Reflections on the theory and practice of cultural rights.

Author:Renteln, Alison Dundes
Position:International Cultural Law: Looking Back and Looking Ahead - Proceedings of the One Hundredth Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law: A Just World Under Law

The notion of cultural rights has received relatively little attention, despite its importance in international human rights law. Although cultural rights are crucial for the maintenance of individual and group identities, domestic legal systems have seldom afforded them official protection. International human rights law provides some possible frameworks within which to analyze cultural rights. However, to put cultural rights into practice, it is necessary to determine their meaning and scope.

One theoretical challenge is figuring out how best to conceptualize "culture." There are many types of "culture, and when reference is made to "culture," this can mean high culture, mass or popular culture, traditional culture as in a way of life, and the type of culture found in a laboratory. Even though disagreement exists as to what constitutes "culture" in the abstract, the "contested" nature of culture should not prevent individuals and groups from invoking cultural rights. For the most part, individuals seek to follow specific cultural practices that are not in dispute. Although some may differ as to whether it is necessary to adhere to tradition, that the tradition exists is not at issue.

One of the major difficulties associated with cultural rights is the absence of interpretive materials. UNESCO sponsored much of the early scholarship on cultural rights. In 1950, UNESCO published Freedom and Culture, evidently its first attempt at clarifying the idea of cultural rights. A group of scholars convened a meeting at the Interdisciplinary Institute of Ethics and Human Rights at the University of Fribourg in 1991 to analyze cultural rights, and they produced a draft Declaration on Cultural Rights. The Council of Europe held a meeting in Budapest in 1995 on the theme: Cultural rights: universal, individual, and legally enforceable individual rights. In 2001, UNESCO adopted a Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity and in 2005 the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.

To date, the strongest formulations of cultural rights are found in the two key human rights treaties. Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights provides:

  1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone:

    (a) To take part in cultural life;

    (b) To enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications;

    (c) To benefit from the protection of the moral and material...

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