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Statement by Ms. Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights at the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council

1 March 2018

Distinguished delegates, Honored President, Ladies and Gentleman.

Good afternoon. I will begin by reporting on my mission to Serbia and Kosovo*, and then move to my thematic report. Let me also mention that I was pleased to visit Malaysia in October 2017. The report on that mission will be presented at the 40th session of the Council in March 2019.

Turning to my report on Serbia and Kosovo, let me begin by thanking the Government of Serbia for inviting me to conduct an official visit from 3 to 14 October 2016, and also by expressing appreciation to the Government of Serbia and the Kosovo authorities for their cooperation.

The purpose of this visit was to identify good practices in and possible obstacles to the promotion and protection of cultural rights, with a particular focus on the right to access and enjoy cultural heritage, without discrimination. I was eager to address in a comprehensive way and using a human rights approach inter alia cultural heritage issues that are of interest to all, including the fate of the cultural heritage of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo, and accountability for past destruction of the cultural heritage of all.

During my visit, I had the opportunity to visit various sites of cultural, historical and religious significance, including churches and monasteries, mosques, historic centres and old bazars, as well as an art gallery, hammams and many important cultural landscapes, including sites that had been damaged or destroyed in 1999 and 2004, in Serbia and in Kosovo. I was pleased that I was able to visit these heritage sites without any impediment, and to meet people having connections with them. I held meetings with Government officials, at the national and municipal levels, with representatives of the Kosovo authorities, as well as with artists, academics, educators, diverse members of civil society including people from a number of ethnic minorities, human rights defenders, including women human rights defenders; peace activists; and cultural heritage experts and defenders. It was important to discuss issues with stakeholders from many different backgrounds, so as to understand their perspectives. I thank all those I met for their time and the information they shared.

Recent events, about which there are divergent narratives, including the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, repression, mass atrocities, armed conflict in 1998/99 and rioting in 2004, have had far-reaching consequences on the construction of identities of the populations of both Serbia and Kosovo. These years were also marked by widespread destruction of cultural heritage causing deep wounds that must be addressed.

Cultural heritage has been politicized to construct discourses or policies aimed at the exclusion of others. I deeply regret discourses I encountered that dispute the importance of the cultural heritage of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo, and those that challenge even the existence of the cultural heritage of Kosovo Albanians.

While particular aspects of heritage have special resonance for and connections to specific groups, it is critical to enhance the notion of heritage as a shared common good important for all. One of the main challenges is for everyone to equally embrace the heritage of “the other”. Some have started to take positive steps in that direction. They should be supported and encouraged. One current example was the organization of joint events by a civil society group in Mitrovica/Mitrovicë with people of diverse backgrounds, to visit each other’s sites of cultural significance. (This unfortunately had to be discontinued due to a lack of funding.) Another avenue to explore is the development of regional cooperation in the field of cultural heritage.

The histories of widespread destruction of cultural heritage in Serbia and Kosovo, including religious sites and cemeteries, during and after the conflict of 1998/99, and in 2004 are appalling. Many accounts and statistics are available on the harm done to cultural heritage associated with either Serb or Kosovo Albanian sites, and I cite some of these in the report. However, I did not receive encompassing local accounts of the overall destruction in Serbia and Kosovo acknowledging the harm done to sites associated with all parts of the population. A holistic approach is crucial.

I deplore all these destructions of cultural heritage, which constitute violations of the right to access and enjoy cultural heritage, and jeopardize the rights of future generations. No act of destruction of cultural heritage justifies another. All necessary steps must be taken to prevent any repetition and to hold perpetrators accountable, in accordance with international norms. Serbia and Kosovo must depoliticize these issues and de-link cultural heritage matters from nationalistic agendas. Cultural heritage is not a weapon: it is an issue of universal human rights.

There is a need for mutual acknowledgment of the harm that has been done in the past by attacking heritage related to various groups and the suffering this has caused. Serbs and Kosovo Albanians must recognize that they have been both victims of the destruction of cultural heritage and its perpetrators, and transcend simplistic victim narratives, which overlook the violations of the cultural rights and the suffering of others. Lasting peace and reconciliation require no less.

I was pleased to note the existence of important institutions devoted to the protection and promotion of culture and cultural heritage in Serbia. However, there is a need to increase the percentage of the budget devoted to culture in Serbia, as indeed in Kosovo. On paper, there is a robust and impressive legal regime for the protection of human rights, including cultural rights in Serbia. However, I often heard of the ongoing need for the implementation of this legal framework. The current development of a strategy on culture provides a unique opportunity for adopting a cultural rights and human rights approach to all cultural policies and for enhancing the protection of cultural heritage. It is crucial that all relevant actors be consulted and I encourage the authorities to broaden this process.

I was also concerned about reports of ongoing pressure on the exercise of freedom of artistic expression and creativity in Serbia, targeting in particular artists expressing resistance to nationalistic ideologies. In Serbia, human rights defenders, including those defending cultural rights, continue to face pressure. I deplore the pattern of attacks against events held by the renowned organization Women in Black when they carry out activities to commemorate atrocities committed during the 1990s, including through “engaged art”. Notwithstanding significant articulated commitments to the “culture of remembrance”, the authorities have not undertaken sufficient measures to combat these attacks, and must do so.

There is a complex legal and institutional framework for the protection of cultural heritage in Kosovo, including the 2008 Cultural Heritage Law, for which I heard praise. However, the overall lack of implementation of this framework remains a concern. While I salute the efforts of the Kosovo police to improve protection of sites associated with the Serbian Orthodox Church, I remain concerned about the reported ongoing threats received by some sites and graffiti of a serious nature, and vigilance is critical. The key is political will, which must be clearly expressed and actively employed. Any incidents or threats involving this heritage must continue to be condemned publicly and widely by officials, and by diverse religious and cultural leaders. I strongly encourage both the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Kosovo authorities to take steps to show their good will in reactivating mechanisms for cooperation on reconstruction of damaged cultural heritage in Kosovo, which have been deadlocked since 2015.

I am also worried about the impact of privatizations and urban development in Kosovo on public spaces and cultural sites, which are critical to the enjoyment of cultural rights. I note with satisfaction the adoption of the law on gender equality, and the quotas for women’s participation in public institutions. To date, however, no significant steps have been taken to reach this goal, and this is imperative.

The highly diverse make up of both Serbia and Kosovo should be capitalized on as positive assets to counter the worrying rise of both ultra-nationalism in Serbia, and fundamentalism and extremism in Kosovo. To this end, I recommend that more be done to combat discrimination, and to promote voices of tolerance.

Thematic Report

This brings me to my current thematic report which focuses on actions and initiatives in the fields of arts and culture that make significant contributions towards creating and maintaining societies in which all human rights are increasingly realized. This year as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is important to highlight the indivisibility of cultural rights and other human rights.

Humanity dignifies, restores and reimagines itself through creating, performing, preserving and revising its cultural and artistic life. Cultural heritage, cultural practices and the arts are important in and of themselves but may also be resources for marshalling attention to urgent concerns, addressing conflicts, reconciling former enemies, resisting oppression, memorializing the past, and imagining and creating a more rights-friendly future.  Cultural and artistic expressions have a strong transformative power and can influence the societies we live in. This power can be used either to maintain division in society or to overcome it.

My report considers artistic and cultural practices that explicitly aim at addressing contemporary social challenges such as exclusion and violence, with a view to shaping more inclusive and peaceful societies respectful of cultural diversity and conducive to the realization of universal human rights. These actions can be led by individual artists, ensembles, small and large cultural institutions, and by collaborations among artists, cultural workers and other stakeholders or institutions. Artists and cultural workers operate in theatres and museums, but also in refugee camps, kindergartens, women’s shelters, prisons, over the radio and in the streets, depending on the context and goal.

Artistic and cultural initiatives can open spaces for learning, reflecting, experimenting and embracing complexity; they can offer experiences of non-coercive, constructive meaning-making and empowerment that contribute to reaching a wide range of human rights goals.

Social engagement is a possibility for artists and cultural workers, but not a requirement. In some contexts, including those characterized by violence, repression and extreme censorship, merely engaging in artistic and cultural practice can have deep meaning for and an impact on human rights, regardless of the specific content or aims. Deciding to tackle mindsets that create exclusion, helping to restore understanding between groups and trust in society, seeking to emphasize respect for cultural diversity or to contribute to reconciliation is, however, a conscious choice many artists and cultural workers make and one, which should be recognized and valued. In my report, I look into the specific challenges these persons face because of their social engagement and make recommendations on how to ensure the enabling conditions for them to exercise their cultural rights and how to protect them from threats and pressure.

In addition to furthering the implementation of the right of everyone to take part in cultural life, without discrimination, and to access and enjoy the creativity of others, their initiatives are also spaces to exercise other human rights, in particular the right to freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly and association.

Active engagement in the cultural sphere offers crucial possibilities to contribute to social debates, challenge assumptions about accepted beliefs, revisit culturally inherited ideas and concepts, shape and reshape meanings. It also helps develop individual and collective capacities that are central traits of democratic citizenship, such as critical thinking, creativity, acceptance of differences, commitment to the universality of human rights and equality. Investments in the field of culture and in the conditions that allow people to fully participate in cultural life are necessary to create cultural democracies and foster civic engagement. This makes proposed budget cuts in the cultural area, such as those recently proposed in a number of countries, deeply worrying.

Creative approaches in the field of culture contribute in many ways to creating, developing and maintaining peaceful and inclusive societies in which all human rights can find increased realization. An important example is Free Women Writers, a non-profit, non-partisan and all-volunteer women’s rights organization composed of writers, students and activists based in Afghanistan and the Afghan diaspora. Its mission is to improve the lives of Afghan women through advocacy, storytelling and education. Its books are available in local languages free of cost. The proceeds are used to provide educational opportunities through scholarships, and to increase access to “consciousness-raising literature”.

Governments and intergovernmental bodies must provide robust support for human rights for these kinds of actions to thrive. This entails accepting that some artistic and cultural works will inevitably be critical of government and of society, and sometimes of aspects of cultural and religious practices, and requires that Government refrain from trying to control or censor these works.

Artistic and cultural initiatives that underscore what unites different people despite their diversity can make an important contribution. For example, in Burundi, drumming groups in which all ethnic groups were represented existed before the ethnic violence of the 1990s erupted. The participants had built groups around the shared practice where they experienced values of inter-ethnic trust and solidarity, and chose to emphasize their identity as drummers over their ethnic origin. Between March 1994 and March 1998, the drummers continued playing and performing in different neighbourhoods, supported each other and saved each other’s lives repeatedly.

Governments have the responsibility to preserve existing spaces and institutions for this exercise of cultural rights as well as to create new ones, and to support the voices of tolerance, equality and diversity.

When faced with violence, oppression and hardship in various forms, every society searches for ways to make sense of the experience, to cultivate resilience, mourn losses and move forward. This is particularly true in the immediate aftermath of conflict.

Artistic and cultural initiatives provide tools to understand suffering and means of expression for individuals, groups and entire societies, and hence can help to increase capacity to recover from human rights violations. Examples in this area include artistic and cultural practices that have been at the frontline of resisting oppression and upholding the values of diversity, human rights and inclusion, and of standing against fundamentalist ideologies and terrorism, and have helped people reclaim public space and speak out after violent attacks. Artists and cultural workers can and have in many different contexts played a leading role in responding to conflict and displacement, acting as spokespersons, conveners, and facilitators. In so doing, they give voice to others and act as human rights defenders and cultural rights defenders, but they also often face risks, and their own human rights may need defense.

In fact, socially engaged artists in many contexts may face human rights violations, which is entirely unacceptable. A striking example is the Belarus Free Theatre, an international theatre company operating underground in Belarus and led by artistic directors in exile who were forced to flee after repeated arrests, including, on one occasion, the arrest of the entire ensemble and its audience. The company uses the power of art to inspire people to take action to defend human rights and bring about systemic change.

Finally, the section of the report concerned with rebuilding trust and promoting reconciliation presents some of the contributions artistic and cultural initiatives can make to help rehumanize self and the other, listen to and tell stories, acknowledge and address injustice, and imagine and substantiate new and shared futures. In the aftermath of trauma or violence, including terrorism, and in deeply divided societies, one important element of constructing relationships of trust is addressing legacies of past violence. The contributions of artists and cultural workers in processes of memorialization, reconciliation and historical narratives must be broadly acknowledged and supported.

I encourage States and other stakeholders to explore these themes further as they can significantly contribute to strengthening the universality of human rights and to achieving sustainable development and peace and to building social cohesion.

My report also looks into the conditions necessary for those involved in such initiatives to exercise their right to take part in and contribute, through these actions in the field of culture, to shaping the societies they live in. These include accessible infrastructures and public spaces for artistic and cultural initiatives, recognition of the importance of participation, strong commitment to diversity and to combating discrimination. It is also critical to combat sexual harassment of women in the cultural field which impedes their ability to exercise their cultural rights in equality and dignity.

The report makes specific recommendations to many stakeholders, including States, transitional justice mechanisms, cultural and educational institutions, civil society organizations, donors and international bodies, that share the responsibility to establish and maintain these conditions. I invite you all to read these recommendations carefully and to take measures to implement them. They include a call to uphold international standards on the right to take part in cultural life, and on freedom of expression, and to respect and ensure the human rights of artists and those engaging in the cultural field, and their audiences.

Another important point to stress is the enormous difficulties many artists, cultural workers and cultural organizations face in generating needed financial resources. Investing in culture is still, unfortunately, considered by many as a luxury and not as a critical part of our human rights strategies. For the sake of human rights, including cultural rights, this must change as a matter of urgency.

Thank you.

* Any reference to Kosovo, whether to the territory, institutions or population, is to be understood in full compliance with Security Council resolution 1244 (1999) and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo.