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Statement by the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights on the importance of public spaces, presented at the 74th session of the General Assembly

22 October 2019

Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen, good morning,

I was pleased to visit Maldives and Tuvalu this year, and will report on my findings to future sessions of the Human Rights Council. My new thematic report focuses on the critical role played by public spaces in the enjoyment of human rights, and particularly cultural rights. The report also underlines the ways in which respect for cultural rights contributes to vibrant and accessible public spaces. The aim to “provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces” is enshrined in target 11.7 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This goal must be met as a matter of priority in order to ensure the enjoyment of many human rights, because many human rights guarantees must be understood as requiring the enjoyment of adequate public spaces by all, without discrimination. In particular, the rights to take part in cultural life without discrimination and freedom of artistic expression and creativity, as well as the cultural rights of particular categories of persons, such as persons with disabilities and women, cannot be enjoyed in the absence of such public spaces and of equal access to them. This means that the question of public space must be recognized as a human rights issue, and that a human rights approach which centers cultural rights should be taken to decision-making about public spaces, including related to their design, development and maintenance. The report insists on the responsibility of States for, and the roles of other actors in, ensuring that public spaces become or remain a sphere for deliberation, cultural exchange, and enjoyment of universal human rights.

Recent developments highlight issues raised in the report. The urgency of equal access is underscored by the September 2019 death of 29 year-old Sahar Khodayari, known as the “blue girl,” after setting herself on fire to protest being criminally charged for entering a stadium as a woman to watch a football match in the Islamic Republic of Iran. As I speak here today, I think of her, and all those around the world who have made sacrifices to defend equal access to public space. Moreover, recent proposals by the United States Department of the Interior and affiliated bodies to privatize parts of the U.S. national parks represent just one reminder that we must not take even the existence of our public spaces for granted. I was again struck by how much public spaces mean in people’s lives during my September mission to Tuvalu where the airfield is enjoyed in the evenings as a vibrant place of gathering and recreation, for women and men.

Building on definitions used by UNESCO, and other UN bodies, I define public spaces in summary as places that are publicly owned and accessible to all without discrimination, where people can share in the project of building a common society based on human rights, equality and dignity, while nurturing and expressing their own identities. They include cultural sites, as well as open, natural, virtual, urban and rural spaces, public facilities and streets. In the report, I use the term “public spaces” in its plural form, to underline the plurality and diversity of these spaces and the ways people use them. Such spaces are shared by many in both collective and distinctive ways. The existence and human rights-respecting management of such spaces, without discrimination, is a necessary precondition for the enjoyment of cultural rights and many other universal human rights. 

Though distinct, some privately owned spaces of public use may sometimes function as public spaces and also receive some consideration. Some groups, such as indigenous peoples, may at times need their own “common space”, which may not always be accessible to all, or accessible only under certain conditions. Such spaces must be respected, but are also governed by human rights standards, such as the prohibition of discrimination, including against women. 

From a cultural rights perspective, public spaces respond to the need to encounter others, offer a location for cultural practices, and convey important social and cultural meanings. They facilitate a diversity of cultural expressions and social participation. It is necessary to preserve existing public spaces, as well as to create new ones, for people to learn, develop their creativity and experience the humanity of others, and to foster civic engagement. Any limitations placed on the right to access and enjoy public spaces, as a constituent element of numerous human rights, must be compatible with the relevant international human rights standards. They need to be carefully evaluated in the specific context, taking into consideration the specificities of the space, the time and the users, and the rights of all persons concerned.

Ensuring that public space is the space of all is vital for cultural rights. It is important to consider the conditions of accessibility, including financial accessibility, which can maximize participation and equality in such spaces. Obstacles to inclusive public spaces generally include exclusionary policies, social norms or practices; lack of public knowledge about the location and uses of existing public spaces; and threats, violence and harassment. Authorities should: (1) make public spaces and the right of all to access them more widely known; (2) take steps to make these spaces more welcoming; and (3) provide further opportunities for social interaction in them. While the goal should be inclusion of all sectors of society, some groups face particular obstacles in accessing public spaces which require additional attention. Due to time, I will mention only two here, though others are addressed in the report.

1)Women: In their public space policies, public authorities must fully implement commitments in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to gender equality (Goal 5), including full equality in public life (target 5.5). In practice, women often face considerable obstacles in accessing public spaces in equality, owing to threats, harassment and violence, as well as socially constructed gender norms. Public authorities must effectively tackle these gender-based obstacles. 

De facto and de jure norms which exclude women altogether from certain public spaces, such as stadiums, mixed concerts, cafés, places of worship or heritage sites, are incompatible with international human rights norms and must be abrogated. Culture, tradition and cultural rights are not acceptable justifications for excluding women from enjoying their rights to access and enjoy public spaces in equality and dignity. Additionally, specific characteristics of public space may be conducive to, or restrict, women’s enjoyment of their cultural rights. The involvement of experts with a gender-sensitive perspective in public management can create more inclusive environments, as conscious and unconscious gender biases are deconstructed. Women’s roles in and their contributions to public spaces should be recognized and encouraged. 

2) Persons with Disabilities: For persons with disabilities, lack of accessibility in built environments, from roads and housing, to public buildings and spaces, directly affects their capacity to live independently and to fully participate in all aspects of life, including cultural life. Recent evidence reveals a widespread lack of accessibility for persons with disabilities in public spaces, even in countries where a reasonable adaptation of infrastructure to meet their needs is codified in legislation. Accessibility or inclusive “universal design” principles should be used from the initial stages of designing, as well as in building and restructuring public infrastructures, facilities and services. Studies have shown that, if integrated from the initial stages, universal design adds almost no or only 1 per cent in additional costs.

Certain kinds of spaces also require specific attention. For example, people may wish to access natural spaces for recreational activities, for cultural and spiritual practices or rituals, or for their symbolic and historical significance. Natural spaces should be made as accessible as possible to the public, subject only to the limitations permissible under international standards. Natural spaces also face grave risks from climate change, such as erosion of waterfronts or fires owing to resulting droughts. Effective and timely response to the climate emergency will be essential to preserve the ability to enjoy cultural rights related to these spaces. 

In many contexts, trends towards privatization may have a significant impact on the suitability of public spaces for the enjoyment of human rights, and may undermine cultural rights. Openness and accessibility may not be fully guaranteed, and this may lead to class-based spatial divisions. One solution is to establish zoning regulations requiring that every locality have meaningful public spaces, including green spaces. 

Some experts have claimed a free-standing human right to public spaces, and some States have recognized it. This idea merits serious consideration. In any case, as part of their internationally guaranteed human rights, including their cultural rights, all persons have the right, without discrimination, to access, use and enjoy public spaces or spaces of public use that are available in sufficient quantity, accessible, adequate, affordable and of good quality, and which reflect cultural diversity.

Public spaces are conduits for realizing universal human rights for all. If States, international organizations and the international community do not take the issue of public space seriously and fail to understand it as a basic question of human rights, it will be impossible to fulfil cultural rights, and indeed many other human rights. This issue must be addressed in a holistic manner using a human rights approach. I look forward to ongoing discussion about the implementation of my recommendations to that end.

Thank you.