Karima Bennoune
Karima Bennoune, UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights 2015-2021. Photo: UNESCO

Among the different types of human rights set out in international law, cultural rights have a particular relevance for libraries. 

Our institutions are key actors in guaranteeing the right of everyone to participate in cultural life, from creativity, to access, to the preservation of heritage.

Professor Karima Bennoune, UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights 2015-2021, focused on this topic in her keynote intervention at the World Library and Information Congress 2021.

The transcript of this session is below, and the video can be accessed on IFLA’s YouTube channel:

Libraries Inspire

Gerald Leitner: Welcome all to our keynote session for the libraries inspire track of our Congress.

This track is all about what we do to promote creativity, to facilitate participation and cultural life from heritage and contemporary culture to the artists of the future.

This is important work. Culture is arguably the fourth pillar of sustainable development, a key factor not just in areas such as social cohesion, wellbeing or resilience, but also a determinant of policy success across the board.

Cultural rights refer to the possibility to engage with, to benefit from culture as a fundamental right that should be enjoyed by all.

Because when there is exclusion, when expression is restricted, when heritage is lost, hidden or destroyed, there’s harm to individuals, to communities, there’s harm to development.

And of course, in turn, libraries are at the heart of this. In many countries, they provide the densest network of cultural institutions, and often the most visited. More often than not, your nearest cultural centre is a library.

Libraries not only provide access to books that inspire, but increasingly work to promote creativity and reuse.

Recognising the positives this brings and their unique potential to do so with these aspects to our institutions were growing, I am very happy to welcome Professor Karima Bennoune, UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights, to talk today.

Professor Bennoune is Professor of Law and Martin Luther King Junior Hall Research Scholar at the University of California, Davis School of Law, where she teaches courses on human rights and international law.

She has worked in the field of human rights for more than 20 years, including with governments and non-governmental organisations, has carried out field missions, trial observations, elections, observations and research in many regions of the world in her work as UN special rapporteur. She has underlined in particular the cultural rights challenges posed by climate change, gender inequality and COVID, as well as the need to support and protect cultural rights defenders. I am aware that Professor Bennoune is very busy at the moment, and so it’s an honour to have you with us. With that, please, Professor Bennoune, the floor is yours.

Professor Bennoune: Thank you very much for that kind introduction. Good morning, good afternoon, good evening and warm cultural solidarity to everyone.

I want to thank the organisers sincerely for inviting me to participate in the World Library and Information Congress of 2021. My reply, frankly, when I received the invitation, was that I was much too busy at the moment to attend, but that the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions has been such an important collaborator and contributor during my tenure as Special Rapporteur and that I so value the work that librarians and archivists do to ensure cultural rights that I simply could not say no. So I am so pleased to be with you today, even if a little rushed.

IFLA has supported cultural rights work, such as by explaining the importance and nature of public spaces, it has developed and widely distributed guidelines on cultural rights for librarians, and these are just a few small examples of the important contributions that you have made.

So I absolutely wanted to take this opportunity to thank the organisation and to express my sincere gratitude to you all for the work that you do, promoting cultural rights and countering ignorance all around the world.

On a personal note, I have to say that libraries have always been an important part of my life since childhood, for which I’m very grateful. My father, who was a university professor, was born in a mountain village in Algeria during the colonial period and had to struggle to obtain his education. He was the greatest bibliophile that I have ever known, and he taught me this love of books and libraries, which had opened boundless horizons for him. Over the years, he built such an amazing book collection in his home office in Algiers that frankly, we feared for him in an earthquake as he was surrounded by three full walls of shelves.

I hope that this love of books in all their many evolving forms will prevail and nourish younger and future generations like it did me, and in memory of my father, Mahmood Bennoune, I thank you all for everything that you do to make this more likely.

In my time today, I want to speak about the cultural rights framework in which I work and many of you work. I want to address some of the major contemporary challenges in the field very briefly and the relevance of all of this as I see it to libraries, as well as discussing some of the roles that I have seen librarians and archivists play in struggles for human rights, including cultural rights. The talk is eclectic, but I hope the unifying theme is the synergy between cultural rights, libraries and ways forward in our current moment. And I look forward to further elaboration during the discussion.

Let me just say a few words about what a Special Rapporteur is and what we do. In this capacity, I am an independent expert appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council, but I don’t work for the U.N. So in my day job, I am a university professor.

As rapporteur, as many of you know, I write thematic reports, I carry out country missions, though this is mostly not possible at the moment, and I can raise cases of specific allegations of violations of cultural rights. For example, this week I have been working to push all governments to afford visas and safe passage for Afghan cultural workers and to ensure the protection of cultural institutions in the country which are so vital for human rights. And I will say more about this at my conclusion.

All of this work – reports; missions; cases – is subject to limits of resources and capacity, which are considerable and which are likely all too familiar to many of you.

I was appointed to my post in November 2015, and my mandate continues until the end of October of this year. In my thematic reports, I have studied a wide range of issues from a cultural rights perspective which are relevant to your work, including my first reports on a human rights approach to cultural heritage, and my final report on cultural mixing, which is forthcoming in October. A cross-cutting theme has been non-discrimination, with a particular emphasis on gender and disabilities, as mandated by the Human Rights Council itself.

Secondly, with regard to the nature and scope of the cultural rights I work on and their international legal basis, and I’m a professor of international law, so I can’t resist addressing this aspect, I want to underscore that the cultural rights mandate focuses in particular on rights contained in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which has 171 states parties in all regions of the world.

The cultural rights that these instruments guarantee include the right of everyone to take part in cultural life, the right to access and enjoy cultural heritage, and the rights to artistic and scientific freedom, amongst others.

The nature of these legal commitments makes clear that the right of people to access and enjoy the institutions you work so hard to curate and cultivate is guaranteed by international law, as is your right to do this work without discrimination and with adequate resources. Libraries and archives are vital for people to be able to realise their cultural rights and also for achieving many other human rights, from the right to education to freedom of expression and many others. Indeed, libraries and archives are vital parts of building and maintaining cultures of human rights in a world that too often seems to be turning away from such values.

I have said again and again on the floor of the U.N. meeting rooms that cultural rights are core to the human experience. They have inherent importance for human rights. They are not a luxury, even, and perhaps especially, during a global health crisis. I have worked to try to demonstrate that these rights are a crucial part of responses to many current challenges, from discrimination to climate change, and most recently, COVID 19.

Libraries and archives have vital roles to play in all of those responses as well. In fact, I have sometimes recommended documentation and the use of libraries in addressing a range of human rights issues in my reports, such as in the Report on Fundamentalism and Extremism. Today, in the context of the pandemic, the threats to the right to science and scientific freedom which undermine the human rights of so many are the direct results of insufficient scientific and public health, education and the undermining of commitments to fact-based and evidence-based public discourse. Libraries are a core part of restoring those commitments.

All of this means that, as I noted in my 2020 report for the U.N. Human Rights Council, librarians and archivists may often act as cultural rights defenders. Those are human rights defenders who work to protect cultural rights in accordance with international standards.

When they do so, they may also face risks and sometimes their own human rights may need defence.

The Human Rights Council has regularly repeated that cultural rights are an integral part of human rights, which are universal, indivisible, interrelated and interdependent. In recent years, cultural rights have gained in legitimacy, but much remains to be done to fulfil the council’s vision, and I know my successor will carry that forward.

But these rights are threatened by so many challenges which pose obstacles to the work of cultural rights defenders. They are sometimes threatened by a lack of resources devoted to culture, by a lack of prioritisation of culture, by censorship and repression in certain contexts, by intolerance and discrimination and hatred, by poverty, and a failure to fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals on schedule, by the turns away from evidence and science and reason and facts, and by the climate emergency, which is I told the General Assembly last fall, is perhaps the single greatest threat to cultural rights in the world today.

All of these challenges, of course, gravely affect libraries and archives and your work. For example, I noted in that report to the General Assembly on climate change, that globally archives and libraries, great repositories of human knowledge, culture, and history are severely affected and very much at risk from rising temperatures and waters and extreme weather. At the same time, there is a positive aspect in that all of these challenges can be affected by, and we can help to find solutions through, the work of your institutions.

Culture and cultural institutions and cultural rights are a core part of identifying and imagining and constructing those solutions.

The directive is rightly ‘libraries inspire’, and I must say how much librarians and archivists have inspired me during my time in post with their efforts to secure these solutions in many different contexts.

I think of the challenging work of a youth librarian I know in South Central Los Angeles, in the United States, trying to find innovative and safe ways to engage young people during the pandemic; in the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, which I visited on mission in 2019, I visited the country’s only library, which is 20 metres from the shore and threatened by sea level rise, which may eventually overtake the entire country.

Tragically, I met the dedicated chief librarian, Mr Tapu Manaia, who is determined to save its collection despite the lack of resources for doing so. The National Library of Tuvalu contains historical documents, such as the letter officially recognising the country’s independence, but also meteorological and tide records that are critical tools for climate research. Its loss would impact Tuvaluans most, but would harm all of us. Mr Tapu Manaia and his team are on the front lines of the struggle for cultural rights for all.

I have also learnt of the amazing roles that librarians and archivists have played in conflict situations, and the way that they have stood up to the forces of destruction.

I have met those who saved manuscripts in Mali from extremists by risking their lives to hide them, even under the floorboards of their homes. And in other instances, I will never forget what I learnt when I wrote my 2016 report on cultural heritage about Ida Buturovic, a young Bosnian librarian. She was killed by a shell burst in August 1992 as she returned home from working with others to save the rare books and manuscripts in the National and University Library of Sarajevo on the day that it was shelled.

Let us be inspired by her courage and determination as we redouble our commitments to continue our work.

The expert bibliography, Andras Redelmeier, made the following comment about Ida, which I quoted in my report. He said, ‘people sometimes ask me why I am worried about books when so many human beings have died and suffered. And my answer is to point to Ida Buturovic, because the two are inseparable’.

And I think this message is essential to remember today during the current pandemic, as we discuss cultural rights and libraries, when 4.3 million of our fellow human beings around the world have died from the virus.

In fact, as I have argued, culture is the heart of our response to COVID 19 and an essential coping mechanism.

As I conclude my remarks, I would like to return to the topic of Afghanistan, which so many of us are thinking about today with grave concern. Yesterday, along with other UN rapporteurs, I issued a warning about the potential for both the human rights and cultural disaster as the Taliban take over the country.

I urge states to provide urgent assistance to human rights defenders, including those working on women’s and cultural rights who are trying to flee the country. And I would ask you all in your home countries with your authorities to make the same appeal.

Protecting Afghan lives and rights must be the top priority, but efforts must also be made to ensure the safety of all forms of culture and cultural heritage, which are essential for the enjoyment of those rights, and to protect those who defend it on the front lines.

I am deeply moved by the story of a 23 year old woman in a war-battered province of Afghanistan who created a library all of her own, mostly frequented by girls and named after a murdered aid worker. She created the library, she said, to educate men and women in our society to get out of the crises we are facing, like poverty, instability, and male domination. Such cultural resistance to extremism is essential.

I will not say her name or what town she is from, but I wonder what will happen to her and her modest collection that meant so much to local girls now. Will the international community care?

Let us do all we can to defend the cultural rights and the cultural rights defenders of Afghanistan and support their work. Let us show even a fraction of the determination in our work that they have.

We have many human rights struggles to wage in the contemporary moment, but one of the most important is to hold on to our belief in the ability to change things for the better. And as serious as the current moment is, I want to end on a note of optimism. We need a vigilant optimism which recognises the gravity of the challenges, but commits to using culture, cultural rights and knowledge to champion a better future for all of what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls the human family.

Libraries and archives and the cultural rights with which they are entwined can be key resources to draw on for maintaining that engaged hope by helping us learn and reflect and restore and share and question and imagine.

In the world of 2021, doing so is not a luxury, but a necessity. As another brave Afghan woman, human rights defender told me in Kabul in 2011, optimism is key to survival.

Thank you very much.

Gerald Leitner: Thank you so much, Professor Bennoune, for this extremely informative and also inspiring speech, and thank you also that you were very concrete in your speech and that you mentioned also libraries.

I want to come back what you said about the concrete support, what libraries could give in this situation, to urge their governments that it’s clear: we need support to defend rights in Kabul, in Afghanistan, and I can assure you, your call was heard in in our community.

I want to talk further about this with you. What support can libraries offer to other cultural rights defenders. What do you see? Which alliances can you see? What would be possible so that we form new alliances? I guess that’s the most important thing because we are more powerful when we have alliances, and that is it where your advice would be great.

Professor Bennoune: Thank you so much for this important question, and I tried to address this in my 2020 report on cultural rights defenders and by the way, you can find all the reports I have cited on the home page of the cultural rights mandate. If you just Google cultural rights and my name, it will come up. So, in the 2020 report on cultural rights defenders, I made many recommendations in this regard, and I will just mention a few of them.

One is that cultural institutions can engage in capacity building about cultural rights, both internally and with other cultural institutions, and also capacity building about protection for cultural rights defenders. One is to make sure that these institutions themselves adopt cultural rights based approaches, which are committed to non-discrimination, accessibility, consultation and participation. Another is that they cooperate locally and regionally, but also internationally to support cultural institutions and cultural rights defenders at risk.

One of the ways that they can do that is through programmes such as fellowships and residencies, and in my statement on Afghanistan yesterday, and thank you so much for heeding that call, I implored cultural and educational institutions everywhere to extend invitations to their Afghan counterparts, cultural workers and students, especially those who are women or members of minorities, so that if they must flee, we enable them to continue their work in safety.

But of course, there’s also the important issue of finding safe and thoughtful and respectful and effective ways of supporting those cultural workers and cultural institutions who remain inside the country. And I’ve also heard some real determination from some people to stay put.

So, I really welcome your creative efforts to take up some of these challenges and thank you for thinking about this question.

Gerald Leitner: Thanks so much. I would like to break this down to the daily work of those working in libraries. We have spoken so much about institutions, but institutions are only strong when they have really engaged workers inside, and we have them in libraries. But what does it mean for the daily work of librarians? What sort of practises does it force us to interrogate, really to defend cultural rights?

Professor Bennoune: You know this. This also is such an important question because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reminds us that we each as individuals, whatever fields we work in, have an obligation to strive for rights. The primary obligation is on states, but we all have responsibilities.

So this comes down to the individual librarians themselves as well. What I would say is that I think, methodologically, cultural rights really teaches us, at the heart of the cultural rights approach, the importance of consultation and participation of the relevant public in the process, both of designing libraries and running libraries, and determining what types of services need to be made available.

I think that really bearing in mind the issues of non-discrimination and accessibility is critical, and I hope that cultural rights can also be a tool for the librarians who are already working on these issues. So, for example, they can be a tool in helping encourage the continuation of rural libraries or mobile libraries or village libraries, you know which sometimes get really sort of put on the chopping block with funding cuts, but are so important. And I think the consultative and participatory nature of the cultural rights framework can help remind us, you know, how important the work in these underfunded areas is.

So I would say the cultural rights framework provides standards for all of us in the way we conduct our work, but it also provides tools to assist us in that work. And let me also say that when librarians take up these challenges and they face risks for doing so, cultural institutions must also be there to protect them.

Gerald Leitner: Right. That was really substantial. I guess all here in this audience and you see all this culture as a tool to close gaps, to bring people together, to unite them. But actually, on the other hand, we are feeling also that sometimes culture is used and instrumentalized to promote division also by governments or particular groups. What challenges can you see there and how to overcome this would be interesting to hear from you.

Professor Bennoune: This is a question that I have faced again and again in my work. How do we use culture to build bridges instead of walls? This is one of the great questions really of our time. And I would say for me, there are many answers, but a few core answers I want to focus on today.

One is to adopt the approach of universality, the universality of human rights, that what we are concerned about is indeed the cultural rights of everyone, not just sort of quote ‘protecting my culture’, which is a discourse that we encounter all too often in international public life.

So, for example, in particular conflict situations, the various parties may only be concerned with the destruction of cultural heritage on what they see as their side of the conflict. And we have to urge them to remember the importance of the culture of all, and the protection of the cultural heritage of everyone, you know, of which libraries and archives are such a core part.

So I think this emphasis on universality at the heart of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that everyone in the term, everyone in the Universal Declaration actually means everyone. It doesn’t mean everyone minus those people I don’t like and so I think we need to be very inclusive in the way that we do this work.

We need to avoid the overt politicisation also of these issues. And certainly, I am not suggesting that in some ways, culture can be, you know, void of politics. There are always connections between the two. But the politicisation of culture, to use it to beat up on those we perceive to be the other or our opponents, is something that we really need to strive against. And that’s why I’ve really tried to emphasise the non-discrimination aspect of cultural rights in my work.

And I think another sort of tool that can be helpful is to remind ourselves that in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, states have committed to international cooperation in the fields of culture and science, and I think we need to remind them of that again and again. And we, as librarians, as institutions, as cultural rights advocates, can also be a part of that international cooperation, which I know is rendered more difficult because of the pandemic, but needs to be a goal going forward.

Gerald Leitner: Thank you so much. You have an enormous experience of key emerging issues in the past, where cultural rights were endangered. What do you see as the key emerging issues we should be aware of in the cultural fields will come up with the next time, so to be a bit more proactive. Of course, we have always to react, but on the other hand, it’s good to build up also strategies for the future and to be more proactive.

Professor Bennoune: I think that’s absolutely right because we’re sort of always fighting the last struggle as it were what we think were the challenges of the past. I would say there are many of these.

Some of the challenges that I see as on the horizon are actually ongoing challenges, such as the resurgence of cultural relativism; so using culture not as a tool to foster human dignity for all, but rather as a constraint on it, as an argument against human rights.

I think I’ve tried to make clear again and again that cultural rights and cultural relativism are not the same thing, that cultural rights are to be enjoyed in the universal human rights framework. I also see, and this is why I chose for my last report to write about cultural mixing, I see threats to the mixing of culture, threats to recognising the hybridity of culture, which is the reality of the way that human knowledge has evolved, and human cultures have been practised over time.

And so, I look forward to sharing with you the report for the General Assembly on that subject and working with you on how we can really build cultural bridges and recognise all the internal diversities within cultures, and I think libraries can play a very important role in doing that. They manifest that often in their very collections.

We need to reopen and reconstruct cultural sharing and cooperation, and cultural mobility.

I think another set of key obstacles going forward is the need to stay on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, including those that specifically pertain to culture, and now with the pandemic and the economic crisis associated with it globally, I think we are falling farther and farther behind.

Obviously, the climate emergency will be the overriding crisis of our times that the next generations will inherit.

So let me just say finally, one last word, we need intergenerational cultural sharing to address all of these problems.

Thank you.