Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Culture as an Activity and Human Right: An Important Advance for Indigenous Peoples and International Law

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Culture as an Activity and Human Right: An Important Advance for Indigenous Peoples and International Law

Article excerpt

Traditionally, culture has been treated as an object in international documents. As a consequence, cultural rights in international human rights law have been conceived of as rights of access and consumption. This conception of cultural rights sets them up to appear less fundamental to human dignity than political, civil, and economic rights. However, much of the empirical evidence on human rights abuses suggests that the abuse of minorities' cultural rights and the abuse of other of their human rights are linked in ways that makes it artificial to treat abuses of culture as less fundamental.

Recently, an alternative conception of culture has emerged from international documents treating indigenous peoples. Within these documents culture is treated as an activity rather than a good. This activity is ascribed to peoples as well as persons; and protecting the capacity of both peoples and persons to engage in culture is taken to be as basic a component of human dignity as are freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and freedom from torture. This activity conception of culture represents an important advance for the international legal framework within which human rights to culture are protected because it promotes a better understanding of what cultural rights protect. (1)

It is not an accident that this treatment of culture has emerged from international documents treating indigenous peoples, for indigenous peoples' cultural rights can be fully understood only against the background of their basic rights to self-determination. However, the value of this treatment of culture extends beyond the human rights of indigenous peoples. Treating culture as an activity establishes an understanding of what cultural rights protect that clarifies the relationship between cultural rights and other mechanisms for protecting minorities and frames the role of cultural communities in the realization of human dignity as an important physical and political issue, not just a psychological one. This reveals a greater degree of coherence among international norms regarding the protection and preservation of minority cultures than is often recognized and defuses many of the standard worries about competition between human rights of peoples and human rights of individuals. In addition, it offers an account of what is wrong with violating cultural rights such that violations of a group's cultural rights are clearly and straightforwardly linked to violations of its rights to persist and to flourish. For these reasons, the norms regarding cultural rights that are emerging from international documents treating indigenous peoples are a much-needed step forward for peoples' rights more generally.

The Human Right to Culture

There is a long history among international human rights instruments and within the United Nations system of treating cultural integrity and access to cultural heritage as a constituent element of human dignity in its own right and not merely instrumentally necessary. (2) Cultural rights are widely acknowledged to be human rights, and the right to participate in culture appears as a matter of course in human rights declarations, treaties, and interpretive documents. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits." (3) And the Vienna Declaration reminds states that "persons belonging to minorities have the right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion and to use their own language in private and in public, freely and without interference or any form of discrimination." (4) In its General Comment 13: The Right to Education, the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR, the monitoring body for the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the ICESCR) notes that the covenant obliges states to provide education that is not only relevant and of good quality in its form and content but also culturally appropriate. …

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