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Independent Expert: Cultural Rights enrich universal human rights

Independent Expert in the field of cultural rights Farida Shaheed stressed that at “the heart of this mandate is the relationship between cultural rights, cultural diversity, and the universality of human rights.”

Two school boys reading in Bhutan © UN Photo “I firmly believe that when grounded in existing norms and principles of international human rights law, cultural rights enrich our understanding of the principle of universality of human rights by taking into consideration cultural diversity,” Shaheed said on 31 May when presenting her first report to the Human Rights Council.

She said that cultural rights “are pivotal to the recognition and respect of human dignity.” “They protect the rights of each person –- be it individually, in community with others, or as groups -- to develop and express their humanity, world visions, meanings assigned to life and understanding of development.”

Cultural rights also include the right to question the existing parameters of ‘culture’, to opt in or out of particular cultural entities, and to continuously create new culture.

The Pakistani sociologist warned that “cultural diversity is not to be equated with cultural relativism.” “No one may invoke cultural diversity to infringe upon human rights guaranteed by international law, nor to limit their scope,” she said.

“Not all cultural practices accord with international human rights law and, although it is not always easy to identify exactly which cultural practices may not comply with human rights standards, the endeavour always must be to modify and/or discard all practices pursued in the name of culture that impede the enjoyment of human rights by any individual,” she added.

The Human Rights Council established the mandate of the Independent Expert in the field of cultural rights in March 2009. Appointed in November 2009, Shaheed focuses her work on identifying best practices and obstacles to the implementation of cultural rights.

“Challenges are numerous in the field of cultural rights, from the definition of their scope within the human rights system, to the elaboration of policies enabling their implementation in the context of cultural diversity, globalization of information and exchanges, under-development as well as poverty,” she said.

Considering these challenges, the Independent Expert emphasized that “the common basis of all action must be the principle of universality of human rights.”

“Universal human rights must be promoted in diverse cultural contexts by encouraging new thinking and cultural practices for example by ‘cultural negotiation’ within communities; by policies supporting informed, open and participatory debates; and by independent judiciaries and national legal frameworks upholding the universality of human rights,” she said.

“It is the responsibility of States to ensure open spaces for debate and discussion within all communities as well as an environment in which all people can enjoy cultural rights, without discrimination based on their particular identities,” said Shaheed.

The Independent Expert has identified two priority issue areas to address, which include cultural rights: globalization and development processes, and participation and contribution to cultural life without discrimination.

The 14th session of the Human Rights Council takes place from 31 May to 18 June at Palais des Nations in Geneva. More information is available on the webpage of the session, which is also webcast live.

14 June 2010