Cultural Rights – Neglected Rights

I attended a lecture today in Galway by Mairead Ni Chriochain on the subject of cultural rights. Why are cultural rights not seen as important?

Traditionally, civil and political rights have been seen as being more significant than economic cultural and social rights. Perhaps one might argue that there needs to be a stable political system before economic, cultural and social rights are valued and appreciated. It does not do to put the cart before the horse.

Some people see cultural rights as a luxury. Is everyone entitled to cultural rights? and if so are they entitled to express them both individually and collectively? In the past, there may have been a fear of state fragmentation in respect of the exercise of collective rights – in other words if the people rise up they may revolt! There have also been problems with the definition of cultural rights – what rights are included?

Cultural relativism refers to the principle that an individual human’s beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual’s own culture. Another explanation is that right and wrong are culture specific and what is considered moral in one society may be considered immoral in another and since no universal standard of morality exists no-one has the right to judge another society’s customs. Some people take issue with this because it may mean “anything goes”… cultural relativism means temporarily suspending one’s own moral judgment e.g. in relation to cannibalism and some practices such as female genital mutilation and witchcraft. Most people would judge these practices to be harmful.

The UN has recently addressed the issue of cultural rights by introducing the following:-

1) UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 1997

2) Comment 21 which includes “the right of everyone to participate in cultural life, sport and games, language, oral and written literaturem music and song etc.” (November 2009)

3) The appointment of an independent expert in the field of human rights (November 2009)

The UN has recognised the rights of indigenous people to have a relationship with their ancestral lands, both individually and collectively, this would apply to tribes like Native Americans, Maoris, Aborigines and all peoples who have a long tie /history with the land. The UN has recognised the need to protect minority cultures and has created a violation of international law where a State party fails to act to protect those rights. Indigenous people have the right to self determination and they have individual and collective rights to their ancestral lands and that implies the right to redress if these rights are violated.