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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.

Related poll:


Ethics and Rights Issues in Cultural Policy in Europe

February 2010, by John A. Foote (Université du Québec à  Trois-Rivières)


Recognition of the fundamental role of ethics and rights regarding culture and cultural policy is perennially a hot topic. Ethics provide the perspective, motivation and values to help ensure democratic and equitable participation in cultural development, diversity and dialogue. Rights serve as the fundamental underpinning and inspiration of cultural creativity and participation and provide the jurisprudence regarding violations of binding conventions and of other no less important instruments. Rights adhered to by European states also serve to facilitate the political mandate of political action and support in respect to culture and are inextricably linked to the democratic system and ethos and to the rule of law. Not accidently, these three interdependent elements comprise precisely the Council of Europe's mandate and overall mission.

For more than 60 years, human rights have been at the top of Europe's legal agenda and accomplishments. The codification and ratification of human rights are a fully legitimate response to the tragic consequences of World War II which deprived millions of fundamental rights and freedoms and life, itself.  The most important and influential document beginning the codification of human rights is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted and proclaimed in 1948 by all Member States of the newly formed United Nations.  Shortly thereafter, in 1949, the Member States of the also newly born Council of Europe agreed unanimously to adopt and ratify the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), a binding legal instrument of the highest order which would help secure and expand European unity over the course of the next 60 years and hopefully, for many years to come. In 1966, European and many other states around the world in the UN adopted two International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, respectively. The Covenants entered into force ten years later, in 1976. These grand achievements in regard to rights were inspired by values, principles and ethics which were carefully crafted to ensure congruity between the rights prescribed and the reasons or factors underlying their application.

Enhancement of freedom of expression and creativity, identity and diversity, and access and participation: Patrice Meyer-Bisch (2002) has written, "Cultural governance is assessed on the basis of the realization of cultural rights...It is necessary that this governance takes into account other sectors of social life since cultural rights are only realizable in the context of the indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights." Human and cultural rights issues and existing legal instruments remain a constant frame of reference for their application to the rationale, development and implementation of cultural policies and programmes that complement and help to implement universal and targeted rights and ethics.  The protection of human and cultural rights in Europe has followed a steady trajectory starting with the codification of fundamental freedoms in the late 1940s and 1950s including basic principles with a close everyday life relationship with culture such as freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 9 of the Convention), expression (Article 10), assembly and association (Article 11) and the prohibition of discrimination (Article 14).  Additional rights have been incorporated in the ECHR including, for example, the right to education {Protocol 1 (2)} and the right to movement {Protocol 4 (2)}.

In regard to the recognition and protection of cultural rights which are identified with Article 15 of the ESC Covenant, the universal right to take part in cultural life (cultural participation) and to benefit from the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from the author's scientific, literary or artistic production (copyright) are among the most important. One of the more interesting works on the right to participate in cultural life was published in 1994 as Human Rights and Cultural Policies in a Changing Europe, a Report of the European Round Table held in Helsinki the previous year and organised by the Cultural Information and Research Centres Liaison in Europe (CIRCLE) and the International Movement of RIGHTS AND HUMANITY in co-operation with the Council of Europe. Incidentally, of the four co-editors of this Report, two are familiar as Authors in the Compendium today, Ritva Mitchell and Rod Fisher.

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National Cultural Canons as a Cultural Policy Response to Globalisation?

By Peter Duelund


Discussions on identity, the nation-state and cultural policy as well as questions addressing globalisation and nationalism are often presented as closely interrelated. Everywhere in the world people are protesting the de-territorialising effects of globalisation and call for a revitalisation of nationalism as a defence against a possible loss of identity. Strengthening national or social cohesion as an answer to migration and multicultural challenges is argued as vitally important in the current national debates on social and cultural issues.

The national dimension of cultural policy has been strengthened in recent years. In Great Britain, the New Labour and political movements on the left proposed 'progressive nationalism' as a response to the cultural policies of Anglo-Saxon conservatives and their nationalist investments in social and cultural discussions. France gave birth to a new Ministry for Immigration and National Identity. Poland witnessed the creation of a new national self-awareness built on its Catholic faith. In Serbia, radical neo-nationalist movements have been nourished by myths and propelled by demands to legitimise the return of lost territories.

At the same time, the increasing importance of the link between identity and nation within defined borders has generated protests both in majority populations and in ethnic minority groups. In Turkey several hundred thousand people participated in protests because they fear a resuscitation of Islamic nationalism. 2006 saw one of the most severe crises in post-war Danish foreign policy when a newspaper published caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed causing violent reactions among the faithful. Fire was set to the Danish embassy in Damascus, the Danish flag was burned in public, there was a boycott of Danish commodities throughout the Arab world and official protests from Arab foreign offices were sent to Copenhagen. The Danish premier minister appeared on Arab TV in an attempt to make it clear that the publication of the drawings did not constitute a violation of religious rights but was an expression of the right to free speech in a secular democracy.

Against this background, national cultural canons are being introduced as a cultural policy response to globalisation, immigration, multiculturalism, cultural relativism and as a means to revitalise national identity and social cohesion.

For example, in April 2005, the Danish Minister of Culture, Brian Mikkelsen, appointed 7 canon committees corresponding to the 7 main art forms within the Ministry's remit: literature, music, performing arts, film, architecture, visual arts, design and crafts. These committees were responsible for selecting works to be included in the Danish Cultural Canon (

The Danish Cultural Canon was published and circulated by the Ministry in 2006- 2007. It was created as "a collection and presentation of the greatest, most important works of Denmark's cultural heritage". It's purpose was to:

  • serve as a compass showing the directions and milestones in Denmark's long and complex cultural history; 
  • serve as a platform for discussion and debate;
  • give us reference points and awareness of what is special about Danes and Denmark in an ever more globalised world; and
  • strengthen the sense of community by showing key parts of our common historical possessions.

The Danish Cultural Canon was first published as a book with a DVD and CD ROM and was distributed free of charge to all primary & lower secondary schools (Folkeskole), upper secondary schools (Gymnasium), and business colleges (Handelsskoler) in Denmark. It was also distributed to adult learning centres (VUC), high schools (Højskoler) and some higher education institutions. At the same time, the book is for sale (DKK 99). In total, 175,000 copies have been printed, 150,000 of which will be distributed free to libraries, etc.

In order to ensure that the Canon project reached all interested citizens, especially young people, the Danish Ministry for Culture launched an online publication of the entire work on: In 2008, the Danish Cultural Canon consisted of 108 works spread over nine different art forms. Each committee compiled a canon comprising 12 Danish works of art. An exception was made for the music field which includes a list of 24 works: 12 popular music and 12 scores. A Danish Canon for Children's Culture consisting of 12 works, aimed specifically at children, was also published.

In other countries, such as the Netherlands, the Dutch Cultural Canon ( was launched in 2006, shedding many years of a predominantly multiculturalists perspective. The Canon project was initiated as a response to a charge that all segments of the population suffered from a lack of knowledge of the nation's history and culture. The Minister of Education, Culture and Science established the Van Oostrom Commission to provide advice on the shape and content of the Canon.

In the same year, the Dutch Service for International Cultural Activities (SICA) and the European Network of National Cultural Institutes (EUNIC) organised a discussion around the idea of creating a European Cultural Canon. The aim was to initiate a discussion on the cultural policy potential and implications of such a project, to address questions of whether it is desirable from a political and artistic point of view and to determine its consequences for Europe.

More recently, the Latvian Ministry of Culture launched a Cultural Canon project in 2008 to foster the establishment of common cultural values.

The rise of national cultural canons leads to a number of general as well as specific scientific and political issues relating to identity, nationalism and cultural policies in Europe that will require new theoretical and empirical frameworks of inquiry. Many questions arise as to the inclusiveness of these canons as well as the background of those who are building them. What will be the effects of such canons in the future? Are they a threat to diversity or a tool to promote cohesion?

Additional information on this topic can be found in the new book from the Boekman Foundation:

Ineke van Hamersveld and Athur Sonnen (eds.): Identifying with Europe - Reflections on a Historical and Cultural Canon for Europe. Amsterdam: Boekmanstudies, EUNIC Netherlands and SICA, 2009.

A New Deal for Cultural Employment

by Carla Bodo


Is the decline in public expenditure for culture having a negative impact on the dynamics of the cultural labour market and on the level of supply and demand for cultural goods and services?

Carla Bodo argues that it is. Her solution: European governments should introduce a "New Deal for Cultural Employment" inspired by Roosevelts experimental "Federal Arts Project" (1935-39), by the 1970s institutional reforms in Italy, by Jack Langs policies that led to a 40% increase in cultural employment between 1982 and 1995 in France.

A stimulus package for the culture sector requires more than just increased levels of funding. It also needs a clear mix of regulations, financial incentives and innovative policies in support of: artistic creativity and technical skills in the visual and performing arts, in the cultural and creative industries; new skills and competences in the conservation and enhancement of the historic and artistic heritage; and, last but not least, new intercultural competences aimed at fostering mutual understanding and social cohesion in our increasingly multicultural societies.

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