Header image for news printout

Interactive Dialogue Statement
Human Rights Council, 43th Session
Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights

Good afternoon.

Today I will present two country reports followed by my thematic report.

Country Report I: Poland

First, I turn to my report on Poland. I congratulate Poland on its investment in the cultural sector, including in supporting performing arts, heritage and museums, and in efforts to ensure accessibility for persons with disabilities. I commend the protection of cultural rights, including of minorities, in the Constitution and laws and Poland's high rate of ratification of international treaties guaranteeing cultural rights. The world can and should learn much from Poland's long tradition of sophisticated cultural institutions and vibrant cultural life. The country's cultural strength rests on the achievements of its diverse artists, the contributions of its cities, and the creation of space for debate.

However, all these achievements are currently challenged by attempts at official cultural engineering aimed at reducing cultural expression to reflect a monolithic vision of contemporary society and a simplistic version of Polish history. These trends undermine human rights, including cultural rights. For example, I am very concerned about the dissolution of Mr. Pawel Machecewicz's contract as director of the World War II museum in Gdansk and the fact that he continues to face investigation and interrogation. I am also troubled by repeated attacks in the media by representatives of the ruling party on the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the failure to renew the contract of its now former director. Polish authorities must respect the independence of cultural institutions.

I am pleased that criminal penalties were removed from the law on the Institute of National Remembrance which limits language that can be used to refer to certain historical events related to the Second World War, including the Holocaust. However, the remaining possibility of civil liability may have a chilling effect on cultural institutions. Moreover, at the time of my visit, debates over the amendments had already contributed, as survey data indicated, to the increase in hate speech, in particular of an anti-Semitic nature.

Polish authorities must re-commit to a vibrant and plural cultural life, and take greater steps to ensure that all sectors of Polish society are included in it, without discrimination. Using the label "anti-Polish" to characterize those in the cultural fields with a different vision of Polish society and history stifles freedom of expression and should be avoided. Hate speech, intolerance and discriminatory attitudes, including anti-Semitism, must be combated with urgency.

I condemn the assassination of the Mayor of Gdansk Mr. Paweł Adamowicz during a cultural event shortly after my visit, in January 2019, and I call for the alleged perpetrator to be brought to justice, and for a full investigation of the reported role of hate speech in motivating this tragic killing.

The government of Poland must act with urgency to ensure that acts of political violence, including those motivated by extremist rhetoric and hate speech, do not multiply, and that efforts are made, including through culture, to address the polarization of Polish society. Safeguarding the separation of religion and state is also vital.

Women are very active in the cultural sector. However, I am concerned about religious and cultural narratives used to justify discrimination against women. I urge the Government to comprehensively build a culture of equality.

There is growing acceptance of LGBTI people in Polish society, and increasing possibility for open cultural expression of their identity, including through pride marches. However, I remain concerned about the lack of specific legal protection for LGBTI persons under Polish law, a gap which must be filled promptly.

I pay tribute to all those who engage vigorously in defence of cultural rights today in Poland, and hope they will receive full national and international support in their important work. In particular, I call on the authorities to respect the independence of the Commissioner for Human Rights, a key mechanism for ensuring cultural rights, and guarantee all the necessary conditions for this institution to effectively fulfill its mandate.

I encourage the government to carefully consider implementing my recommendations to ensure the cultural rights of all and preserve the country's many proud cultural achievements.

Country Report II: Maldives

Next, I turn to my report on Maldives. Ongoing reforms and the renewed commitment of the Government to International Human Rights mechanisms are steps in the rights direction. These reforms must be realized with urgency and a clear commitment to full realization of all universal human rights, including cultural rights. The Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage, which was recently created, a development which I welcome, must receive all the resources needed to achieve full implementation of cultural rights, including by identifying and protecting the country's cultural resources, which have long been disregarded. This includes its Dhivehi language in schools, and diversity of different atolls. I hope my recommendations can help address the challenges.

Maldives must effectively tackle fundamentalist ideology at a high level, using a human rights approach and without equivocation. Fundamentalism - in the form of a politicized and often imported interpretation of religion as distinct from ordinary piety - is one of the greatest threats to the rich culture of Maldives, including Maldivian cultural and religious practices. I condemn the dissolution of the Maldivian Democratic Network, reportedly due to its work on fundamentalism. Many, including officials, artists, and civil society representatives, reported experiencing threats motivated by fundamentalist ideology. In other cases, this ideology has resulted in violence, including the disappearance and reported murder of poet, journalist, and secularist Ahmed Rilwan, the killing of satirist, blogger and secularist Yameen Rasheed, and the murder of a moderate religious leader Dr. Afrasheem, all reportedly by the same group - a local affiliate of Al Qaeda. These crimes had a harmful impact on the cultural expression of others, and many expressed fears about their recurrence. It is essential that perpetrators be brought to justice without delay, and that these victims are memorialized. The recommendations of the Commission on Investigation of Murders and Enforced Disappearances should be fully implemented without delay, in accordance with international standards.

I am deeply concerned about the lack of freedom of religion or belief and its impact on the right of everyone to take part in cultural life, without discrimination. This includes the exclusion of non-Muslims from becoming citizens and the inability of non-Muslims to practice their religion publicly or have their own places of worship. While welcoming the commitment of Maldives' government to considering implementing my recommendations, I am also dismayed by the government indicating that it will not, in its own words, implement "recommendations related to freedom of religion which is in contravention to the Constitution."

Furthermore, there are reportedly increasing patterns of violence against women which must be addressed.

I commend Maldives for its international leadership on climate change which poses an existential threat to the country and its culture. A 15-year-old Maldivian environmental and cultural heritage activist, speaking about the potential loss of local cultural sites and erosion of his home island, told me: "I fear for the survival of my country." No young person should have to face such fears. The international community must act effectively to respond to the climate emergency, recognizing the right to a healthy environment. At the national level, I hope that 1) the laudable human rights-based approach to climate change will be further implemented, 2) that impacts on culture will be given further consideration, 3) that climate action will respect cultural rights, and 4) that there will be enhanced cooperation between officials in the areas of environment and culture.

Thematic Report: Cultural Rights Defenders

Finally, I turn to my thematic report about cultural rights defenders – human rights defenders who defend cultural rights in accordance with international standards, 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. Despite the importance of these rights, and their normative grounding, they are not always given the attention they deserve, and not always recognized as human rights with the same standing as other rights. Cultural rights defenders are therefore often not fully recognized for their work, do not receive adequate support and are not granted appropriate protection. This must change, and both cultural rights and those who defend them must be acknowledged as critical to the human rights framework and its full implementation.

According to the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders adopted by the General Assembly, everyone has the right to strive for the protection and realization of human rights. Hence, cultural rights defenders have the right to undertake their work. The Sustainable Development Goals are key to the work of cultural rights defenders and vice versa. Moreover, the safeguarding and promotion of culture contributes directly to many of the Goals.

The present report does not create a new category. Instead, it explicitly names, and seeks to empower and raise the profile of an existing, often ignored, category of human rights defenders. The task is to find cross-sectoral collaborative pathways to encourage the provision of funding and the development of improved support and protection programmes for people working on cultural rights, and to work against their unintentional erasure.

The report provides examples of cultural rights work being carried out across many fields from the defense of freedom of artistic expression to the defense of the right to access and enjoy cultural heritage, from defense of language rights to the challenging of harmful cultural practices. Cultural rights defenders may work to protect and promote the cultural rights of specific constituencies, such as indigenous peoples; members of minorities; and LGBTI persons.

Working for inclusion and participation of persons with disabilities in all aspects of cultural life is a global and vital part of cultural rights work. I note with admiration the emergence of a specialized field around arts, culture and disability, in particular in the last 20 years. I hope these issues will receive further attention from both cultural rights organizations and those working on the rights of persons with disabilities.

Women cultural rights defenders promote feminist approaches to cultures, and the transformative and empowering nature of equality in cultural rights that can also lead to the realization of other human rights. The work of women cultural rights defenders strengthens the rights of women to participate in cultural life in equality. This aspect of the struggle for gender equality has received insufficient attention.

Not every claim based on cultural arguments renders the person who makes it a cultural rights defender. The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders makes clear that human rights defenders must accept the universality of human rights, as defined in the Universal Declaration, and act in accordance with international human rights norms. The cultural rights defender label must not be misused to shield or legitimate efforts to undermine human rights protection.

The efforts of cultural rights defenders can have a significant effect: for example, when President Trump suggested in January 2020 that the United States might target sites of cultural importance in the Islamic Republic of Iran, rapid response by individuals and organizations concerned with heritage protection in both of those countries and around the world elicited clarification that relevant international norms would instead be respected.

The report highlights the wide range of vital standards guaranteeing the rights and recognizing the work of human rights defenders, including cultural rights defenders. These should be fully implemented without delay. However, many of the standards on human rights defenders, omit mention of aspects of human rights work specific to cultural rights or cultural rights defenders. While the general standards can and should be interpreted to cover these issues, elaboration of more explicit standards related to the work of cultural rights defenders could be a positive step. Moreover, mainstreaming of cultural rights and the work of cultural rights defenders across all work on human rights defenders is needed.

Cultural rights defenders face many specific difficulties and challenges enumerated in the report which need to be addressed. I can only mention a few here. They have a harder time having their work accepted as human rights work. As a result, they experience difficulties attracting funding, a lack of coverage from the media, and even a lack of attention from international bodies such as the UN and civil society. This lack of visibility magnifies risks. Cultural rights defenders who have faced violations have stressed to me that they feel safer when their cases and work receive international attention. There is regularly a lack of redress mechanisms available to cultural rights defenders and to ensure the effective protection and justiciability of cultural rights.

In addition, cultural rights defenders may face similar human rights violations as other human rights defenders. These include threats, violence and even killings, by State and/or non-State actors. When forced to flee, they may face further violations in exile.

Around the world, many cultural rights defenders are arbitrarily detained. For example, I was dismayed by the cruel re-arrest of cultural rights defender Osman Kavala in Turkey on 18 February, within hours of his acquittal. All such cases are of grave concern and I call for the immediate release of anyone detained for their work as a cultural rights defender.

We owe cultural rights defenders a significant debt of gratitude for the work they do to defend human rights and ensure beauty, expression, meaning and memory in our world. We should remember and honour all those who have fallen in defence of cultural rights by supporting and protecting those who continue their work. Such efforts must include full implementation of standards on the protection of cultural rights and on human rights defenders, including the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which applies fully to cultural rights defenders. In addition, those efforts require full consultation of and participation by cultural rights defenders in the development of programmes to benefit them.

Cultural rights will not realize themselves. The work of cultural rights defenders to protect and promote these rights is urgently needed in today's fraught world, as is our collective work to support them in doing so.

Thank you.