Human Rights Dialogue: "Cultural Rights" (Spring 2005)

April 22, 2005

This issue of Human Rights Dialogue—the final issue in Series Two—focuses upon the evolving concept of cultural rights. It explores its potential effectiveness in advancing the human rights claims of ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples, and other cultural communities. In doing so it aims to show that cultural rights are fundamental to the protection of all other human rights.

In recent years the complex issue of cultural rights as a dimension of human rights has come to the fore of global concern. As the United Nations Development Program’s 2004 Human Development Report asserts, “managing cultural diversity is one of the central challenges of our time.” In the Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Hannah Arendt famously anticipated the reasons why:

The fundamental deprivation of human rights is manifested first and above all in the deprivation of a place in the world…. We became aware of the existence of a right to have rights (and that means to live in a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinion) and a right to belong to some kind of organized community, only when millions of people emerged who had lost and could not regain these rights because of the new global political situation. The trouble is that this calamity arose not from any lack of civilization, backwardness or mere tyranny, but on the contrary, that it could not be repaired, because there was no longer any “uncivilized” spot on earth, because whether we like it or not we have really started to live in One World. Only with a completely organized humanity could the loss of home and political status become identical with expulsion from humanity altogether.

Arendt identifies the homogenizing impact of globalization as posing a new risk for humanity—the loss of a “place in the world.” And the concomitant loss of one’s home and political status is, she insists, “identical with expulsion from humanity altogether.” As our cultural identity provides us that “place in the world,” to negate it is to deny full membership in the human community. Nevertheless, there are many who regard “culture” as a set of archaic beliefs and practices stubbornly standing in the way of universal human rights. In this view, globalization is a positive process that can dismantle all remaining strongholds—especially the Middle East, Asia, and Africa—still resistant to human rights. Yet such a neo-evolutionist view fails to recognize the extent to which the fact of cultural identity has become more, not less, important at the present moment in history.

While globalization itself is not new, its current effects are more various, disjunctive, intense, and extensive than ever before. Today globalization is characterized by the reconstruction of established nation-states and the emergence of new ones brought on by the end of the Cold War, the consolidation of the European Union, the movement from authoritarian to democratic systems of government in Latin America and Asia, and the further expansion of the free market. The resultant explosive ethnic violence and religious conflicts have trained a spotlight on the predicaments of cultural and religious minorities, new challenges of political representation amid the internal diversity of states, and the very question of what we mean by “nation-state.”

The present round of nation-building is unprecedented in the pressures it places upon states—both international and domestic—to better account for the undeniable fact of their internal cultural diversity. In some cases, states have responded to these pressures with the suppression of “internal dissent”; in others, the pressures have compelled states to enter the uncharted waters of wholesale multicultural reform. In this environment, cultural rights claims are slowly being recognized as an important means for the recuperation of identity and as an essential basis for advancing claims of social justice. Yet to understand the potential power of cultural rights we also need to understand why they have historically been neglected, despite the fact that they have been enshrined in international law since 1966 with the adoption of the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 27) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 15).

There are many reasons for the weak political commitment to cultural rights. First, not just governments but majority populations tend to view cultural rights movements that have their basis in claims to self-determination as threatening to the state-based model of sovereignty. Second, as nation states around the world face conflicts over language, religion, and ethnicity—if not always in the same terms—these disputes often provoke the fear of “balkanization.” This fear reinforces the resistance of nation-states to recognizing culturally-based collective grievances. Third, in the global marketplace it is in the interest of transnational corporations to ignore cultural rights, a fact that has become apparent in disputes between corporations and traditional peoples over the relation of cultural heritage to cultural property. Fourth, within the human rights movement itself, advocates recognize cultural rights to be in direct conflict with other human rights, particularly the rights of women. Finally, on a conceptual level, there is the problem of clearly defining cultural rights claims so that they might become an effective basis for legal action. One aspect of this problem is the difficulty in defining “culture.” The other is the inconsistent way in which states have applied standards of cultural rights at state and international levels. Thus, cultural rights arguments have their detractors across the political spectrum. Even when defended, cultural rights are perceived to be a challenging arena for advocacy.

When critics dismiss cultural rights as secondary to questions of physical survival, they in fact dismiss the fundamental condition of cultural identity (to return to Arendt) as part of how we make ourselves “at home” in the world. Cultural recognition is a matter of both dignity and social justice, but it also carries with it certain material obligations. These obligations include recognizing cultural minorities’ legitimate claims to redress of the long-standing political and economic inequities that stem from their cultural marginalization. They also include the hard work of crafting agendas that move a reluctant international community to recognize cultural rights as positive rights, where states must act proactively to prevent social and economic discrimination as a result of cultural identity.

The essays that follow are written by researchers, activists, and policy practitioners with firsthand knowledge of cultural rights claims and/or cultural rights abuses as well as the actions being taken to address them. We have grouped these essays into three sections. The first section explores the case for cultural rights, demonstrating that the assault on cultural communities is an assault on the fundamental rights of both groups and individuals. Section two presents an array of cases that represent the range of cultural rights claims and claimants as well as conflicts and contradictions that emerge in pressing these claims. Finally, the essays in section three examine the innovative work being carried out at the national, regional, and international levels to establish standards for the implementation of cultural rights.

Together these essays describe the role that cultural rights can play in inscribing a right to cultural difference as a fundamental factor of our human identity. In so doing they interrogate the very meaning of universal human rights in a multicultural world. With international priority historically accorded to individual civil and political rights, cultural rights have been left vaguely defined as a right of participation in the cultural life of “the community” (ICCPR, Article 27). Given the central importance of cultural identity to human well being, we need to pay better attention to exactly who these communities are.

— The Editors