WOMEN’S CULTURAL RIGHTS ARE A PRIME SITE OF ATTACK: Karima Bennoune, UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights
Michael: I was interested in what you were saying in your opening address around the, you said, I quote here, “embattled humanity has never needed its artists as much.” Speak to us a little bit about that embattled status. Where are we at at the moment? There is this general feeling of despondency amongst progressives.
Karima: I think people who have been working in the field of human rights from whatever political position they may come from are looking around at the world and wondering what is happening to the vision that they have been defending. Chetan Bhatt who teaches human rights at the London School Economics has been talking about how we can no longer take for granted the centrist consensus around human rights in the world; there are not that many actors, there are not that many states anymore that stand up and openly defend basic concepts of human rights and dignity at the UN that we have taken for granted. I think we are seeing greater division, greater polarisation, we are seeing attacks on the concept of the universality of human rights from the far-right, sometimes from the far-left, from governments, from non-governmental actors – even in academia – and we are seeing governments and world leaders including of very powerful countries openly expressing hate, openly giving voice to views that we thought had been consigned to the waste-basket of history at least as far as being acceptable official discourse. The human rights we talk about, one of the main tools being the mobilisation of shame, and of course certain kinds of shame are very negative in terms of shaming around the body and so on that women human rights defenders have worked on. But in the human rights field more generally the mobilisation of shame has meant trying to expose the human rights abuses of governments as a way of holding them to account because they will be embarrassed – but that was presuming that they would be embarrassed if exposed. And I think that in some ways we are in a post-shame universe now when we have world leaders openly either proclaiming that women are inferior to men or openly proclaiming discriminatory views about entire groups of people, about entire continents of people, about entire religious groups and so on. So how do we mobilise shame in a post-shame universe? But there’s also so many reasons to be optimistic and that’s what I try to focus on: the human rights defenders all around the world, the cultural rights defenders in my area who are continuing to come up with creative initiatives, who are continuing to push back. I think about a wonderful Bangladeshi publisher [Ahmedur “Tutul” Chowdhury] I’ve just met who faced an attack on his life for having published the works of the late Avijit Roy, the assassinated writer, and this publisher survived that attack, has had to go into exile, and the amazing part about the story is that – and people may be wondering where is the optimism in that – he has gone back to publishing on the internet [Shuddhashar: here] with limited means, but he continues, and I think that’s a reminder to all of us that we have no right to give up in the face of the current moment; we have to be inspired by examples like that.
Michael: You talk about fragmentation and yet at the same time a lot of these ideologies that are eroding this universality doctrine are themselves monolithic, they have pretentions to undifferentiation. Perhaps talk a little bit about that.
Karima: I think that universality is about human dignity, it’s not about homogeneity. In fact my report for the General Assembly was both about universality and cultural diversity and how neither of these concepts is a weapon against the other; they are in fact interlocking concepts. But we have to be very clear that there is a distinction between cultural diversity which is a recognition of the complexity of human reality and the multiple identities and expressions that human beings have in the world and that is a very positive thing, versus cultural relativism which is the attempt to use culture – or the claim of culture – to justify the violation of human rights, or discrimination or hate. And that is never acceptable, that is never the same thing as cultural diversity, so what universality is really countering is the attempt to use arguments of particularism against the basic framework of human dignity, the attempt to use culture not to amplify rights but to diminish them. And so I think that we really have to have this holistic vision, we have to defend a universality that is thoughtful, that is recognising plural and diverse and multiple forms of human existence and expression, but is rigorously committed to human dignity and equal rights for everyone whatever group he or she might fit into.
Michael: I think generally people recognise this drift into pretty outrageous populism right across the world, whether it’s India or Brazil – which I think are much more concerning than the United States for me personally because, given the scale of their populations and the depth of the reaction involved. But speak a little bit about what you’ve red-flagged, how this drift has started to erode progressive traditions within academia, as that’s particularly worrying.
Karima: So let me talk about the academic issue. One of the things that I have been very worried about and I think it’s especially the case in the English-speaking world, though from what I understand it’s also a problem elsewhere, has been a real move away from supporting concepts of universal human rights to finding all sorts of justifications based on particularism for violations of human rights, in particular women’s human rights, and giving into cultural explanations for these rights [violations]. And while it’s certainly useful to question hegemonic impulses – certainly the historical attempts to use certain human rights concepts in a way that involved imposition on people – what has happened is that even human rights defenders on the ground in the global South are questioned by some of these academics primarily in the global North as somehow not being authentic. And I hate this discourse of authenticity, [challenging] authentic representatives of their own society. So for example a very prominent academic in the United States who in the field of Middle Eastern studies challenged a Palestinian rap group [DAM] that had taken on honour violence in Palestine in the name of somehow some form of anti-imperialism or post-colonial critique. And I have to say I find this bizarre, and this is an academic who is very prominent indeed in her field, and this is the kind of thinking that is questioning the right to cultural dissent. Cultures are not monolithic and I always prefer to use cultures with an “s”. And the thing is white people in the West cannot presume that they are the only ones that have the right to dissent in their own society or in their own group; everyone, it is a universal right to cultural dissent, and that’s where I really worry about the direction of some academic argument that we’ve seen, and I have called for in my report, with great respect for academic freedom, for academic institutions and academics themselves to really find creative ways to tackle this problem and to support the concept of universality and the vision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in their work.
Michael: Again and again in a variety of different reports including the one we’ve just seen from FreeMuse, the state emerges as the primary perpetrator of violations of artistic and associated rights – but the growth of this populism, the vile nature of this beast, has shone quite a light on sub-state actors, particularly those masquerading within the cultural field. Perhaps you could explore that a little?
Karima: So, women human rights defenders have been telling us all for years that a vision of human rights that only looked at the state was a very thin vision; certainly state responsibility is at the heart of the human rights framework but there are many other actors that can violate human rights: non-state actors, individuals, individuals in the family, community actors, religious leaders, and now we have seen increasingly in a range of fields, transnational corporations, and the list goes on. And I think we need to have not a 20th Century vision of human rights but a 21st Century vision of human rights where we recognise the need to hold to account all these actors, and certainly we want to keep coming back to the idea that the state has primary responsibility for respecting and ensuring, for promoting and protecting and fulfilling human rights, but we also have to find creative ways to hold these other actors to account or we will have a very thin narrative of human rights in the world. I am also very concerned about transnational corporations because they are increasingly powerful and sometimes more powerful than states and its very difficult for states to hold them accountable. And I know there are efforts under way to develop a treaty about the human rights obligations of transnational corporations; I think that’s going to be a very long project. But again I think it’s really important in the human rights area to look at this wide range of actors and that’s why in my reports I regularly make recommendations primarily to the state but also to a range of other actors. And indeed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights talks about the responsibility of all actors in society and all individuals for advancing human rights.
Michael: You’ve spoken about the gap between the arts rights justice sector, which is emergent and is perhaps a little bit behind similar developments in journalism protection, and more formal systems such as that which you are engaged in yourself. And you’ve said that obviously these arts rights justice activators need to be more involved in those formal engagements. Certainly we’ve seen many more lawyers and legislators get involved in this type of field, but still there’s a gap. I’m guessing from the arts rights side that there is some suspicion of these global fora, especially because of the glacial speed at which many of them move. How do we close this gap?
Karima: You know that’s a terrific question and I want to be the first to say that this is a two-way street and my hope is that more arts rights, cultural rights organisations, artists and cultural practitioners themselves, cultural institutions, will begin to see the United Nations and the United Nations human rights system in particular as a relevant set of fora for their work but my hope is also is for the United Nations human rights system to recognise more centrally the importance of cultural rights including artistic freedom and the role of artists – including sometimes as human rights defenders – so it’s really a two-way street. And I recognise that many people might not see the UN as relevant – but great harm can be done to artistic freedom and cultural rights at the United Nations if the sectors most directly affected by those rights issues are not there to defend those rights and to speak from their experience. And what I have called for is the creation of something like an NGO coalition or civil society coalition for cultural rights at the UN. And we see such similar coalitions in the areas of freedom of expression, and freedom of religion or belief for example. There is so much that could be done: these organisations could take the floor if they have consultative status at the UN; they could take the floor in interactive dialogues with me and other rapporteurs in the Human Rights Council; they can submit shadow reports so when countries where they have concerns are coming up for review in front of the United Nations treaty bodies they could be submitting alternative information to the information that the state submits; many of these treaty bodies have complaints mechanisms and they could also be sending and working together to sit in a systematic way to send cases to these different bodies. So we could develop a really thorough, rigorous, vibrant jurisprudence in these areas at that level. And I am the first to recognise the limitations of the UN system; I am myself very frustrated with the lack of implementation – but if we don’t get in there and fight for cultural rights at the UN and if we leave the UN human rights system to the enemies of human rights, we can’t expect that there will be much progress. So, just as I want to work more in the artistic and cultural fields, and in the fora where artists and cultural workers are themselves working, I hope that they will come and join me and other actors more frequently in the UN human rights system.
Michael: How does your office interact with other rapporteurs, in particular the one on religion?
Karima: The two rapporteurs that I would say that I most often work with are indeed the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, currently Ahmed Shaheed from the Maldives, and the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, currently David Kaye from the United States. And I think it makes sense because you will see that there are big areas of overlap. I know that Ahmed Shaheed and I have shared many, many concerns about making sure that freedom of religion or belief is not the same thing as freedom of religion: this is about the right to believe or not to believe, to be a religious person or not to be a religious person, to have a different kind of world view, to change your religious belief, to leave a particular religion, to dissent from a particular religion and to express that dissent. And there are so many cultural rights cases affecting artists in particular but also affecting members of minorities, bloggers, women’s human rights defenders, that are coming up in this area of intersection, and so that mandate has been a very important partner for my mandate and I look forward to that work going forward. And I think one of the things we need to be really thinking about and grappling with is the overlap between religion and culture because there are often many cultural practices which are overlaid on religious beliefs and after a while it is hard to know where religion ends and where culture begins. And this really about recognising the human dimension and human agency and responsibility in creating some practices, which means also those practices can be changed by human beings, so I think that’s a really interesting area of intersection.
Michael: And gender, of course.
Karima: And gender absolutely, and I have done a great deal of work with the Working Group on Discrimination Against Women. One of the two areas that were highlighted by the Human Rights Council when my mandate was created: so this mandate is about making sure that everyone enjoys cultural rights without any discrimination, and two particular sectors that the Council highlighted were gender and the cultural rights of persons with disabilities, and so women’s cultural rights are at the heart of what we are doing. There was a dedicated report on women’s cultural rights done back in 2011 by my predecessor, and I did a report on diverse forms of fundamentalism and extremism and the cultural rights of women in 2017. When I go on mission, it’s an issue that I really focus on because what we’ve seen is that women’s cultural rights are a prime site for attack on universal human rights.
Michael: So it’s almost like a mine canary, it’s the first thing to show signs of distress?
Karima: Absolutely! It’s the most likely place to see a cultural relativist argument. Women are most often saddled with being the banners of, or the standard-bearers for what is called culture, which is often a very static vision of culture. And my predecessor Farida Shaheed argued for us to really shift our paradigm from seeing culture as primarily negative for women – unfortunately as she recognised, it has been used that way very often – but shifting from that to women’s equal rights to participate in culture which includes deciding which cultural practices to not to particulate in or to leave behind because they are no longer acceptable under our evolving understanding of human rights. I mean, think about it: in your own country [South Africa], systematic racial discrimination in many countries including in the United States used to be justified on cultural grounds; there was a cultural and even religious justification used for apartheid. We would absolutely reject those today – and appropriately so. And in the same vein, it is completely unacceptable to try to justify discrimination against people, against women, against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex on the basis of culture; those are also completely unacceptable arguments. We need to recognise today, and this goes to the heart of cultural rights which is not about culture as a static thing which doesn’t change; it’s about cultures as dynamic. Again what my predecessor and I both said is that our cultural rights mandate isn’t about defending a thing called “culture”; it’s about defending people’s right to participate in cultural life which includes participating in the process of how culture should change over time in accordance with…
Michael: Because it inevitably does…
Karima: And if it doesn’t, humanity’s in trouble. What was the old thing about sharks dying when they stop moving? Human culture needs to evolve; humanity evolves, that’s simply a reality and it needs to evolve in accordance with our contemporary understanding of human dignity. I think that’s really how we carry forward the vision of the Universal Declaration of Human rights into its next seventy years. And if there is a tendency sometimes in some parts of human rights circles to see cultural rights as somehow peripheral, silly, trivial matters – not at all; it goes to the heart of who we are as human beings, how we live in this world together, how we express ourselves, how we remember what has come to us from the past, and how we go forward and what we pass on to the generations to come.