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Mixing cultures is a human right, UN expert says

NEW YORK (21 October 2021) – A UN human rights expert today called for greater recognition of human rights-respecting ‘cultural mixing’, and increased respect for mixed and multiple cultural identities, while recognizing that cultures do not always mix from a position of equality.

“Cultural mixing and syncretism, or the combining and merging of various cultural elements, have been constants in changing human cultures and in the lived realities of people around the world throughout history,” said Karima Bennoune, the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights. “Understanding and acknowledging this is closely related to promoting coexistence and intercultural solidarity.”

“People celebrate holidays jointly, take part in each others practices, mix languages, share in the dress and food of others, learn from their traditions, and experience different kinds of love. The acceptance of joy and rights-respecting experimentation around culture should be a source of pride, not a cause for shaming on social media. Our cultural lives and rights are all connected.”

“Cultures often do not meet on a level playing field. Rights-respecting cultural mixing should happen within a framework of equality, and requires challenging cultural inequalities, internationally and nationally, especially those which affect marginalized people,” the expert added.

In recent years, increasingly monolithic ideas about culture and identity and purist views of the interrelationships between diverse cultures have taken hold around the world, and have been advocated by some Governments, Bennoune said.

“Refusal to respect cultural mixing or mixed cultural identities leads to many human rights violations,” the UN expert said. “For example, rejection of syncretism has led to attacks on religious sites and relics important for some Afro-Brazilians, such as the destruction of terreiros from Umbanda and Candomblé. 

“Today, under the control of the Taliban, the rich cultural diversities and syncretic culture of Afghanistan, in heritage, in women’s dress, and in music - which has now been banned, are threatened with obliteration.  Meanwhile, Afghan artists and cultural practitioners are gravely at risk and in need of international support.”

In many places, people face multiple exclusions due to their mixed identities, Bennoune said. “When the concept of being mixed is viewed as ‘impure’, they are more likely to be excluded from equal participation in cultural life. Meanwhile, their contributions to our understanding of the richness of identities and cultural life are considerable. In fact, we must recognize that everyone has multiple identities; this is simply more pronounced or obvious for certain people.

“A central challenge for this mixed and diverse human family, endowed with universal rights and equality, is to find ways for our cultural borrowing and creative fusions to promote those human rights and our co-existence.”


The Special Rapporteur is holding an event to mark the launch of this report, featuring Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka and Afghan artist Omaid Sharifi on zoom on Oct. 26.  Register here: https://law.ucdavis.edu/news/files/The-Children-of-An-Infinity-of-Cultures-26-Oct-invite.pdf
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. She is currently a Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan Law School.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact Stee Asbjornsen (+41 22 917 9827/ sasbjornsen@ohchr.org) or write to srculturalrights@ohchr.org.

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts, please contact Renato Rosario De Souza (renato.rosariodesouza@un.org) or Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 79 444 7578 / jeremy.laurence@un.org).

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