UN: HR Council holds debate with new Independent Expert on cultural rights


The new Independent Expert in the field of cultural rights, Ms Farida Shaheed, presented her first report to the Human Rights Council on Monday 31 May 2010. The presentation was followed by an interactive dialogue with the Independent Expert, which took place in the morning of 1 June. The report presents the Independent Expert's preliminary views on the conceptual and legal framework of the mandate on cultural rights and the priority issues she plans to focus on in the future. Ms Shaheed stated that at the heart of this new mandate is the relationship between cultural rights, cultural diversity, and the universality of human rights. The Independent Expert detailed the way in which cultural rights can enrich our understanding of the universality of human rights. She was clear in her statement that cultural diversity is not synonymous with cultural relativism. However, in the course of the dialogue, there were some visible tensions between the concepts of universality of human rights and cultural rights. In particular, Bangladesh and Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC) seemed to suggest that cultural diversity should take precedence over the universality of human rights, with Bangladesh warning against making value judgements about cultural practices.

There was also disagreement over the idea of cultural rights as collective or group rights, with the US and Canada clearly stating that they did not agree that human rights could be collective.

Some States, including Algeria and Azerbaijan, took the opportunity to talk of the destruction of culture in conflict zones or in occupied territories. A coalition of Iraqi NGOs strongly condemned the actions of the US in Iraq in terms of the destruction of historic cultural artefacts.

In her closing statement, Ms Shaheed particularly emphasised the need for inter-cultural dialogue (as requested by some States including Bangladesh and Iran) in the performance of her duties, but that this would depend on the availability of resources. Ms Shaheed reiterated her paradigm of culture as a dynamic and constantly evolving process. She further argued that her experience had taught her that harmful customs are often learned habits and are susceptible to rapid change when the necessary space is provided. This approach is likely to bring her into conflict with States such as Bangladesh, who specifically stated there is 'no such thing as good or bad culture'.