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Interactive Dialogue Statement at Human Rights Council, 46th session, by the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights Karima Bennoune

3 March 2021

Distinguished delegates,

It is my pleasure to have this opportunity to dialogue with the Human Rights Council. I will first present the report on my mission to Tuvalu, followed by my thematic report on COVID19 and cultural rights.

I was pleased to visit Tuvalu in September 2019 and thank the government for its cooperation. To strengthen guarantees for cultural rights, I called on the government of Tuvalu to become a party to both International Covenants, and the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Although Tuvalu already adheres to treaties guaranteeing equal rights for women and persons with disabilities, guarantees of non-discrimination based on sex and disability are not explicitly stated in the Constitution. I encourage the government to amend its laws to include such norms.

The Tuvaluan government needs to affirmatively protect diversity, including of specific island cultures, in accordance with international standards. I am particularly concerned about section 29 of the Tuvaluan Constitution of 1986, which stipulates that the exercise of human rights might be restricted if it is deemed “divisive” or to “threaten Tuvaluan values and culture.” I recommend that the government take measures to foster the acceptance of dissent and the right of everyone to raise human rights concerns publicly.

While I received reports that the Government is trying to promote religious tolerance in general, I 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. More work still needs to be done to change discriminatory cultural attitudes towards women. I was, however, pleased to note that some women pastors have been accepted by the Congregational Christian Church of Tuvalu. I hope that all human rights will be fully integrated during the review of the Constitution and that due consideration will be given to adding a right to take part in cultural life, without discrimination, to the bill of rights.

In terms of public spaces, I was impressed by the active use of the airfield as a shared space for sports and leisure. However, the lack of organized, available spaces for the exercise of cultural expressions – such as a national museum or theatres - diminishes access to cultural life, as does the minimal budget for culture. A national cultural centre could create more spaces for the enjoyment of cultural life, including for youth. As stressed by its Chief Librarian, much more needs to be done to protect the Tuvalu National Library and Archive’s documentary heritage. This should include increasing the budget, and moving it to a new building better adapted for the sustainable preservation of this unique collection threatened by the impact of climate change.

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 is essential. I recommend development of further initiatives aimed at digitizing traces of cultural sites and objects. Finally, I stress the truly existential human rights challenges Tuvalu faces due to the climate emergency, including to its very cultural survival, and I call upon the international community to act effectively to assist the country in facing them.

This brings me to my thematic report on COVID19, culture and cultural rights. The pandemic may lead to a global “cultural catastrophe” with severe, long-lasting consequences for human rights if effective action is not taken immediately to guarantee cultural rights. The report surveys 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.
Cultural rights are vital during a global health crisis. In fact, culture is the heart of our response to COVID-19. However, culture sectors have been among those hardest hit. Comprehensive global and national inventories of cultural rights effects should be carried out to inform policies. A cultural rights approach to the pandemic is essential. Government responses must make clear the value of arts and culture, and their importance for the enjoyment of human rights. The cultural rights commitments of states under international law require them to take action so as to avoid catastrophe but also to lead to cultural renewal as an essential component of any efforts to build back better.

The economic crisis accompanying the pandemic has had disproportionate effects on cultural sectors and those who work in them. Arts workers and cultural practitioners are amongst those hardest hit by pandemic-related unemployment crises worldwide. An entire generation of young artists may be forced to turn elsewhere, diminishing cultural life for years to come. Meanwhile, around the world some states and private donors are substantially reducing their commitments to cultural sectors. Harmful impacts are magnified in developing countries where cultural infrastructures are often weaker.

Public health responses to the pandemic which may be necessary and legitimate have had grave impacts on cultural rights which must be addressed. For example, many public spaces vital for the enjoyment of cultural rights have been closed, potentially leading to permanent closures. Moreover, there have been misuses of the justification of the pandemic as a cloak for violations of cultural rights, with some governments exploiting emergency powers to censor and criminalize artists with dissenting views. My concern about imprisoned cultural rights defenders, and artists, heightened with every such imprisonment possibly becoming a de facto death sentence due to the increased risk of contracting COVID-19. I call for all those imprisoned for their artistic or cultural work or their work as cultural rights defenders, to be immediately released.

There have been gendered repercussions of the pandemic which have a grave impact on women’s ability to take part in cultural life, without discrimination. Yet, there are few government measures specifically targeting gender equality in pandemic responses. All responses to the current cultural crisis must fully consider the cultural rights of women.

The right to science is essential for the enjoyment of many other human rights, including the right to health, during a pandemic. Moreover, the right to science is to be enjoyed by everyone, without discrimination. Actions such as the hoarding of vaccines by some wealthy nations are entirely unacceptable. Denial of science related to COVID-19 has also been a matter of great concern in some countries, including at the highest levels. Scientists have been prevented from speaking freely, public health officials and health care workers threatened and attacked. Such threats to the right to science and scientific freedom that undermine the human rights of many during the pandemic are the direct result of insufficient scientific and public health education, and the undermining of commitments to evidence-based public discourse, all of which must be addressed.

Positive developments in the field of cultural rights include a digital revolution. What will be essential going forward is to preserve and learn from what has been positive, while effectively addressing the negative aspects. However, digital cultural opportunities are undercut by the digital divide and may be limited based on disabilities or linguistic abilities. Hence, inclusion in and accessibility of cultural offerings must be emphasized. As important as digital cultural life may have become, where available, it is a complement not an alternative to a shared public cultural life in physical public spaces. States must commit to the full renaissance of that public cultural life. when that becomes safe again. Future generations must not lose the opportunity to go to the cinema, or the theatre or to browse in a bookshop.

During the pandemic, culture and cultural rights have been vital as means of building resilience, delivering public health messages, supporting mental health, overcoming isolation, and memorializing pandemic victims. Many say that without culture they would not have survived lockdowns. However, unless adequate support is provided to the cultural sectors, it will be impossible to fulfill those vital roles going forward. This is not the time for cuts in culture funding but for increases. I salute those states which have allocated substantial additional funds. Culture and arts funding and support for cultural workers should be integrated into all COVID-19 relief and stimulus packages, with the specific nature of cultural and artistic work accounted for. As not every state has adequate resources for what is needed in the crisis, solidarity must also be extended internationally, through the possible creation of a global culture fund.

CULTURES Framework for a Cultural Rights Response to the Pandemic and the Post-Pandemic:

The report lays out a cultural rights-based framework for action under the rubric of CULTURES.

C” stands for consultation of all affected stakeholders and their participation in making policies to protect cultural life and rights. “U” is for the urgency of the response needed in funding and support for cultural sectors and those who work in them. “L” is for legal obligations, a reminder that states are legally required by international human rights law to guarantee cultural rights for all. “T” is for twenty-first century, reminding us that the choices made now about defending cultural rights during and after the pandemic will be defining of how these rights are enjoyed for years to come, and whether they will be available to youth. “U” is for upping the funding for culture. “R” is for rights-based approaches. “E” stands for everyone, reminding us to maintain focus on inclusion and combat discrimination in the enjoyment of cultural rights. “S” represents solidarity, a core human rights value we need to guarantee cultural rights and the right to science, nationally and internationally, in the face of COVID-19.

I look forward to working with governments and other actors to implement the report’s recommendations. Let us together use culture and cultural rights and the right to science, to foster hope as we move forward out of the pandemic.