preserving a history at risk of being lost, but also probing individual life-stories for clues to the mystery of dissent. Why did some people, rather than others, feel the need to take a stand against the violent political forces sweeping through their communities? What resources did they draw on in shoring up their own sense of conscience? What visions inspired their efforts, and what can we learn from them for the efforts of future generations?