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Statement by Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights at the 73rd session of the General Assembly

New York, 23 October 2018

Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen, Good morning,

I would first like to thank the government of Poland for inviting me to conduct a mission from 24 September - 5 October 2018. I look forward to presenting my report to a future session of the Human Rights Council.

Let me also say that I regret that some of my Special Rapporteur colleagues will not be able to present their reports to the 3rd committee in person this year. I express the hope that a better consultation process will be put in place next year.

It is a pleasure to present my latest thematic report on universality and cultural diversity, and to thereby mark the upcoming 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from a cultural rights perspective. Cultural rights are a vital component of universality, and universality is essential to defend the foundations of cultural rights. Please join me and the distinguished Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka for further discussion of these issues today at a side event from 5:30-6:30 PM at the Church Center across the street.

Let me begin by recalling that I became a human rights lawyer because of the suffering of previous generations of my family at the hands of colonial forces during the anti-colonial struggle in their home country. The core human rights idea, that proclaims, to quote Article 1 of the Universal Declaration, that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” and that no derogation may be made from their rights on the basis of group affiliation or the status of the territory in which they live, is the antithesis of colonialism. This human rights idea, which has itself become a cultural commitment, insists on the prevailing of equality over hegemony, dignity over discrimination and rights over repression.

The universality of human rights is today the cornerstone of human rights law, regularly reaffirmed by states in new legal standards, and a foundational aspect of the human rights system. It greatly enhances the lives of all human beings, including by guaranteeing their cultural rights. It is a critical tool for human rights defenders around the world.

However, universality is currently under sustained attack from many directions, including by those who misuse culture and cultural rights justifications. This poses many challenges for all human rights, including cultural rights. In response, we need a foundational renewal of universality, and one with a broad youth constituency that can nourish the tradition of the UDHR during its next 70 years.

Meanwhile, in recent years, respect for cultural diversity has also been threatened by those who seek to impose monolithic identities and ways of being, who advocate various forms of supremacy and discrimination. Cultural diversity is still wrongly understood as being in opposition to universality, including by some Governments and other actors who misuse it as an excuse for violations of the very universal human rights within which its enjoyment is embedded, and by others who oppose the concept altogether.

Universality is not a weapon against cultural diversity, nor is cultural diversity a weapon against universality. The two principles are mutually reinforcing and interlocking. In today’s polarized world, we need a sophisticated multi-directional stance. We must simultaneously defend the universality of human rights from those seeking to use cultural claims as a weapon against rights, and at the same time defend cultural rights and respect for cultural diversity, in accordance with international standards, when those principles come under attack. This is an important way to mark the 70th anniversary of the UDHR and its Article 27 guarantee of the right to take part in cultural life without discrimination.

Women’s cultural rights are prime sites of threat to universality and must be rigorously defended, especially in a world where even some leaders openly denigrate women and deny their equality. Equality and universal human rights are not overridden by culture or what is claimed to be culture. Cultural rights are not an excuse for violations of other human rights. They do not justify discrimination or violence.

Universality is not an idea that belongs to any one country or culture, to any one region or religion. In this seventieth anniversary year, we have an obligation to remind ourselves of the contributions made by women and men from around the world to the Universal Declaration, and to promote and share its truly global history. The text adopted in 1948 was not an imposition of the values or cultures of any one region of the world, but rather a foundational challenge to entrenched systems of racial and sexual discrimination that were prevalent. Notwithstanding abstentions, not a single country voted against the Universal Declaration. It has become not only a vital international legal standard, but also one of the most important pieces of intangible cultural heritage created during the twentieth century and, thus, part of the cultural heritage of all humankind. It requires vigilant protection.

Ardent defenders of the universality of human rights are found in all regions. Its opponents are likewise geographically diverse. People and Governments in every part of the world are capable of violating or sustaining this idea. The rhetoric of universality often resonates most strongly with those who are most marginalized and discriminated against.

There are many forms of relativism that undermine human rights culture and meaningful universality. These include the refusal to recognize entire categories of rights, such as economic, social and cultural rights. Such an approach results in a selective universality, which is unacceptable. Tolerance of extreme poverty in the name of markets is as undermining of universality as is the attempt to justify discrimination in the name of culture. A robust universality must include civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, must include the rights of all people and must enable their full implementation.

In contrast to cultural diversity which is positive for human rights, cultural relativism - which suggests that some have lesser or different rights because of the collective to which they are assumed to belong, which uses culture not to amplify rights but to take them away – is destructive and has been repudiated by international law. Cultural relativism is no mere theoretical construct; the exclusions from rights protection it seeks to create have grave, sometimes lethal, consequences. The fact that the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women is the human rights convention subject to the most reservations, many of which are based on unacceptable cultural relativist excuses for not implementing women’s equality, is a matter of urgent concern.

It is reprehensible that relativist arguments even find their way into United Nations resolutions. “Sensitivities” do not overrule the international human rights obligations of States. No historical, social, cultural or religious “sensitivities” can justify the criminalization of one’s sexual orientation or gender identity, nor could they justify racial discrimination.

To effectively challenge cultural relativism, I call on States inter alia to:

(a) Review laws that discriminate against anyone on the basis of cultural or religious arguments, and bring them in line with universal human rights standards; and

(b) Refrain from using culture, cultural rights or tradition to justify violations of international human rights and ensure that no representative of the State does so in national or international forums.

Cultures also have many positive implications for the enjoyment of universal human rights. Cultural diversity is a necessary condition for and the result of the exercise of cultural rights by all.

We must recognize the very real histories of forced assimilation that have sometimes been imposed, inter alia, on indigenous peoples, minorities and people living under colonialism and the disdain with which their cultural resources have often been treated. Universality is about human dignity, not about homogeneity. But we must also recognize the diversity of diversities, not only between, but within all human collectivities. In all countries, there should be provisions and mechanisms to protect those who decide to step outside given cultural and religious frameworks, such as non-religious persons, from physical attacks, threats and incitement to hatred and violence. This diversity of diversities breaks the myth of homogeneous cultural blocs, and questions the authority of any person or institution to impose an interpretation on cultural resources.

To improve respect for cultural diversity, States should inter alia:

(a)    Recognize and value it within the framework of universal human rights and avoid abusively restricting its expression; recognize and respect cultural dissent, syncretism and cultural mixing, and the right to re-interpret cultures;

(b)    Reaffirm the importance of secularism and the separation of religion and State, and of both secular and intercultural spaces, for full enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief, and cultural rights.

I recently had the honor of visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Auschwitz-Birkenau Former Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp, a place where more than a million people died or were exterminated during the Second World War, the kind of atrocities which sparked the drafting of the UDHR. One of the displays contains a pile of shoes taken from Jews before they were gassed to death. The size of the pile is devastating. Yet, what may be most moving is the sight of one lone battered shoe in front of the pile. It is only by contemplating the terrible fate of its unique owner that we begin to comprehend the scale of the loss, and this cultural heritage site encourages us to do that. Those losses resulted from a murderous ideology based on rejection of both universal human rights and cultural diversity, an ideology which is today being echoed in many places.

As we commemorate the UDHR, we must heed the warning of George Santayana inscribed at Auschwitz: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The UDHR represented an important effort to collectively learn the lessons of the past and build a better future for all, with more inclusive, respectful cultures. We must reaffirm our commitment to its vision.

It is essential in 2018 to reflect that the diversity of cultural diversities in each and every society is not a threat or an impediment to universal human rights, but a reality and a resource. At the same time, we must not overlook our commonalities and overemphasize our differences, remembering always that we are all equal members of the human family, sharing one fragile planet, endowed with inherent dignity and possessing universal and inalienable rights, including the right to take part in cultural life.

Thank you for your attention.