Universality, cultural diversity and cultural rights


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To mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, examines the cultural rights approach to the universality of human rights, and the close interrelationship between universality and cultural diversity.

She enumerates current threats to universality, calling for foundational renewal and vigorous defence of this principle.  In today’s polarized world, we need a sophisticated multi-directional stance. We must simultaneously defend the universality of human rights from those seeking to use culture and cultural claims as a weapon against rights and against others, and at the same time defend cultural rights and respect for cultural diversity, in accordance with international standards, when those principles come under attack.

Universality is under threat in particular from attempts to justify a selective approach to it, by:

(a) granting human rights only to some persons and not to others;
(b) committing only to some rights, such as civil and political rights or economic, social and cultural rights, but not to the whole indivisible and interdependent system of human rights; or
(c) recognizing as universal only the rights that all are deemed to agree on, and not all the rights in the universal framework guaranteeing human dignity and equality for all.

Any State or stakeholder advocating these selective approaches undermines the principles of universality, indivisibility and interdependence of rights and weakens the foundations of the human rights system. The universal guarantee of all human rights to all human beings must be defended to protect the dignity of all and to promote a universal human rights culture.

The other set of major threats concerns cultural relativism and repeated attempts to put particularities — of one region, one group, one world view or one interpretation of culture and religion — above the universal norms of human rights. Cultural relativism has been repudiated by human rights law and should not be tolerated in any setting, and especially not in the United Nations and human rights bodies. Each cultural practice, norm and tradition must stand the test of universal human rights and show its capacity to build and maintain human dignity to be legitimate.

It is essential in 2018 to understand that there is a diversity of cultural diversities in each and every society, and that this is not a threat or an impediment to universal human rights, but a reality and a resource. At the same time, we must not overlook our commonalities and overemphasize our differences.

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