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Statement by Karima Bennoune
Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights


75th session of the General Assembly
Third Committee Item 72 (a-d)

22 October 2020
New York

Madam Chair, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Good afternoon.

Urgent action on climate change is needed to protect the cultures, cultural heritage and cultural rights of billions of people around the world, and to avoid the cultural extinction of the most vulnerable. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate emergency remains one of the greatest threats humanity has ever faced and is the leading global threat to cultural rights. It must be addressed with urgency. This is why my report for the General Assembly this year focuses on the nexus of climate change, culture and cultural rights.

I was grateful to receive 59 submissions in response to the questionnaire circulated in preparation for this report and thank all contributors. Relevant international legal frameworks are covered in the annex along with further examples from submissions. The annex, available on the mandate’s homepage, should be read in conjunction with the report.

The negative impacts of climate change on human cultures and on the enjoyment by all of their internationally guaranteed cultural rights, and the positive potential of our cultures and the exercise of our cultural rights to serve as critical tools in our response to the climate emergency, must both be placed on the international agenda and be subjects of further study. We need a tripartite integration of environmental, cultural and human rights perspectives on climate change, in policy and expertise, and the creation of channels of communication and institutionalized cooperation between policymakers, international organizations, and civil society in all three areas.

Given the shortness of time, I wish to emphasize two main points.

1) First, let me stress the scale of the threat the climate emergency poses to cultures. While most human rights are affected by climate change, cultural rights are particularly drastically affected, in that they risk being simply wiped out in many cases. We may lose centuries of human cultural achievement, many of the cultural and heritage sites and practices that people hold most dear, and even entire ways of life. This reality has not been adequately acknowledged in current climate change initiatives. It must be recognized as a matter of international legal obligation and addressed as a priority. Adequate analysis and documentation, including a complete mapping of cultural, cultural heritage and cultural rights damage, and the development of comprehensive strategies for preventing and responding to it, are essential tasks going forward.

These effects on cultural rights are already visible. During my mission to Maldives, I visited a centuries-old cemetery reportedly containing the graves of those involved in bringing Islam to Maldives. That cemetery is less than 100 metres from the ocean; sea level is rising. Locals fear the site will be gone in 10 years. A then 15-year-old Maldivian environmental and cultural heritage activist said to me on that site: “I fear for the survival of my country.” No one, least of all a young person, should have to face such fears.

On mission in Tuvalu, I visited the country’s only library, 20 metres from the shore and threatened by sea level rise. I met the librarian determined to save its collection. It contains historical documents such as the letter officially recognizing the country’s independence, but also meteorological and tide records that are critical tools for climate research. Its loss would impact Tuvaluans most, but would also harm us all. The Tuvaluan librarian I met recently reminded me that while there has been much discussion of climate change what is needed now is action. Indeed, the point of my report is to spark urgent implementation of the recommendations. The existential threats faced by the librarian’s home country and others make clear the urgency. An official asked me: “If we are not here anymore, what will happen to our culture?”

While the climate emergency threatens humanity in its entirety and all human cultures, the impacts hit specific peoples and places disproportionately, posing particular threats to the cultures of populations living in vulnerable environments such as small island developing States, the Sahel or the Arctic, as well as persons with disabilities and youth. Women and girls already face many obstacles to the enjoyment of their cultural rights, and climate change worsens these inequalities, including in accessing education. Climate change-induced destruction of cultural heritage has particularly significant effects on indigenous peoples, for whom connections to land and ecosystems play such an important role.

We must be committed to climate culture justice, as those most affected by climate change and who have often done the least to contribute to it have fewer resources to protect their cultures from its effects. This could result in much of the cultural traces of the biggest victims of climate change being allowed to disappear while the histories of those most responsible are more protected. This is unacceptable and in this 75th anniversary year, we must recognize this to be a clear violation of the spirit of the UN Charter itself. We cannot be passive observers of cultural extinction. International cooperation and funding, partnered with local empowerment and participation, are essential to ensure this does not occur.

I call on the international community to adopt a human rights-based global action plan to save the cultures of humanity and protect cultural rights from the climate emergency, prioritizing prevention of the cultural extinction of populations living in the most vulnerable environments. Another critical step is to recognize the human right to a healthy environment, a sine qua non for the enjoyment of cultural rights.

2) My second major point is that even as they are under threat, cultural rights and cultural resources, including traditional knowledge, are powerful allies in the battle against climate change. Arts and culture are vital avenues for sharing information and mobilizing people, and should be more fully integrated into climate action. I call on all relevant actors to promote and support cultural expressions around climate change and its effects. “Culture allows us to reimagine the world.” Cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and creativity are climate assets and should be recognized as such. Traditional knowledge can inform our understanding of climate impacts and human rights-respecting adaptation strategies. I call on states to provide funding and capacity-building to enhance the ability of indigenous peoples to employ their traditional knowledge to mitigate and adapt to climate change; and to ensure that traditional knowledge is used with the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples.

Culture and cultural rights have inherent value for human beings and for their enjoyment of many other human rights. However, we must now also recognize their tremendous utility in our existential fight against catastrophic climate change. This means that all environmental standards and policies should take the cultural dimension into consideration, and that we have yet one more reason to take cultures seriously, to protect cultural heritage and ensure cultural rights. Without them, we are at even greater risk in our warming world.

Thank you.