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Statements Special Procedures

Statement by Ms. Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the Filed of Cultural Rights at the 34th Session of the Human Rights Council

03 March 2017

Geneva, 3 March 2017

Distinguished delegates,
Honored President,
Ladies and Gentleman.

Good afternoon. I will begin in a moment by presenting my first country report as Special Rapporteur on my visit to the Republic of Cyprus, followed by my second thematic report to the Council on fundamentalism, extremism and cultural rights. However, please let me first express my regret and deep frustration that both of my reports, which I stress were submitted on time by me, have been delayed by the editing department for technical reasons. I know this makes everyone’s work more difficult but it was entirely beyond my control, and it is an issue I plan to address vigorously with the UN services concerned, the Coordinating Committee and fellow experts in future. Now let me turn to my country report.

1. Mission Report: The Republic of Cyprus

Let me begin by thanking the Government of the Republic of Cyprus for inviting me to conduct an official visit from 24 May to 2 June 2016.While in Cyprus, I had the opportunity of holding meetings with a number of Government officials, with the Turkish Cypriot authorities, and civil society across the island. I would like to thank all the persons and institutions I met in all parts of Cyprus for their time, hospitality, and the wealth of information they shared with me, and for the unlimited freedom I was given to visit sites by all, which was very positive. The purpose of this visit was to identify good practices in and possible obstacles to the promotion and protection of cultural rights, with a focus on cultural heritage.

I salute the high degree of expertise on cultural heritage in Cyprus and the number of important and sophisticated institutions working in this area, including the Department of Antiquities and the National Committee for the prevention of looting and illegal trafficking of cultural property.

The histories of widespread destruction of cultural heritage in Cyprus are appalling. Religious sites, cemeteries, as well as entire villages were destroyed, causing great suffering. I express the hope that Cypriot experts from diverse backgrounds will be convened to produce joint documentation of all the destructions, and to write together a comprehensive history of all the heritage that was destroyed since many available accounts are selective. This could be envisaged as part of or as the result of the current peace process which I hope will have a positive impact on ensuring the cultural rights of all, including the right to access and enjoy cultural heritage, without discrimination.

However, during my visit, further restrictions were imposed by the Turkish Cypriot authorities on access to religious sites in the north for the purposes of holding religious services. I condemned these restrictions, called for them to be lifted and for no new ones to be imposed. Access to cultural heritage should not be considered as a bargaining chip by any party, it is a cultural right. It is important to enhance the view already held by some on all sides that what is important is not simply the heritage primarily associated with one group or another, but indeed the protection of the totality of the great cultural heritage of Cyprus and embracing heritage of others.

Another important related issue concerns the looting of artefacts. Sacred objects, icons and frescoes have been removed illegally from abandoned churches in the north and sold on the international market.

Destruction of cultural heritage in Cyprus continues today in the form not only of attacks but also of misuse and neglect. I was particularly moved to visit a church in the north left in a state of terrible neglect. I was likewise affected by a visit to a mosque that had been vandalized in the south reportedly by extremist nationalists; the mosque was subsequently repaired. I was struck by the pain that both situations cause to ordinary Cypriots of many different backgrounds and I am convinced that putting an end to such violations is a necessary step towards reconciliation. In addition, there are worrying reports of a rise in incidents in the south of verbal and physical abuse by right-wing extremists.

All stakeholders in Cyprus need to work together to ensure that culture builds bridges rather than walls. The Bi-communal Technical Committees, tasked with building trust, and facilitating cooperation between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, should be recognized for their achievements. Moreover, thinking beyond bi-communalism is also necessary to create a framework incorporating all aspects of contemporary Cypriot society in its full diversity. Further, equal cultural rights cannot be guaranteed without fully integrating participation of women in every aspect of the peace process.

Across the island, there is a lack of adequate consultation regarding the meaning of cultural heritage sites, their restoration and future use. For example, in the south, the Department of Antiquities applied to include the Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque and its surrounding environment on the UNESCO World Heritage List. However, people having a particular link with the site were not informed or consulted prior to such application. I was pleased to learn that such consultation is now envisaged.

Additionally, I would like to express my concern about the impact of drastic financial cuts in the department of cultural services, reported at 45% from 2013 to the time of my visit. Even in a context of financial difficulty, culture should be recognized as a core sector and should receive the greatest possible funding and not be subject to what seem to be disproportionate cuts.

My recommendations to the government of the Republic of Cyprus include: 1) To facilitate greater access for residents of the northern part of the island to the southern part, in regards to religious sites and pilgrimages; 2) To promptly investigate all allegations of racially motivated verbal abuse and attacks and bring perpetrators promptly to justice; and 3) To ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

My recommendations to the Turkish Cypriot authorities include: 1) To speedily and fairly process requests for the holding of collective religious ceremonies, and for people to access such sites to clean, maintain or restore them; 2) To diligently investigate vandalism of religious sites; and 3) To develop strategies to protect these sites, including from vandalism and neglect.

My recommendations to the International Community include increasing assistance to the Government of Cyprus in its laudable efforts to repatriate trafficked objects.

There are people on all sides deeply committed to working with others and for the cultural rights of all. I had the great privilege of seeing such people come together in the important Home for Cooperation in the buffer zone. Such spaces need to be multiplied and to be fully supported. These positive realities are a critical part of the picture and should increase the determination of all sides to fulfill their shared aspirations through a successful conclusion of the peace process. I stand ready to assist in any way I can in the implementation of these recommendations. My great hope is that in the discussions today and going forward we can focus on the substance of my concerns rather than the vocabulary in which they are expressed.

2. Thematic Report: Fundamentalism, Extremism and Cultural Rights

A. Introduction

I now turn to my thematic report. Rising tides of fundamentalism and extremism, in diverse forms, and whether espoused by State or non-State actors, today represent major threats to human rights, including cultural rights, worldwide. They are growing challenges that must be faced with urgency, using a human rights approach.

The report I have the honor of presenting to you today maps how such fundamentalism and extremism gravely undermine the enjoyment of cultural rights, and stresses the centrality of cultural rights in combating them. It employs the term “fundamentalism” for actors using a putatively religious discourse and “extremism” for movements with other bases.

At the heart of the fundamentalist and extremist paradigms are rejections of equality and of the universality of human rights, making unwavering defence of these principles the touchstone of the human rights response. When States undermine universality, they aid and abet extremism.

There are common themes across fundamentalist and extremist abuses of cultural rights. Such abuses often involve attempts at cultural engineering aimed at redesigning culture based on monolithic world views, focused on “purity” and enmity toward “the other”, policing “honour” and “modesty”, claiming cultural and moral superiority, imposing a claimed “true religion” or “authentic” or singular culture, stifling freedom of artistic expression and curtailing scientific freedom. They also aim to limit the enjoyment of women’s human rights.

Fundamentalist and extremist groups often seek to quash the expression of any cultural opposition to their own agenda. Diverse religious fundamentalists have sought to punish cultural expression antithetical to their interpretations of religion through blasphemy laws, gender discriminatory family laws, campaigns of harassment, human rights abuses and outright violence. Extremists often harass and target members of minority groups, immigrants and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons as they seek to enjoy their equal cultural rights, and are now seeking to prohibit the freedom of movement of entire national groups based on what my fellow human rights experts have deemed discriminatory approaches. What such efforts have in common is a mindset based on intolerance of differences and pluralism, and an attempt to stamp out cultural diversity and dissent.

The report frames fundamentalisms, to quote sociologist Marieme Helie-Lucas, as “political movements of the extreme right, which in a context of globalization … manipulate religion, culture or ethnicity, in order to achieve their political aims. Fundamentalisms have emerged out of all of the world’s major religious traditions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, and others. Fundamentalists across all these categories abuse cultural rights. Given the religious claims of their proponents, religious fundamentalisms are especially difficult and dangerous to contest. In each case, they represent a minority phenomenon distinct from the broader religious tradition itself, although drawing selectively from it. No religion is inherently fundamentalist nor should fundamentalist views be imputed to all adherents of any religion.

Opposition to fundamentalism is not akin to an anti-religion stance. Both religious believers who do not conform to fundamentalist dogma, including clergy, and non-religious people have often been targets of fundamentalist movements. Both have played important roles in the human rights struggle to defend cultural rights against fundamentalism. Fundamentalist groups often seek to impose a politicized version of religion alien to local populations, aiming at the eradication of lived cultural and religious practice.

I employ the term “extremism” alongside “fundamentalism” in part because it plays a significant role in United Nations debates. However, the question of definition should always be carefully considered and applied in accordance with relevant international human rights norms. Some forms of contemporary extremism that have a particular impact on cultural rights focus on myths of a homogenous nation, claims of ethnic or racial superiority or purity, and populist ultranationalism directed against liberal and pluralistic democracy, and indeed against human rights.

Like some of my fellow Special Rapporteurs, I am gravely concerned about the misuse of vague and broad definitions of the concept of extremism to repress activities undertaken in accordance with international human rights standards. I stress the crucial importance for the protection of cultural rights of effectively combating fundamentalism, extremism and violent extremism, and the necessity of doing so in accordance with the human rights framework.

The links between fundamentalism and extremism on the one hand and violent extremism and terrorism on the other must be recognized, as must the inherently dangerous nature of the underlying ideologies themselves for human rights. Some fundamentalist and extremist forces may pass themselves off as “moderate”. Yet, they may have a deleterious impact on cultural rights, and/or provide the ground on which militant extremists stand by promoting the very discriminatory laws and practices that the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief finds to have a strong link to incitement to violence in the name of religion.

Governments must not make the mistake of thinking they can use so-called “non-violent extremism.” The highest price for such blunders is paid by women, including in regards to their right to take part in cultural life without discrimination. Extremist actors will not be truly disarmed unless their ideology is comprehensively challenged and repudiated, in accordance with international standards, and in particular through culture, expression and education in accordance with international standards. This connection between ideologies contrary to human rights norms and the practices that violate them explains why the United Nations did not simply focus on the abuses attendant on apartheid, but sought to dislodge the idea of racial superiority itself. 1

Different manifestations of fundamentalism and extremism often reinforce each other through what has been called “reciprocal radicalization”. They often use similar rhetoric and have similar world views; and they use each other’s actions to justify their own and gain support. One form of fundamentalism or extremism is not a justification for another. Each is a reinforcing reminder of the global humanist crisis that lies before us. We must break out of this vicious circle that will leave youth globally facing a political landscape offering a bleak choice of competing extremisms.

B. A human rights approach to fundamentalism and extremism

Fundamentalism and extremism are human rights issues. It is critical to take a human rights approach to addressing them. Cultural rights are a key component of the human rights approach, and the defence of these rights today requires tackling fundamentalism and extremism. Policies that combat discrimination in the right to take part in cultural life or promote freedom of artistic expression, scientific freedom and education in accordance with international human rights norms are core aspects of combating fundamentalism and extremism. When Governments imprison or censor the very voices of those who are standing up to extremists and are threatened by them, or fail to protect them, they facilitate the rise of extremism.

Arts, education, science and culture are among the best ways to fight fundamentalism and extremism. They are not luxuries, but critical to creating alternatives, making space for peaceful contestation, promoting inclusion and protecting youth from radicalization. Governments must ensure there is a counterweight to fundamentalist and extremist discourses by publicly challenging them and by guaranteeing education aimed at the objectives specified in relevant standards, including article 13 (1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

I am concerned that austerity measures often lead to a situation where the fields of education and culture will be left to others, in particular those with fundamentalist agendas. The full implementation of the range of economic, social and cultural rights constitutes an important part of the response to fundamentalist and extremist agendas.

States must respect, protect and fulfil human rights, in particular cultural rights, meaning that they must: (a) stop supporting directly or indirectly fundamentalist ideologies; (b) protect all persons from any act of fundamentalist or extremist groups aimed at coercing them into specific identities, beliefs or practices; and (c) design programmes aimed at creating conditions allowing all people to access, participate in and contribute to cultural life, without discrimination.

Both the basic obligation of States to respect human rights, and their obligation to exercise due diligence in ensuring rights from harm by non-State actors are relevant, as is finding creative ways to hold non-State actors directly accountable. Governments and non-governmental forces have been involved in promoting fundamentalism and extremism abroad, including through funding and education that is not compliant with international standards, and this has had significant consequences for cultural rights. Such contributing factors must be documented, condemned and combated.

It is also critical that the international community listen to the local opponents of fundamentalism and extremism, human rights defenders, including women human rights defenders, who have in some cases been battling them alone for decades. Despite unparalleled expertise, they are often not invited to international gatherings to discuss strategy.

Civil society plays a vital role in combating fundamentalism and extremism, and protecting cultural rights, using diverse strategies. However, civil society is often constrained in its ability to carry out these functions through limitations on freedom of association, arrest, harassment, and violence. This gravely undermines the much-needed struggle against fundamentalism and extremism.
Supporting women’s rights is an essential component of the fight against all forms of extremism and fundamentalism. The gender component is not optional.

As a woman from Niger said, “Every step forward in the fight for women’s rights is a piece of the struggle against fundamentalism.”

Specific Areas of Concern Regarding the Impact of Fundamentalism and Extremism on Cultural Rights

Across most areas of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate, fundamentalism and extremism give rise to widespread abuses. Fundamentalist and extremist State and non-State actors often threaten the right to freedom of artistic expression.

Artists have been accused of “blasphemy” or “religious defamation”, insulting “religious feelings” or inciting “religious hatred.” They are targeted both because creativity and expression per se are seen as a threat by fundamentalists and extremists, but also because artists often resist and offer alternatives.

The report points to abuses from all regions by state and non-State actors, including attacks on freedom of artistic expression in India, Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia, and on intellectuals in Bangladesh, and affecting the right to take part in cultural life without discrimination such as post-election violence and threats, in particular against minorities, in 2016 in the United States, sometimes targeting educational and cultural institutions.

I honor the writers and artists who have fallen to fundamentalists and extremists such as Avijit Roy in Bangladesh, and also those who face threats from fundamentalists and extremists and kept writing and singing and dancing. After an attack at Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in Pakistan, claimed by Daesh, on 16 February, killing 85 people taking part in a Sufi ritual, the dancer Sheema Kiramani went to the site to perform a dhammal for local people. She explained: "The purpose of the performing arts is to 'uplift humanity' - to make us better human beings, to create an atmosphere of harmony and togetherness… [A]long with the sorrow for those who were killed one has the hope that life will go on with beauty and love. This was my message and my dance!"

I am outraged that we tend to remember extremists and fundamentalists and forget their victims. I think of Amel Zenoune-Zouani, a 22 year-old Algerian law student who was killed almost exactly 20 years ago by the Armed Islamic Group, the Daesh of those times, for refusing to give up her studies. That was in 1997 when the world offered little sympathy to victims of fundamentalist terrorism. Amel told her parents that if she and her student sisters were to die, they should know that “we are dead for knowledge.” Here we are 20 years later and Amel Zenounes are continuing to die in places like Northern Nigeria and Kenya’s Garissa University and Afghanistan and beyond. No one should have to die for knowledge or culture.

And now when such victims from some countries flee, they are met with another form of extremism: xenophobia. States must ensure that those at risk from fundamentalist and extremist abuse, including as a result of exercising their cultural rights, are not returned to contexts where they will be at risk.

When Nazis are on the march again, and Jewish cemeteries are under siege, you have to ask, have we learned nothing from the tragedies of the past? Extremist assaults on minorities and their cultural sites and practices have become widespread around the world, with the minority being targeted varying depending on the context. This has been recurring across Eastern and Western Europe, widespread and part of what may be crimes against humanity as in Myanmar, and possibly rising even to the level of genocide at the hands of “hyper-extremists” such as Daesh. We must oppose such acts and the views that motivate them in principle and everywhere, not only when we feel a particular affinity with particular victims. These acts sometimes result in large-scale flight of members of these groups, which will impoverish the cultural landscape.

Those perceived as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender remain targets of organized abuse, including by religious fundamentalists and extreme nationalists, which deprives them of many human rights, including the right to take part in cultural life, without discrimination.

Despite this bleak picture, it is not a moment for despair but for hope based on concrete action. I see hope in those cultural rights defenders and ordinary people acting around the world to challenge fundamentalism and extremism, sometimes at risk of their lives. I think of Ian Grillot, a young man in Kansas in the United States of America, who tried to stop the gunman spouting xenophobic rhetoric as that gunman murdered 32 year-old Indian engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla in a horrifying hate crime. Mr. Grillot said later from his hospital bed: “I was just doing what anyone should have done for another human being. It’s not about where he’s from or his ethnicity. We’re all humans.” That is the spirit we must adopt.

The international community must stand together. This is a wake-up call for our times. We face a multidirectional global avalanche of hate to which we must have an urgent global riposte. We must build and rebuild the culture of human rights and basic decency everywhere through effective, thoughtful, international law-abiding global action, within a universal human rights framework.

Thank you.


1/ See General Assembly resolution 395 (V), preamble: “a policy of ‘racial segregation’ (Apartheid) is necessarily based on doctrines of racial discrimination”. The preamble to the International Convention on All Forms of Racial Discrimination commits to preventing and combating “racist doctrines”.