GENEVA (22 October 2020) – 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, a UN human rights expert said today.
“While most human rights are affected by climate change, cultural rights are drastically affected, and in many cases risk being simply wiped out,” Karima Bennoune, UN special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, told the UN General Assembly. “We may lose centuries of human cultural achievement, many of the cultural 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, she said. It must be recognized as a matter of international legal obligation and addressed as a priority.
While the climate emergency threatens all humanity and all human cultures, the impacts hit specific peoples and places disproportionately. Climate change poses particular threats to the cultures of people living in vulnerable environments such as small island developing states, the Sahel or the Arctic, as well as persons with disabilities, women and youth.
Destruction of cultural heritage caused by climate change 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 – who have often done the least to contribute to it – have fewer resources to protect their cultures from its effects,” Bennoune said. “This could result in many 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. We cannot be passive observers of cultural extinction.”
International cooperation and funding, together with local empowerment and participation, are essential to ensure this does not occur. She called 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. An especially urgent global effort to prevent the cultural extinction of populations facing particular threats should be top priority.
At the same time that they are under threat, cultural rights and cultural resources, including traditional knowledge, are powerful allies in the battle against climate change, Bennoune said. “Arts and culture are vital avenues for sharing information about climate change and mobilizing people, and should be more fully integrated into climate action.”
States should apply a rights-based approach to all aspects of climate change and climate action. This approach must include consideration of cultural rights and cultural impacts and full participation of those most affected.
“Sweeping cultural change will be necessary to alter the trajectory of catastrophic climate change,” she said. “We must now make the choices and changes needed to achieve the 1.5°C target, and fully embrace the value of our own human and cultural survival above profits and short-term convenience.”
“When we emerge from the pandemic, it would be a tragic mistake for the international community and States to prioritize economic growth, without concern for its environmental impact, to the detriment of human rights, cultures and desperately needed climate action,” she said. “This will only lead us straight into another catastrophe. Instead, we must choose holistic, human rights-based strategies that allow us to build back better and enhance climate action. Culture and cultural rights must be core components of such strategies.”
Karima Bennoune was appointed UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights in October 2015. Ms. Bennoune grew up in Algeria and in the United States. She is Professor of Law and Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall Research Scholar at the University of California-Davis School of Law, where she teaches human rights and international law.
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