By Sofiya Petkova, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 discusses two groups of human rights: civil and political, and economic, social and cultural. In order to provide legislative binding United Nations adopted two separate international covenants: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). In the latter there is no clear distinction between economic, social and cultural rights. The document refers explicitly to “cultural rights” as “the right of everyone… to take part in cultural life” (UDHR, Article 15(1)). However, they are not developed and discussed in a broad way. Some scholars look at these rights as part of the ICCPR related to discrimination, ethnic minority issues or specific rights such as freedom of religion, expression, association. This resulted in a lot of tensions between ethnic minorities, as well as a lot of international debates and discussion about the true nature of these rights. The connection between cultural, economic and social rights is that cultural rights have economic and social dimensions. The distinction between cultural rights and the others is that while human rights are individual, i.e. held by individuals, cultural rights are group rights.
Cultural rights movements strive generally for recognition, revival and promotion of culture. They may be also response to cultural genocide. Genocide comes from Greek: “genos” meaning ‘race’ or ‘nation’ and “caedere” from Latin meaning ‘to kill’. Cultural genocide is a largely unexamined area. It stems from the fact that forced assimilation or ethnic cleansing is used by nation-states in order the latter to become culturally homogenous. Cultural genocide is generally applied to “religious and ethnic minorities and indigenous societies that are in danger of extinction”1. One can look at it as state’s actions designed for modernization, development or nation-building process which subsequently may have negative effects on indigenous people or ethnic minorities. It may also result in issues of political status, repression or subordination. Cultural genocide may have many forms such as race discrimination, restriction of religion and others. International law, however, does not recognize cultural genocide but only physical and biological genocide when they are intentionally and systematically exercised. Therefore, acts of forced assimilation through prohibiting an ethnic group to profess its own religion, customs and way of living, driving away people from their land or erosion of central elements of culture like language cannot be acknowledged as cultural genocide in international law. UN terms cultural genocide as “the ultimate crime and the gravest violation of human rights…”
Therefore, cultural rights are designed to protect the rights of groups of people and their culture to preserve their way of life, such as continuation of language, religious rituals and promotion of other aspects of their culture. Cultural rights, however, are a neglected category of human rights. The reason may be because in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, cultural rights are usually enumerated together with economic and social rights and thus, they receive much less attention. Currently they are subject of research mainly in graduate cultural studies and master’s degree in multiculturalism.