On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the close of the World Decade for Cultural Development, it is not only appropriate but imperative to reflect on the state of cultural rights and respond to the call for action issued by the World Commission on Culture and Development. The 1947 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) proclaimed cultural rights as human rights, and broadly defined these rights. Yet the latter remain a neglected sub-category when compared to political, civil, economic and social rights.
The reasons for the neglect are complex and numerous. In the process of transferring the content of the UDHR into treaty-binding provisions, cultural rights were enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The obligations of States, according to the ICESCR, were obligations of results. This was interpreted by some to mean that the rights of the ICESCR were programmatic rights, which implies they are not justiciable, which means they are not legal, and States, therefore, would not have to stand up to international scrutiny. However, the debate on whether or not cultural rights are legal rights has since been resolved, but the problem of defining exactly what cultural rights include and how to implement them remains.
Defining cultural rights has proven to be a monumental task. The category of cultural rights remains the least developed in terms of legal content and enforceability. This neglect is due to many reasons including political and ideological tensions surrounding this set of rights, as well as tensions which surface when an individual's rights conflict with group rights including those of States. While it is obvious that cultural rights are rights to culture, what is not obvious is what exactly the term "culture" includes, despite numerous existing definitions included in various international documents. Another contributing factor is the conflict between the universality of human rights and the concept of cultural relativism.
However, despite these difficulties, various definitions of cultural rights as a collective right and as an individual right do exist both at the universal and regional levels though there is no one universally recognized version and a corpus of cultural rights is gradually developing.
A process of inventorying cultural rights needs to be undertaken. As this work proceeds, it is important to build an awareness of what these rights include (both for individuals and groups), and what the States' obligations are regarding these rights. Cultural rights, more than any other human rights, have an internal dynamic due to the fact that culture is a living and growing organism, always manifesting itself in new ways.
The basic principles of respect for the inherent dignity of every human being, and of equality must be kept in mind, together with the core right of access to cultural life and the right to participate in cultural life (1976 UNESCO Recommendation on Participation by the People at large in Cultural Life and their Contribution to it). However, when we try to identify the components of these basic rights, confusion and disagreement arise when trying to determine which are separate rights and which are separate rights with cultural components.
Preparing the inventory of cultural rights is a long term endeavour and cannot be a panacea for the underdevelopment and neglect that afflicts the category of cultural rights. Yet it must be intensified, if possible with the participation of those upon whom policies regarding cultural rights have the greatest impact. There is a parallel need to address the efficacy of the implementation process of these rights, and States' accountability for doing so.
International organizations should develop advocacy components in their programs connected with cultural rights, with a three-fold purpose: to make people aware of their cultural rights, aware that those rights can be violated, and that States can be held accountable for violations. International organizations such as UNESCO should also work to build a network composed of non-governmental organizations dealing with cultural issues. The purpose of the network would include: to collect information on violations of cultural rights; to assist States in their reports to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and to petition governments to include information on cultural rights in these reports.
While we work to improve the state of cultural rights, it is important to remember that we do so for human rights as a whole.