Header image for news printout

Statement by Ms. Farida Shaheed, Special Rapporteur in the Feld of Cultural Rights at the 25th session of the Human Rights Council

12 March 2014

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

I deeply regret that I am not able to appear before you today to inform you personally about the activities I have undertaken since last June. I am very grateful to Najat Maalla N’djid, the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, who has accepted to read my statement.

In 2013, I focused my thematic research on the issue of historical and memorial narratives in divided societies, including post-conflict societies. I released two consecutive reports: the first was presented to the General Assembly last October, on the writing and teaching of history (A/68/296). The second, before you today, relates to memorialization processes (A/HRC/25/49).

I chose these subjects because, since the establishment of my mandate, and especially during field visits, I have repeatedly received testimonies stressing the crucial importance of historical and memorial narratives as cultural heritage and for shaping contemporary collective identities. People constantly strive to retrieve, validate, make known and have acknowledged by others their own history and memory on the one hand and contest dominant interpretations on the other. I also noted that, all too often, a cultural-rights based approach to transitional justice and reconciliation strategies is not accorded the attention it deserves.

My reports consider divided and post-conflict societies, but in reality, and I am sure you will agree with me, this means most, if not all, societies, including those that have seen international or internal conflicts in the recent or less recent past; post-colonial societies; societies that have experienced slavery; and societies challenged by divisions based on ethnic, national or linguistic background, religion, belief or political ideology. As you know, controversies surrounding historical and memorial narratives may relate to events that took place centuries ago.

Mr. President,

In both reports, I stress the importance of setting out the conditions to ensure a multi-perspective approach when it comes to narratives of the past. I recommend that history teaching and memorial practices foster critical thought, analytic learning and debate, promote spaces for a variety of narratives regarding the past and its representations, and ensure a better understanding of contemporary challenges of exclusion and violence.

More specifically, in terms of memorialization processes, I wish to stress that States exiting conflicts or periods of repression are increasingly propelled to engage in active memorial policies as a means of ensuring recognition for the victims, as reparation for mass or grave violations of human rights and as a guarantee of non-recurrence.

The ways in which narratives are memorialized, however, have consequences far beyond the sole issue of reparations. Entire cultural and symbolic landscapes are designed through memorials and museums reflecting, but also shaping negatively or positively, social interactions and people’s self-identities, as well as their perception of other social groups. Memorialization processes can serve for reconciliation but they can also constitute an obstacle to achieve it.

I recommend that transitional justice strategies and reconciliation policies include cultural rights. These rights call for the implementation of policies promoting cultural interaction and understanding between people and communities, the sharing of perspectives about the past and the design of a cultural landscape that is reflective of cultural diversity.

As we have now entered an era of great commemorations of events that took place during the 20th Century, one crucial question is whether memorials do and can fulfil the purposes assigned to them and, if so, under which conditions.

All post-conflict and divided societies confront the need to establish a delicate balance between forgetting and remembering. It is crucial that memorialization processes do not function as empty rhetoric commemorating the dead, while losing sight of the reasons and the context for past tragedies and obscuring contemporary challenges.

I wish to come back at this point to the title of my report, which relates to memorialization processes, as I believe that the process in establishing a narrative may be more important than its outcome. Memorialization should be understood as processes that provide the necessary space for those affected to articulate their diverse narratives in culturally meaningful ways. Such processes encompass a variety of engagements which do not necessarily become concretized through the erection of physical monuments, but can also take the form of numerous activities and cultural expressions.

I would not like to finish my presentation without thanking the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission as well as the “PIMPA” project (politics of memory and art practices: the role of art in peace and reconstruction processes) of the Geneva University of Art and Design, which made it possible for me to convene two experts meetings on these difficult issues in July and October 2013, in Derry/London Derry, Northern Ireland, UK, and Geneva, Switzerland, respectively.

Mr. President,

I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina from 13 to 24 May 2013 (A/HRC/25/49/Add.1). I wish to warmly thank the Government for their invitation and their cooperation.

Twenty years after the war, divisions between communities are much greater at the political level than on the ground. People often express a desire to overcome divisions that they see as imposed on them on a daily basis, frequently creating absurd situations.

Too often, culture and education are hijacked by the rhetoric of difference in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with an immense, detrimental impact on artistic, cultural, scientific and academic life. I wish to stress that cultural rights, including linguistic rights, have been seriously misinterpreted by a number of actors in the country to justify policies of separation and the establishment of hermetically sealed communities. In particular, the three official languages and the two scripts officially recognized in Bosnia and Herzegovina must be considered an asset that facilitates openness to others rather than a reason for segregating communities.

Reforming the education system to end the segregation of pupils according to national/ethnic affiliation is urgent. One necessary step is to significantly increase the number of joint cultural activities between students across communities within and between schools.

What may not be immediately achievable inside classrooms can most certainly be achieved outside, through cultural events and systematized exchanges across communities. I recommend in particular the rehabilitation of cultural and youth centres, and the creation of neutral spaces, sheltered from politics, in locations where people feel free to come and interact.

Mr. President,

“Bosnia and Herzegovina is confronted – like no other country – with the coexistence and competition of three official memory narratives and ethno-national identity constructions.” Teaching about the 1992-1995 war remains one of the most problematic areas for history teachers in Bosnia and Herzegovina today. Efforts should be increased to ensure a comparative and multi-perspective approach in history teaching. It is crucial that authorities pursue efforts to raise the quality of history textbooks, and that a wide array of textbooks be accredited.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is facing numerous and difficult challenges in terms of memorializing the past. I recommend that steps envisaged in the transitional justice strategy elaborated with the support of UNDP be implemented, in particular the enactment of a framework law and policy at the State level to regulate issues related to memorialization processes. I also recommend that the mandate of the Commission to Preserve National Monuments be integrated more clearly into transitional justice strategies.

Positive steps have been taken by Bosnia and Herzegovina, which have, for example, enabled the conduct of the census of population and households in 2013, the first ever post-war census. The country must be encouraged in such direction, and still needs support to address the challenges it faces.

Mr President,

In November 2013, I also visited Vietnam and I will report on that mission at the 28th session of the Council in March 2015.

I thank you very much.

        Nicolas Moll, “Fragmented memories in a fragmented country: memory competition and political identity-building in today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina”, Nationalities Papers, vol. 41, No. 6, November 2013.