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Statements Special Procedures

Preliminary findings and observations on visit to Tuvalu by UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rightsKarima Bennoune

25 September 2019

Funafuti, 24 September 2019


I would like to thank the Government of Tuvalu for the invitation to visit the country. This mission was the first one by a Special Procedures mandate holder since 2012, and indicates the intention of the Government to further engage with United Nations Human Rights mechanisms. I welcome this engagement, and encourage the new government to continue it.

I was glad to have had the opportunity to meet with the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Trade, Tourism, Environment and Labour (before this Ministry changed name) and the Director of the Department of Environment, the Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs and Rural Development and the Director of the Department of Culture, the Chief Librarian and Archivist of the National Library and Archives and the Attorney General.

In the short time available, I also held substantive discussions with the Ombudsman’s office, also acting as the National Human Rights Institution, the Funafuti Kaupule and with a number of civil society experts and organizations. I thank all of them for making the time to meet with me and for the information and insights they shared. I encourage them and those I did not have a chance to meet to be in contact with my mandate to submit any additional information that would assist in completing the research.1

The importance of culture in Tuvaluan life

I was pleased to note that culture is one of the three pillars of the state set out in the Tuvalu Constitution. It receives much attention in official discourse and seems to be of great importance to many Tuvaluans. However, this importance is fully not reflected in the institutional priorities and policy-making of the country. This needs to change.

Traditional songs and dances are intimately intertwined in the everyday lives of Tuvaluans and regularly performed at important events and functions. I was able to witness the importance of choral music in spiritual practice during a church service in Funafuti. These are signs of a strong and living culture. I was also told about the availability of a number of sporting activities and was greatly impressed by the active use of the airfield as a public space for leisure, sports and games, by women and men, and the introduction of a half day a week for physical fitness in the schedule of civil servants.

Other forms of artistic creativity, however, seem to have very limited space. Tuvalu does not have any formal museums, theaters, galleries or stages for artistic performances, nor does it have bookshops or a publishing house. There is only one library, and it is located in the capital. Reportedly, the space used as a cultural center, which also hosted handicraft workshops, has been taken over for other functions and has not been replaced or provided with an alternative space.

The place of culture in legal norms, policies and institution

Seven years after the Cultural mapping exercise of 2012 that identified the weakness of the cultural sector, the Department of Culture is still a one-person department. I commend the efforts of its Director in trying to make culture a cross-cutting priority throughout the Government and the sustainable development plan (Te Kakeega III), and in the development of the country’s first ever National Cultural Policy. I strongly encourage the newly elected Government to promptly adopt this policy and provide the Department of culture with all the necessary resources, including human resources, needed for its implementation. To that effect, the Government should also consider establishing the Cultural Council which was provided for in the Tuvalu Cultural Council Act, adopted in 1991.The Act, in section 3 designates this body to be in charge of the coordination, implementation and monitoring of the National Cultural Policy.

Due to the Falekaupule, the traditional island assemblies, consultative decision-making processes have high standing in Tuvaluan society. I was pleased to learn that women have started to participate more actively in these bodies, and that some Kaupule leaders see culture as a dynamic process.  I would encourage them to foster more space for critical discourse and to find ways to include the voices of the younger generation, persons with disabilities and of more women.

Tuvalu is party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1995), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, 1999) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD, 2013), each of which recognizes cultural rights. However, in order to have a universal approach that recognizes the cultural rights of all Tuvaluans, the Government should ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

These two core human rights instruments cover all of the human rights recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Of particular importance for cultural rights are articles 18, 19 and 27 of the ICCPR - respectively protecting the rights to freedom of religion or belief, to opinion and expression and the rights for national, ethnic and linguistic minorities to protect and practice their culture -, and article 15 of the ICESCR, which includes the right of everyone to take part in cultural life without discrimination. This includes the rights to access and enjoy cultural heritage, and to enjoy the freedom indispensable for scientific research and creative activity. Ratification of these two instruments, which guarantee so many of the human rights threatened by the effects of climate change, would also consolidate Tuvalu’s position as a leading voice for the human rights approach to climate change, and a champion for cultural survival in the face of the climate emergency.

Tuvalu is a party to the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of 2003 and has undertaken important activities to honor its obligations under this instrument, including the creation of a festival to celebrate its intangible heritage.

Greater awareness raising about human rights is needed across the country, and in particular human rights education promoting the understanding that universal human rights are relevant and necessary in Tuvalu, and can be harmonized with many aspects of Tuvaluan culture. Cultural rights should be stressed as they are critical for ensuring many other human rights, including civil, economic, political, and social rights, and the right to development and to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Cultural rights are part of the framework of universal human rights. They are not the same thing as cultural relativism. They do not justify discrimination, violence or violations of other internationally guaranteed human rights. They are core human rights that go to the root of the human experience, and must be understood in light of their interdependence and indivisibility with all human rights.

This mission came in the middle of a review of the Constitution which I understand may be taken forward by the new parliament. While respecting that the process is ongoing, I hope that all human rights – civil, cultural, economic, political and social - will be fully integrated in the new constitution, and that due consideration be given to adding a specific right to take part in cultural life without discrimination to the bill of rights. It is also critically important to have an inclusive definition of discrimination.

I also hope that the new authorities will give serious consideration to full implementation of my recommendations and to following up on the recommendations and reports of UN experts and mechanisms. A review of past reports indicates that some important recommendations remain outstanding.

Climate change, the environment and cultural rights

One of the stated objectives of my mission was to investigate the impact climate change is having and may have on culture and cultural rights in Tuvalu.

As former High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillai has said, “Climate change is one of the most serious challenges [humanity] has ever faced.”2 In addition to its other damaging effects, the impact of climate change on cultural rights and cultural heritage is an urgent human rights question, and must be understood and responded to as such. All relevant actors, at the international and national levels, must act with determination to respond to this threat. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights explained in a 2009 study that, “the application of a human rights approach in preventing and responding to the effects of climate change serves to empower individuals and groups, who should be perceived as active agents of change and not as passive victims.”3

I commend Tuvalu for its strong international position for effective action on climate change and hope that its outspoken advocacy will continue, in particular, by supporting a human rights approach that includes cultural rights at the national and international level. I am determined to support this country and other similarly affected countries at the international level by demanding the international community urgently help meet the threat to their survival, including cultural survival.

In 2020, climate change and culture around the world will be a priority area of work for my mandate, and I will present a thematic report on this topic to the General Assembly conveying these messages. I thank experts and advocates in and out of government in Tuvalu for sharing information and perspectives with me that will be of great importance to that work. Their voices must be heard more widely at the international level, including at this week’s UN Climate Action Summit.

At the summit this week, I call on the international community and governments around the world to urgently take the necessary steps to respond to the climate emergency and the existential threats posed to island nations like Tuvalu. The very cultural survival of entire peoples may be at stake as never before, undermining all human rights, including cultural rights. As one Tuvaluan official asked me, “if we are not here anymore, what will happen to our culture?” The voices of those most affected, and who have done the least to cause the harm, such as the voices of Tuvaluans, must be heard loud and clear at this week’s summit in New York. I was taken to a location in Funafuti where waves are for the first time reported to be rising onto the narrow land at high tide. I will never forget the words of a woman who told me on that spot, “Tuvalu is drowning. Its shorelines are receding. The world needs to help Tuvalu.” I will also take home with me the message that helping Tuvalu face this challenge, is helping the world to do so.

Cultural diversity, identity and language

During my visit, I have been told of a project aiming to inventory and compile the Tuvaluan language. The aim would be to strengthen its teaching and raise awareness of its richness. I hope the project can be afforded the necessary resources to continue and would welcome more information about it going forward.

I was also glad to hear about the strength of the island identities and the pride with which Tuvaluans continue to refer to their native islands even after residing in Funafuti or overseas for a number of years. This diversity should be further celebrated. I look forward to receiving more information from the Ministry of Education and educational stakeholders about how Tuvaluan songs, myths and stories from all the islands are integrated in the curricula, and about the way history is taught.

I have also received information concerning the project initiated by the Department of Culture with the support of UNESCO to survey the national diversity of heritage resources, involving constituencies from each island. This project is highly commendable and should be given proper funding and human resources in order to involve the residents of the outer islands. This project should include follow up allowing for the preservation of, and access for all to, this knowledge through, for example, the creation of a multi-purpose museum or cultural center.

I noted concerns about the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief by members of religious minorities on the outer islands, and hope that this will be addressed through further human rights education about the importance of non-discrimination in this regard.


Education is closely related to the enjoyment of cultural rights by all without discrimination. Increasing the transmission of knowledge to younger generations to allow them to achieve their potential through education is a core priority of this UN mandate. Access to a diversity of books, articles, recordings and other documentary resources is an important part of this work. I strongly supports the project of building a new facility to house the national archive, a library, a cultural center and a museum and hopes that the new government will prioritize this critical endeavor which is so essential to the preservation of Tuvaluan culture and history in all its complexity. It can also enrich the cultural lives of many diverse people.


Since the last CEDAW review, important efforts have been made by the authorities to address discrimination against women, including through the adoption of the Family Protection and Domestic Violence Act (2014) and the National Gender Policy and Action Plan. I have also been informed that the educational opportunities for girls have improved.

However, challenges remain that need to be addressed as a matter of priority, including in terms of the participation of women in decision-making at all levels, their political representation and traditional attitudes about their roles in society. More work still needs to be done to change discriminatory cultural attitudes towards women and empower them to take a more vocal role in society. Until meaningful equality can be reached, temporary special measures should be considered and recognized as a positive step for all Tuvaluans.

Steps forward

I hope that the end of this short visit is only the beginning of the relationship between Tuvalu and my mandate. I aim to continue the dialogue with government and civil society as I prepare my report to the UN Human Rights Council next year a report which will cover many more issues than can be addressed here. I wish the new government success in implementing its human rights obligations, including its cultural rights obligations, for all Tuvaluans without discrimination, and in doing so in the context of the great challenges it faces, including the existential challenge of climate change. I stand ready to assist in these tasks.

Thank you.


1/ See

2/ “OHCHR analytical study on climate change and human rights is now available,” March 2009.

3/ A/HRC/10/61, para. 90.