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Interactive Dialogue Statement, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Alexandra Xanthaki at the Human Rights Council, 49th Session - Item 3, Geneva

8 March 2022

Your Excellencies,

Today, as I take the floor for the first time before you as the UN SR in the field of Cultural Rights, I am more than aware that all our eyes remain firmly in Ukraine. And how else?

In a statement last week, all UN Special Rapporteurs together have urged the end of the military attack on the sovereign state of Ukraine and have noted that the ‘consequences of the military attack on the protection and promotion of human rights will be profound and long-lasting’. Indeed, in the last 10 days we have been witness to immense suffering, unnecessary loss of lives and continuing destruction of the lives, livelihoods, properties and the environment.

The justification of any war must step away from rhetoric that denies the identity and the history of a nation. It is part of the well-recognised and legally-binding right to self-determination, as well as cultural rights, to decide on one’s own identity and no one can do this for Ukrainians.

Further, any military or other action must be sensitive to the cultural and religious heritage as well as artistic capital present on the territory of the state, in all its diversity. Ukraine is home to seven UNESCO world heritage sites and of course amazing museums and galleries. We share the angst of curators and museum directors who have to leave amazing pieces of art unprotected. We hope that museums, schools and churches of any denomination will not be targeted and further destroyed.

Within all this horror, the welcome that the neighbouring states give to fleeing individuals is heart-warming and restores our faith to the shaken international human rights standards. I join my voice with other UN Special Rapporteurs that such welcome must take place with no discrimination on any ground and must not prevent anyone to express their identity. The challenge ahead of us will be to ensuring that cultural rights and identities are protected in the diaspora that will emerge as a consequence of the fleeing. Another challenge will be to ensure that Russians in the Russian Federation and around the world do not suffer from restrictions in their cultural rights as a direct result of this conflict. 

Some of these themes fall firmly within the priorities of my mandate for the next few years. I am determined that my work confirms and reinforces the importance of cultures for the development of individuals and societies and the realization of all human rights. Without pushing under the carpet the potential need for balancing different rights, an exercise very common in human rights, I am of the firm belief that there is more space for acknowledging and resorting to the transformative effect that cultures have in all their dimensions.

My mandate will focus on the obligations that states have undertaken in international law on cultural rights. The overarching principle of these obligations is that of ensuring substantive equality in the enjoyment of cultural rights for all, including through the adoption of positive actions. For example, this is a clear obligation undertaken in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination that 185 States have ratified.

In this respect, I intend to draw more attention to the rights of migrant artists, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex artists, and artists with disabilities. Exiled artists often face discrimination both from back home and in the new host state. An intersectional approach and collaboration with other mandate holders is of critical importance on this issue.
The cultural rights of marginalised communities also need more attention. The notion of culture has been democratised recently, viewed now not only as monuments belonging to elites but also as ways of life, practices and traditions in all their diversity, and various links with the environment. Disrespect of these elements of the identity of marginalised groups, have had a lasting impact in these communities; many indigenous communities carry the scars of such disrespect. At times, such violations have been happening under the pretext of protecting human rights or ‘educating’ the persons whose rights were being violated. These narratives are recently used in the migration debate, when host States affirm that migrants allegedly needed to be ‘educated’ about the ‘rule of law’. The cultural rights of migrants will be the focus of my next report to the Human Rights Council.

In essence, I am eager to address cross sections of cultural rights with other rights, in other words their interdependence and indivisibility with other human rights.

I believe there is a need to further unpack the relationship of sustainable development and cultural rights; and this is the topic of my forthcoming report to the General Assembly. Often, development projects funded by international organisations and executed by transnational corporations do not prioritise spiritual and cultural rights of the persons and communities concerned. Cultural rights must be at the core of any discussion and activity relating to sustainable development. The wisdom of traditional knowledge holders and the experiences of affected communities must be used at all stages of development projects, from inception to delivery and evaluation. Such communities must not only be consulted; their free, prior and informed consent must be sought and respected and their leadership in implementing and evaluating development programmes must be secure. Also, a variety of development models, as derived from different cultures, must be promoted. I am looking forward to analysing ways to ensure that financial models of development can be enriched and even replaced by more human rights-oriented models of development. And I ask for your collaboration.

Turning to the tools I will use for my work, I intend to rely a lot on the cooperation of member states and civil society to further reveal the real current needs in cultural rights and work towards improving the situation of these rights.

I would like to invite you all to inundate my office with information about good practices and current challenges; and requests on how we can help in moving cultural rights further.

I recognise that cultural rights have not been the focus of attention as much as other rights; hence States may require capacity building so that they have the means to fully implement their obligations. My team is very eager to provide such technical help in clarifying and improving the legislation, the policies and the practices on cultural rights and cultural diversity.

Communications are an important tool to enter a dialog on alleged violations. To date, the mandate has either joined or initiated 340 such communications; and we work through more every week.

Finally, an important part of the mandate consists in conducting country visits. 14 such visits have already been conducted. I am looking forward to being invited by more States for state visits.

Cultural rights have been substantially clarified and strengthened by the previous mandate holders. On this difficult crossroad, when the ugliness and suffering of aggression is so present, our rights to have in our lives the beauty, the warmth and strength from our varied and wonderful cultures, our rights to have access and create and participate in the arts, our right to work closely and in sync with nature; these rights become even more important in the world. I urge you to actively collaborate with my mandate to further protect these rights.