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Statement by the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights at the 67th session of the General Assembly

New York, 30 October 2012

Honourable Chair, Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen;

It is my great pleasure to present my first report to the General Assembly as Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights (A/67/287), and to appear before you today.

I have focused my report on the enjoyment of cultural rights by women on a basis of equality with men, because I am convinced that the realization of cultural rights of women is pivotal to the realization of their human rights in general

The keys messages I wish to convey to you today are the following:

1) Firstly, the tendency to view culture as largely an impediment to women’s human rights is over-simplistic and problematic. This diverts attention from the specific actors, institutions, rules and regulations that keep women subordinated within patriarchal systems and structures.

2) Secondly, women have the right to access, participate in, and contribute to all aspects of cultural life, including the right to actively engage in identifying and interpreting cultural heritage, and deciding which cultural traditions, values or practices are to be kept intact, modified or discarded altogether. I am therefore proposing a paradigm shift: from viewing culture as an obstacle to women’s rights to one of ensuring women’s equal enjoyment of cultural rights.

3) Distinguished delegates, my third point is that the struggle for women’s human rights, including cultural rights is not against religion, culture, or tradition. From the human rights perspective, the critical issue is not whether and how religion, culture and tradition prevail over women’s human rights, but how to ensure that women own both their culture (including religion and tradition) and their human rights. The challenge is how to ensure women’s equal participation in discussions and decision-making over these issues.

Manifested in individual and collective self-expression, culture permeates all aspects of life; it is in constant motion and is always linked to power relations. Cultural rights must be understood as also relating to who in the community holds the power to define its collective identity. It is imperative to ensure that all voices within a community, representing the interests, desires and perspectives of diverse groups, are heard without discrimination.

4) At present, gender-discrimination is so frequently defended by reference to culture, religion and tradition that it seems safe to conclude that no social group has suffered greater violation of human rights in the name of culture than women. Many such practices would not be tolerated were they predicated upon another protected classification, such as race for example.

I am deeply concerned, and this is my fourth point, by discourses that essentialize cultures, view them as static and ahistorical, and which challenge the universal legitimacy and applicability of human rights norms. I stress that under international human rights law, no one may invoke cultural diversity to infringe upon or limit human rights. International human rights norms provide a clear negative answer to the question of whether restrictions on the cultural rights of women, which ultimately amount to restrictions on the principles of non-discrimination and equality, may be legitimately imposed under international law to preserve cultural diversity.

5) Distinguished delegates, only if we understand what cultural diversity, cultural identities, and cultural rights really are, can we respond to discourses promoting cultural relativism.

Cultural identities are informed by a multitude of factors that include beliefs and convictions, knowledge and the arts, but also economic, social and political engagements; urban/rural locations; wealth or poverty; professional training; and historical contexts, as well as gender.

Individual identities promote characteristics distinguishing one person from another, while collective identities privilege certain shared similarities in a group. Identities are in a constant state of flux: being defined, refined and redefined in response to external factors and internal reflection. This entails contestations over meanings and definitions within, as well as across, communities.

All individuals simultaneously belong to multiple, diverse and changing communities. My fifth point is that:

  • (a) It is vital that people not be forced to identify themselves only in terms of a singular aspect of their identity, such as being female, or of a particular ethnic, religious, or linguistic background. Protecting multiple identities helps to resist and overcome political forces which seek to deny any possibility of pluralism within self and society, as well as gender equality.
  • (b) The cohesion of a specific cultural community – be it transnational, national or sub-national - should not be achieved to the detriment of one group within the community, such as women.

Distinguished delegates, I would like to conclude with the following

Combating cultural practices detrimental to human rights, does not jeopardize the existence and cohesion of a specific cultural community. Instead, it stimulates discussions that facilitate an evolution towards embracing human rights. It is time for women’s perspectives, concerns and contributions to move from the peripheries to the centre of the processes that create, interpret, and shape culture. States must take all necessary measures to ensure that women are equal spokespersons vested with the authority to reshape all the communities they desire to be a part of and of those they want to create.

Cultural rights are transformative: they are empowering rights, providing important opportunities for the realization of other human rights. The lack of equal cultural rights, combined with economic and social inequalities, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for women to enjoy personal autonomy, to exercise their civil and political rights, and in particular to participate in the political life of their community or country.

Merely asserting the principle of “equality” is insufficient however.

The effective implementation of human rights standards requires measures that transform the text of legislation into lived reality. Especially in the field of cultural rights, the principle of equality needs to transcend law and be embraced in society. Human rights need to be “vernacularized” including through initiatives that ground human rights concepts in diverse cultural traditions and by culturally sensitive legitimacy norms that ensure adherence because they have input from and thus the consent of those governed by the rules. Human rights practice must guard against imposing outsiders’ ideologies. But they must as robustly guard against shielding from criticism community practices and norms that perpetuate women’s subordination. The process needs to simultaneously incorporate internal discourses to find legitimacy and cross-cultural dialogues for a reciprocal sharing of perspectives.

This demands close cooperation between all relevant State and non-State actors in society. In my report, I propose a set of questions to be asked whenever gender-biased social arrangements are defended in the name of culture. I also make a number of suggestions to States to assess the level of implementation, or non-implementation, on their territories of the cultural rights of women on a basis of equality. Special attention must be paid to the participation of women in decision-making within their own communities, as well as the due diligence to be exercised with respect to discriminatory conduct by non-state actors, in particular cultural, religious and educational institutions as well as the media.

Finally, I encourage academic institutions, scholars and civil society groups to gather evidence of the actual diversity of practices and to engage with women to identify measures that can catalyse transformative equality processes in difference spheres of life, in particular, cultural life.

I thank you very much.