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Cultural rights defenders

Cultural rights defenders – human rights defenders who defend cultural rights in accordance with international standards – are an important constituency among human rights defenders. Their work in every region of the world is essential for the implementation of an integral part of the universal human rights framework: cultural rights.

Who can be considered a cultural rights defender?

According to the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, 1998), human rights defenders can be any individuals, groups and associations that contribute peacefully to the promotion of human rights and to the effective elimination of all violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms of peoples and individuals. They must accept the universality of human rights, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and act in accordance with international human rights norms.

Defenders can be of any gender or age, from any part of the world and from any professional or other background. They can be found within non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations, but can also be government officials, civil servants or members of the private sector.[1]

Accordingly, cultural rights defenders are human rights defenders who pursue the elimination of violations of cultural rights and promote respect for and protection and fulfilment of these rights. They can be experts, activists and ordinary people who act in defence of cultural rights; they may specialize in working to these ends, and even certain cultural institutions may be considered as cultural rights defenders, or they may function as such, without defining themselves in those terms.

Report on cultural rights defenders (2020)

The aim of the 2020 report (A/HRC/43/50) is to raise awareness about the work of cultural rights defenders, with a view to enhancing the attention and assistance they receive. The report includes:

  • a definition of cultural rights defenders;
  • an overview of the diverse human rights work they engage in;
  • discussion of the challenges and risks they face;
  • a review of the international legal framework protecting and enabling their work;
  • specific recommendations for better recognizing, defending and supporting them.

Key Findings and Recommendations

In defining cultural rights defenders, the Special Rapporteur recalls the different substantive areas of cultural rights – taking part in cultural life, artistic expression, scientific freedoms, cultural practices and language, heritage – and the various ways in which persons and groups may engage in defending them (para.8).

The Special Rapporteur stresses that defending cultural rights not only contributes to the protection and promotion of all interdependent and interrelated human rights, but also to the realization of the sustainable development agenda and to effective response to the climate emergency. However, she notes that this work, and those who conduct it, often remains invisible in the global standards on human rights defenders (section III). She recommends more awareness raising on cultural rights and diversity and a more systematic inclusion of those defending them in all funding and human rights protection mechanisms.

In her report, she recalls the similar threats and risks faced by all human rights defenders due to their work, but also highlights the specificities of the work in defence of cultural rights, resulting from the sensitive nature of cultural resources and the mistrust with which many still view cultural diversity (section IV). She recommends that States conduct national assessments of the ability of cultural rights defenders to do their work freely, in conjunction with civil society, national human rights institutions, cultural rights defenders and experts, identify obstacles and apply necessary remedies.

Read all the recommendations in the report

Related events and materials

  • Video intervention of the Special Rapporteur in “Celebration of life”, event organised by Muslims for Progressive Values, in honour of Muslim human rights defenders, 10 December 2020.
  • Intervention and moderation by the Special Rapporteur of the round table 2 (as of 2:10:18), in the framework of the Safe Havens Global Stream, “Resource-givers and policy makers in fields pertinent to freedom of artistic expression and the protection and defense of at-risk artists”, 3 December 2020.
  • Conference by the Special Rapporteur "Defending the Right to Freedom of Artistic Expression", in the framework of the Art-at-Risk conference on "Creative work in challenging contexts", organised by artasfoundation, Zürich, Switzerland, 28 February 2020
  • Expert meeting, New York, 22 October 2019.
  • Consultation with European experts on the situation of cultural rights defenders, organized in the framework of the Frankfurter Bookfair, with the support of ICORN network, Frankfurt, Germany, 18 October 2019.

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Special Procedures
Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights
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Contact Information

Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights
c/o OHCHR-UNOG
CH-1211 Geneva 10
Switzerland
Telephone: +41 22 917 96 30
Fax: +41 22 917 90 06
E-mail: srculturalrights@ohchr.org

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