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Negotiating Cultural Rights presents a critical contribution to the important topic of human rights. Largely neglected and often misunderstood, cultural rights are addressed in this interdisciplinary book by a number of expert scholars from diverse parts of the globe. Chapters in the book provide thoughtful, informative commentaries and discussions based on the groundbreaking reports of Farida Shaheed, who was the first United Nations Independent Expert and Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights from 2009 to 2015.
An important chapter is by Shaheed herself, who shares an insightful discussion of her work as Special Rapporteur. In addition to addressing how cultural rights are enumerated in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she undertakes the difficult task of defining culture:
"a living process, historical, dynamic and evolving, not as a series of isolated manifestations,… but as an interactive process whereby individuals and communities, while preserving their specificities and purposes, give expression to the culture of humanity… Culture is like a prism through which we perceive, understand and engage with the human, manufactured, and natural world around us, and through which we, in turn, are perceived and understood by others." (pg. 24)
In this view, culture is not a static product but a site of contestation over meanings and narratives, providing people with a sense of self, in addition to collective and individual identities, which are constantly undergoing creation.
Shaheed focuses on cultural rights as having three main aspects (pg. 25): the right to access a cultural life, the right to participate in a cultural life, and the right to contribute to a cultural life. She also emphasizes that culture needs to be seen as linked to power.
The book addresses a number of critical issues. First it disagrees that cultural rights degrade universal human rights, arguing that the mistaken view confuses respect for cultural diversity with cultural relativism. In contrast, Negotiating Cultural Rights emphasizes that cultural diversity must not be used to infringe upon or limit fundamental human rights, in particular the rights of women, such as are protected by domestic and international legal instruments. As a result, cultural rights include the right to not to participate in any cultural event or process that degrades human dignity. In this view, cultural rights need to be seen as separate from culture per se, in order to refuse cultural relativism and respect cultural diversity and universal human rights. In other words, a right to culture is not about simply preserving any particular culture or safeguarding a certain heritage.
Likewise, the book clarifies the relationship between individual rights and group rights. It maintains that cultural rights may be engaged alone, individually, in association with others, or as a community, because all individuals have a right to access cultural heritage. As such, pitting individual rights against group rights is the result of a false binary.
Negotiating Cultural Rights also focuses on two significant themes emerging in the field. The first theme is about how cultural rights are empowering rights. In this view, human rights are both absolute and historically defined, which allows human rights to serve as a common language in support of understanding others and norms while also being in constant movement and a complex synthesis formed via long historical processes. Since cultural rights are transformative, they are empowering and provide important opportunities for the realization of other human rights, such as the right to education.
The second theme is about connections between culture and science. Some may perceive a conflict between culture and science, but Negotiating Cultural Rights emphasizes that rights to culture and rights to science are encompassed by the broader rights of all human beings to be creative and the rights of all people to enjoy the results of the creativity of others. In this view, it makes more sense to understand rights to culture and science together, rather than in conflict or as an either/or dilemma.
The book also makes a number of important recommendations. For example, Lotte Hughes addresses the use of the word “community”, cautioning that it tends to lead to exclusion rather than better understanding. This author also warns about the fragile line between real and “invented” traditions, calling for better criteria for deciding on the historical legitimacy of competing claims.
Helle Porsdam and Matthias Mann, in another chapter, focus more on science. In contrast to various global trends, they focus on the need for science to benefit everyone, including the most vulnerable groups, and advocate for the development of environments that protect individual researchers and enable them to produce and disseminate scientific knowledge alone or with others without fear of violence or repression.
Additional key recommendations of the book include Lucky Belder’s call to museums, museum professionals, and civil society to improve protection of cultural heritage. Yvonne Donders’ suggests to avoid representing culture predominantly as an obstacle to human rights, in order to support how cultural rights and culture can empower women and transform societies. Dalindyebo Shabalala, furthermore, recommends a “cultural ecology” approach to marketing practices, along with greater regulation and self-regulation of the advertising industry.
Hanne Hagtvedt Vik, in another part of the book, addresses history and the teaching of history. This chapter recommends for contexts that have disagreements about events in the past and have limits on access to historical narratives to allow multi-voiced narratives and the recognition of victims. This author suggests approaching the teaching of history from a human rights approach that builds on rights to freedom of opinion and expression and rights to information and academic freedom. In this view, the teaching of history should be used to promote peace.
While offering profound insights and in-depth attention, the scope of the book is wonderfully vast. Shahira Amin focuses on the gap in Egypt between constitutional law and the reality on the ground, and Stina Teilmann-Lock examines where criticism of corporations is silenced in the name of protecting corporate interests. In another chapter, Fiona Macmillian addresses copyright policy, and Jannice Käll's chapter concerns advanced capitalism, neoliberalism, and the role of public universities.
Despite ongoing challenges such as widespread discrimination and the general woeful state of cultural rights globally, Negotiating Cultural Rights contributes to a solid start on an important, complex topic that each of us has a responsibility to carry forward so that the future of human rights can be brighter.
Belder, L. & Porsdam, H. (2017). Negotiating Cultural Rights: Issues at Stake, Challenges, and Recommendations. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.
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