Book Review: Counting the Dead

Counting the Dead: The Culture and Politics of Human Rights Activism in Colombia
Winifred Tate
University of California Press, 2007
ISBN 978-0-520-25283-7 (paperback)
400 pages

Reviewed by HHR editorial assistant Judith Fitzpatrick 

In this “ethnography of ideas in action,” anthropologist and human rights activist Winifred Tate investigates how various actors in Colombia have employed the concept of human rights in political mobilization. The study begins with an examination of the evolution and intersection of various definitions of violence such as “insurgency” and “organized crime” as they have been used in Colombia since Independence. Tate transitions to relate the history of nongovernmental human rights organizations in Colombia and their evolving interpretations and practical applications of the human rights framework. Her account of the debates surrounding human rights work in the 1990s and Colombian activists’ relationship with the international community reveals the struggle between the dual goals of legal advocacy and tangible social change in Colombian activism. Tate then evaluates the role of the human rights framework in the work of two groups in Colombia: state human rights institutions and the military. She concludes by considering the role of human rights activism in exposing human rights violations, using the Trujillo Commission, a landmark Colombian human rights investigation, as a case study.

The title of the book draws from the cynical portrayal of human rights work as the discouraging task of gathering death tolls, yet through this study, Tate argues that “the practice of human rights activism involves more that simply counting the dead; it is also making the dead count.”

– Judith Fitzpatrick