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Defining cultural rights

by Patrice Meyer-Bisch

Issues at stake: concrete universality

Cultural rights still fall through the gap in the Human Rights' protection system. Identity related questions are at the most intimate level of respect for human dignity, the right of each individual to participate in "a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized" (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, art. 28). They are at the root of violence and peace issues, of poverty and welfare. Fear of "relativism", although justified, long prevented us from considering each individual as a subject of his or her rights within a concrete environment.

Universality therefore remained an abstract idea, since it can only become concrete through the right of each individual to live his or her humanity. Universality was thought to be above culture, but it is cultures that need to invent it, to develop it through demanding dialog. "Cultures" do not dialog, because such homogenous entities don't exist. It is women and men who do, as holders and seekers of this universality that can only be gathered and collected through critical sharing of heritages and cultural experiences.

1.     A change in political paradigm

The adoption of the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity in September 2001 - that made official the large definition of culture adopted in Mexico in 1982 - and of the Convention on protection and promotion of diversity of cultural expression in 2005 symbolizes an important political turn. Where cultural diversity used to be considered as a hindrance to development, an obstacle to modernity and therefore to progress, science and democracy, it is now more and more understood as a resource for each of these fields and for peace. Where "culture" used to come last, it is now a basic component of political and economical developments, both as resource and as freedom to choose the values one wants to develop.

The starting point of the actual change in paradigm lies in the definition given to culture. The large definition developed by the UNESCO since 1982 is hard to challenge, yet it has the inconvenient of not being operational in a Human Rights context. The Fribourg Declaration on Cultural Rights remedies this flaw by putting the person at the center:

The term "culture" covers those values, beliefs, convictions, languages, knowledge and the arts, traditions, institutions and ways of life through which a person or a group expresses their humanity and the meaning they give to their existence and to their development; (art. 2, a). [1]

According to this perspective, a cultural activity relates both to the intimacy of each person and of social relations.

2.     The need for a clarification in universal logic

"A clarification of the definition of cultural rights within the human rights system, as well as and elucidation of the nature and consequences of their violation constitute the best methods for preventing:

  • The use of cultural rights in favor of cultural relativism, that is contrary to the universality of all human rights;
  • The use of cultural rights as a pretext for setting communities or even entire populations, against one another.

Cultural rights have often being in opposition to or as lying outside of human rights when they actually, according to the principle of indivisibility, form an integral part of these rights[2]. At the universal level, cultural rights are at present essentially recognized in the right to participate in cultural life[3]and in the right to education[4]. The cultural dimensions of more "classic" freedoms have also been acknowledged[5], as well as that of all other human rights. [...] The coherence of cultural rights, existing as they do on the boundary between civil and political, economic, social and cultural rights and the rights of minorities, is insufficient and their definition remains incomplete. This situation constitutes a dangerous gap in the protection of all human rights, especially at a time where respect for cultural diversity takes the front stage as an essential issue in globalization and as a challenge for the universality of human rights"[6].

Universality is not the smallest common denominator, it is the common challenge we need to take on. It consists of cultivating a human condition through permanently working out our contradictions. It is not against diversity, it is the place where it is collected and made intelligible. 

3.     Definition

Cultural Rights are the rights for everyone, whether alone or in community, to choose and express one's identity, to access cultural references, as necessary resources in one's identification process [7].

Like all other human rights, cultural rights guarantee the access of each individual to free and dignified social relations. Their specificity lies in defining more precisely the value of these connections in terms of knowledge. Cultural rights establish capacities to connect individual subjects to other through the knowledge each one carries within itself and places in works (objects and institutions) in the environment one grows into.

The expression "cultural identity" is understood as the sum of all cultural references through which a person, alone or in community with others, defines or constitutes oneself, communicates and wishes to be recognized in one's dignity (Fribourg Declaration, art. 2, b).

4.     Strengthening indivisibility and interdependence

The subject is unconditionally an individual person, but in order to fulfill its rights, it may claim membership in one or many communities, groups or organized collectivities.

A community may be a precious space, even a necessary one, to exercise rights, freedoms and responsibilities, and it therefore deserves protection: it allows one to experience transmission, sharing, reciprocity and the confrontation of knowledge. But a community only has conditional legitimacy, to the extent in which it promotes human rights.


Patrice Meyer-Bisch

Observatoire de la diversité et des droits culturels Institut Interdisciplinaire d'Éthique et des Droits de l'Homme (IIEDH) et Chaire UNESCO pour les droits de l'homme et la démocratie 

[1]See the text of the Declaration, available in many languages, as well as other synthesis documents on the website of the Observatory : This Declaration is a civil society text that can be individually supported by any person or group who wishes to apply it in its own context and contribute to its development. 

[2]As reaffirmed by the Human Rights Council, for example in the resolution A/HRC/6/L.3/Rev.1, §1 :« Reaffirms that cultural rights are an integral part of human rights, which are universal, indivisible,interrelated and interdependent »

[3]Art.27 of the Universal Declaration (UDHR) and Art.15 of the International Covenant on economic, social and cultural rights.

[4]Art.26 of the UDHR and Art. 13 and 14 of the International Covenant on economic, social and cultural rights.

[5]Freedom of thought, conscience and religion (art.18 of the UDHR, art. 18 of the International covenant on economic, social and cultural rights), freedoms of opinion and speech (Art.19 of the UDHR, art. 19 of the International covenant on civil and political rights). The instruments and dispositions concerning the rights of persons belonging to minorities recall and make more precise the universal character of these rights, in particular in art. 27 of the international covenant on civil and political rights, Convention 169 of the ILO on indigenous people, the UN convention on the rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and the UN Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples

 [6]DS 2, this argument has been developed by the Ngo Platform for the protection and promotion of diversity and cultural rights in its position paper on the creation of a mandate of independent expert in this field. See on the website of the Observatory synthesis document 2 (DS2): Situation of cultural rights: proposed political arguments. (20.12.2009).

[7]Definition to be published in the comments, article by article, of the Declaration of Fribourg on cultural rights.

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