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COVID-19 Pandemic May Lead to a “Cultural Catastrophe”, Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights Warns in Dialogue with the Human Rights Council

3 March 2021
AFTERNOON

Special Rapporteur on the Environment Draws Attention to the Worsening Water Crisis 

The Human Rights Council this afternoon held an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, and started an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment.  It also concluded its interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the enjoyment of human rights of persons with albinism.  

Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, warned that the COVID-19 pandemic may lead to a global “cultural catastrophe” with severe, long-lasting consequences for human rights if effective action was not taken immediately to guarantee cultural rights.  Culture sectors had been among those hardest hit.  The economic crisis accompanying the pandemic had had disproportionate effects on cultural sectors and those who worked in them.  There had been gendered repercussions of the pandemic which had had a grave impact on women’s ability to take part in cultural life without discrimination.  Recalling that the right to science was to be enjoyed by everyone, without discrimination, she emphasised that actions such as the hoarding of vaccines by some wealthy nations were entirely unacceptable.    

In the ensuing discussion speakers stressed that artistic freedom and creation were essential to freedom of expression.  Investing in culture would be essential in addressing the effects of the pandemic.  How did the Special Rapporteur foresee artificial intelligence affecting cultural rights in the future?  Some speakers urged the Special Rapporteur to put an end to the harmful practice of basing her assessment on biased sources.  Prayers and science were not irreconcilable, other speakers said.  

Speaking were the European Union, Norway on behalf of Nordic and Baltic countries, Libya on behalf of the Group of Arab States, Israel, Malaysia, Philippines, Ecuador, Russian Federation, Iraq, Indonesia, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Armenia, Marshall Islands, Venezuela, India, Morocco, Iran, South Africa, Pakistan, United States, Egypt, Peru, Cameroon, Nepal, China, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Viet Nam, El Salvador, Syria, Fiji, Botswana, Cuba, Cyprus, Georgia, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Cambodia, Vanuatu and Ukraine. 

The following civil society organizations also took the floor: International Organization for the Right to Education and Freedom of Education, International Humanist and Ethical Union, International PEN, Sikh Human Rights Group, Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos HumanosAsociación Civil, China Association for Preservation and Development of Tibetian Culture, Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, Promotion du Développement Economique et Social, World Muslim Congress, South Youth Organization, British Humanist Association, Al Baraem Association for Charitable Work, and China Foundation for Human Rights Development. 

The Council then began an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, who presented seven key steps that States could take to fulfil their human rights obligations in relation to allocating, managing, conserving, protecting and restoring water. 

David R.  Boyd, Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, stated that water was the lifeblood of human beings and all life on Earth - people depended on clean water for drinking, cooking, cleaning and more.  And yet, over 2 billion people lacked access to safely managed drinking water, while over 4 billion lacked access to safely managed sanitation.  Water pollution, scarcity and water-related disasters impacted a wide range of human rights and affected the vulnerable and marginalised disproportionately.   

In the ensuing discussion, speakers emphasised the need to protect drinking water on the planet, given that it represented less than one per cent of total water on Earth.  Many speakers highlighted that climate change exacerbated the consequences and inequities associated with water pollution, water scarcity and water-related disasters - the relationship between water and climate change was complex and interrelated. 

Speaking were Finland on behalf of a group of countries, European Union, Cameroon on behalf of the African Group, Costa Rica on behalf of a group of countries, Jamaica on behalf of a group of countries, Monaco, Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations Children’s Fund, Germany, State of Palestine, Malaysia, France, Slovenia, France, Togo, Philippines, Libya, Ecuador, Russian Federation, Iraq, Indonesia, Senegal, Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Armenia, Marshall Islands, Venezuela, Morocco, India, Namibia and Gabon. 

At the beginning of the meeting, the Council concluded its interactive dialogue with Ikponwosa Ero, the Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights of persons with albinism.  The interactive dialogue with the Independent Expert started in a previous meeting and a summary can be found here.

In the discussion, speakers thanked the Independent Expert for her efforts over the last six years and called on the Council to adopt the resolution on the renewal of this crucial mandate.   People with albinism continued to experience discrimination and violence across Africa despite important progress in recent years.  It was particularly worrying that attacks against persons with albinism were often aimed at women, children, the elderly and persons with disabilities.  

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Ero noted that there was not enough funding available to the mandate holder.  Regarding best practices, Ms. Ero said she had released a report last year with a particular focus on women and children.  The political will of African States on the implementation of the plan of action was assured through its status as an African Union document.  The first future priority was to address the root causes of attacks, eliminating harmful practices - the Council must adopt the resolution on this matter later this year. 

Speaking were the following civil society organizations: Standing Voice, China Society for Human Rights Studies, Liberation, Congrès juif mondial, Rencontre Africaine pour la defense des droits de l'homme, and World Barua Organization.   

Speaking in right of reply were Armenia, Indonesia and Azerbaijan. 

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here.  All meeting summaries can be found here.  Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s forty-sixth regular session can be found here.

The Council will next meet at 10 a.m.  on Thursday, 4 March to conclude its interactive dialogue with the Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt, followed by an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.  The interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment will resume at 3 p.m.  tomorrow.

Interactive Dialogue with the Independent Expert on the Enjoyment of Human Rights of Persons with Albinism

The interactive dialogue with Ikponwosa Ero, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights of persons with albinism, started in a previous meeting and a summary can be found here.

Interactive Discussion

Speakers thanked Ms. Ero for her efforts over the last six years and called on the Council to adopt the resolution on the renewal of this crucial mandate.  Persons with albinism continued to experience discrimination and violence across Africa despite important progress in recent years.  Speakers noted that persons with albinism suffered also from social prejudices and discrimination, necessitating the improvement of healthcare systems to be accompanied by increasing social awareness and understanding of the issue.  The regional action plan on albinism in Africa, for example, had made a massive contribution to improving awareness.  Collecting information, conducting situation analysis and supporting participatory research was the least that States could be doing to help the situation.  Certain documents, such as the guidelines on harmful practices related to accusations of witchcraft and ritual attacks, were still to be implemented, and once done, they should serve as the blueprint for regulations across the globe.  It was particularly worrying that attacks against persons with albinism were often aimed at women, children, the elderly and persons with disabilities. 

Concluding Remarks

IKPONWOSA ERO, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights of persons with albinism, noted that there was not enough funding available to the mandate holder.  Regarding best practices, Ms. Ero said she had released a report last year with a particular focus on women and children.  The political will of African States on the implementation of the plan of action was assured through its status as an African Union document.  The first future priority was to address root causes of attacks, eliminating harmful practices - the Council must adopt the resolution on this matter later this year.  Secondly, to end attacks against persons with albinism it was important to have a fund to support countries.  Finally, many countries were testing persons with albinism before allowing them access to certain resources - this was unconscionable and had to stop.  Preventable skin cancer was ravaging persons with albinism around the world; affordable and accessible treatment must be ensured.

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights 

Reports 

The Council has before it the report of the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights A/HRC/46/34 on COVID-19, culture and culture rights, and A/HRC/46/34/Add.1 on her visit to Tuvalu 

Presentation of Reports 

KARIMA BENNOUNE, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, thanking the Tuvaluan Government for its cooperation, said she had been pleased to visit Tuvalu in September 2019.  The Tuvaluan Government needed to affirmatively protect diversity, including specific island cultures, in accordance with international standards.  While she had received reports that the Government was trying to promote religious tolerance in general, she had also noted with concern information received regarding impediments to the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief by members of religious minorities on the outer islands, as well as the lower participation of women in decision-making at all levels.    In the face of climate change and sea level rise, widespread participation in decisions about what aspects of culture and cultural heritage to prioritize preservation of, and about how to memorialize any heritage losses was essential.  She recommended the development of further initiatives aimed at digitizing traces of cultural sites and objects.  Ms. Bennoune stressed the truly existential human rights challenges that Tuvalu faced due to the climate emergency, including to its very cultural survival. 

Turning to her thematic report on COVID-19, the Special Rapporteur warned that the pandemic may lead to a global “cultural catastrophe” with severe, long-lasting consequences for human rights if effective action was not taken immediately to guarantee cultural rights.  The report surveyed the negative impacts of COVID-19 on cultures and cultural rights worldwide, and the positive potential of cultures and cultural rights, and the right to science, to enhance rights-respecting solutions. 

Culture sectors had been among those hardest hit.  The economic crisis accompanying the pandemic had had disproportionate effects on cultural sectors and those who worked in them.  There had been gendered repercussions of the pandemic which had had a grave impact on women’s ability to take part in cultural life without discrimination.    Recalling that the right to science was to be enjoyed by everyone, without discrimination, she emphasised that actions such as the hoarding of vaccines by some wealthy nations were entirely unacceptable.   The report laid out a cultural rights-based framework for action under the acronym CULTURES, which stood for “consultation”, “urgency”, “legal obligations”, “twenty-first century”, “upping the funding”, “rights-based”, “everyone”, and “solidarity”. 

Interactive Discussion

Speakers stressed that artistic freedom and creation were essential to freedom of expression.  Investing in culture would be essential in addressing the effects of the pandemic.  How did the Special Rapporteur foresee artificial intelligence affecting cultural rights in the future?  Some speakers urged the Special Rapporteur to put an end to the “harmful practice” of basing her assessment on biased sources.  Prayers and science were not irreconcilable, other speakers said.  As their culture and communities were linked to their land and in order to safeguard their right to self-determination, it was crucial that any climate change reform took into account cultural rights, speakers said.  The right to science was essential for the enjoyment of many other human rights, including the right to the highest attainable standard of health; in this context, equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine was crucial.  The economic effects of the crisis on those working in the arts and culture had been disproportionate, and they were faced with an unemployment rate that could impoverish cultural life for years to come.

Interim Remarks

KARIMA BENNOUNE, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, said that in order to harness the full potential of scientific knowledge, it was important to depoliticise the scientific response to the pandemic.  To get policymakers to pay more attention to freedom of artistic expression, Governments, including top leadership, should stress that cultural rights were not a luxury.  Commitments to non-discrimination and inclusion should be maintained.  Addressing the global gap in access to science and technology was an important issue that could be tackled through, inter alia, the Joint Appeal for Open Science.  Prayer was an important part of cultural practices, but it was not an alternative to science-based decision-making, even though it could serve as a complement for those who believed.

Interactive Discussion

Speakers reiterated calls to reject stigmatisation and politicisation, noting that the Special Rapporteur at times defended hate speech under the guise of freedom of expression, jeopardising the credibility of the United Nations.  Some speakers said that new ways of performing, working and convening had been invented during the pandemic, allowing all to share their cultures over the Internet, but also underlined the effects of the digital divide and the lack of Internet access in the Global South.  Counter hegemonic cultural projects that sought to protect the historical and cultural legacies of marginalised, oppressed and colonised societies were particularly important.  Speakers noted that visual artists had been disproportionately targeted for speaking out about the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in their countries.  The misuse of COVID-19 legislation by governments had further weakened the normative framework relating to artistic freedom and cultural rights.  In times of crisis, a sense of community in schools was important, and international resources must be put forward to protect children’s educational development.  Many speakers highlighted the report’s recommendation to increase funding to the arts and the cultural sector.  All artists and cultural rights defenders detained arbitrarily, including those arrested as part of misguided COVID-19 response measures, must be released. 

Concluding Remarks

KARIMA BENNOUNE, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, said she appreciated the connections between cultural and economic rights, including the right to work.  The digital divide was a real challenge to overcome - this stark inequality had to be addressed globally and nationally.  Regarding hate speech, the ongoing online harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, as well as women, was concerning.  She thanked the Council for entrusting her with this important mandate and her mother for everything she had done to facilitate her work.  Ms. Bennoune asked the friends of human rights to work in a general manner, recognizing the work of Special Rapporteurs and increasing the available funds.  She also called on all States to do more to systematically implement her recommendations, hold perpetrators accountable and assist victims.  No one should have to risk their life, or their freedom, to create.

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Issue of Human Rights Obligations Relating to the Enjoyment of a Safe, Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment

Report

The Council has before it the report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment A/HRC/46/28 on Human rights and the global water crisis: water pollution, water scarcity and water-related disasters

Presentation of the Report

DAVID R. BOYD, Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, stated that water was the lifeblood of human beings and all life on Earth - people depended on clean water for drinking, cooking, cleaning and more.  And yet, over 2 billion people lacked access to safely managed drinking water, while over 4 billion lacked access to safely managed sanitation.  At the same time, wildlife populations that depended on freshwater habitats had crashed by an average of 80 per cent since 1970 - climate change exacerbated pollution, scarcity and disasters.  Water pollution, scarcity and water-related disasters impacted a wide range of human rights and affected the vulnerable and marginalised disproportionately.  At the same time, when the rights of women and indigenous peoples were protected, they could contribute greatly to water solutions.  Women and indigenous peoples were key actors in improving the way water was used, allocated and managed.

States should apply a rights-based approach to all aspects of allocating, managing, conserving, protecting and restoring water.  The report outlined seven key steps that States could take to fulfil their obligations.  A state-of-the-water assessment covering all information on quality, pollution, supply and human rights must be prepared.  Conducting a legal mapping that ensured the incorporation of human rights in water laws and policies, developing and implementing water-related plans, laws and policies to incorporate a rights-based approach, and evaluating progress to ensure fulfilment of human rights should be considered.  Additionally, States should continue to build capacity and inform the public.  Mr. Boyd noted that the report also contained several examples of good practices at the international and national levels.  It was important to note that environmental activists and human rights defenders continued to be harassed and murdered due to their brave actions.

Interactive Discussion

Speakers emphasised the need to protect drinking water on the planet, given that it represented less than one per cent of total water on Earth.  Many speakers highlighted that climate change exacerbated the consequences and inequities associated with water pollution, water scarcity and water-related disasters - the relationship between water and climate change was complex and interrelated.  The fact that four billion people had little to no access to drinking water services and sanitation was an alarming reality.  Water scarcity posed a particular risk to small island developing States despite the innovative solutions they implemented to mitigate this challenge.  The COVID-19 pandemic had further raised the importance of protecting the environment, healthy ecosystems and biodiversity to reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases.  Speakers welcomed the seven steps that would facilitate States’ obligations to ensure a rights-based approach to water management, highlighting a number of existing national measures aiming to involve local communities in protecting water resources and combatting water scarcity. 

Interim Remarks

DAVID R. BOYD, Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, noted that most States were applying integrated water resources management that aimed to maximise social and economic welfare, but the way it was implemented was not rights-based.  There was evidence that a rights-based approach produced more effective, equitable and efficient outcomes, for instance when involving women and local communities in water management.  There was enough water for everyone, but States routinely gave priority to corporations.  Hundreds of good governance practices made public only yesterday were available on the Special Rapporteur’s website.  COVID-19 had highlighted the importance of water and the inequality of its distribution - it was clear that more must be done to achieve the goal of giving access to clean water for all.

Interactive Discussion 

Speakers, echoing the Special Rapporteur, stressed that climate change was a risk multiplier and urged all countries to respond positively to the call for a dialogue on the possible universal recognition of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.  Some speakers pointed out that their constitution established the right to enjoy a safe and healthy environment, on an equal footing with the right to life or health.  Others outlined measures taken by their governments, such as the construction of seawater desalination plants and dams, and the provision of tap water connections to every rural household by 2024.  Some speakers said in some countries, the most fragile children and other vulnerable groups from poor populations were generally deprived of clean drinking water because of the global water crisis, which was linked to factors such as pollution, water scarcity and environmental damage.  Speakers asked the Special Rapporteur about the advantages of recycling wastewater.


Link: https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/meeting-summary/2021/03/afternoon-covid-19-pandemic-may-lead-cultural-catastrophe

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For use of the information media; not an official record