Libraries Upholding Cultural Rights: IFLA Welcomes Special Rapporteur for Cultural Rights Alexandra Xanthaki
11 March 2022
IFLA welcomed the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of Cultural Rights Alexandra Xanthaki as she addressed the Human Rights Council for the first time during their 49th Session. An IFLA representative sat down with the Special Rapporteur following her address to discuss priorities for the coming years and highlight the ways in which libraries work to uphold cultural rights for their communities.
Interactive Dialogue with the Human Rights Council
Recognising that culture is integrated into all aspects of life, and that cultural diversity is an essential resource for development, democracy, scientific progress, and peacebuilding is essential – more than ever in the face of crises.
The Special Rapporteur started her address to the Human Rights Council by acknowledging the escalating human rights violations in Ukraine. She stressed that the ability to decide and define one’s own identity, informed by one’s heritage and history, is a cultural right. She urged for action be taken to ensure that the cultural rights of all affected populations are upheld.
Her address introduced the priorities of the mandate for the coming years of her term. This was followed by an interactive dialogue, in which States intervened to share their own priorities in the field of cultural rights and ask questions to the Special Rapporteur.
Priorities of the Mandate
In her first report to the Human Rights Council, Special Rapporteur Alexandra Xanthaki offered an overview of her objectives for the mandate. She highlighted culture as being essential to sustainable human development, and the empowering force of cultural rights for the realisation of all other human rights and sustainable development goals.
Therefore, the Special Rapporteur will take an intersectional approach in her mandate, working with a variety of United Nations bodies to address multiple vulnerabilities in human rights in conjunction with issues of cultural rights and cultural diversity.
Her full report can be downloaded here: Latest Thematic Reports – Capturing the state of the art.
Access to and participation in culture for all people
The Special Rapporteur stressed that a cross-cutting focus of her term will be equality in the exercise of cultural rights. The mandate on cultural rights promotes the conditions needed to allow all people, without discrimination, to access, participate and contribute to all aspects of cultural life.
In her time as mandate-holder, the Special Rapporteur will give special focus to the rights of refugees, migrants, minorities, and Indigenous Peoples to their culture, and their right to preserve, promote, benefit from, and develop their cultural heritage, language, artistic and spiritual expressions, knowledge, and traditions.
From a library perspective, this aligns closely with the rights to freedom of expression and access to information that are at the heart of our mission. IFLA works to promote access to culture for all people, and libraries around the world provide specialised programmes focussing on promoting, protecting, and fostering multiculturalism and multilingualism.
For further discourse and examples, watch IFLA’s recent ResiliArt x Mondiacult event: Libraries enabling inclusive and meaningful access to culture [YouTube].
Protecting cultural rights relating to monuments, objects and sites
The Special Rapporteur noted the significant progress that has been made in prosecuting violations of cultural rights. In her term, she will continue to support work to counter the intentional destruction of cultural heritage.
Looking to possible areas of collaboration, this priority is closely aligned with IFLA’s work against the theft and trafficking of documentary heritage.
Further, the Special Rapporteur noted that addressing loss or damage to cultural heritage of communities and groups, including marginalised minorities, Indigenous Peoples, and victims of assimilationist policies, will be a priority. In addition to restitution, she expressed interest in exploring restitution, as well as alternative ways in which those groups who have been separated from their cultural heritage can benefit from it.
Protecting cultural rights relating to intangible culture
The special rapporteur affirmed that the right to intangible expressions of culture intersects with the rights to expressions, cultural practices, worldviews, values, customs, and traditions. She stressed that these intangible cultural expressions must be protected in order to support the well-being, health and development of individuals, as well as the social cohesion of society and development of civilisation at large.
In line with her cross-cutting priorities, her work will give special attention to displaced and immigrant populations, taking note of where the right to intangible expressions of culture may be impeded by so-called integration or education programmes.
A major focus within this priority is the importance of creating societies that thrive on participatory processes – upholding all human rights, consulting with and including all stakeholders – especially often marginalized stakeholders – in decision-making processes, and inspiring dialogue that recognises the value of cultural diversity.
Libraries are essential to powering literate, informed and participatory societies – contributing to the conditions necessary to achieve this vision.
These topics are closely related with the work of many IFLA Sections. For example, the IFLA/UNESCO Multicultural Library Manifesto proclaims the commitment of libraries to promoting cultural and linguistic diversity, cross-cultural dialogue, and active citizenship.
Protecting cultural rights relating to the natural environment
The Special Rapporteur committed to further exploring the relationship between natural diversity, the environment, and cultural rights. Not only are the identities and cultural expressions of many communities closely linked with the natural environment, the knowledge, and traditions at the heart of these cultural expressions can be applied to climate action, adaptation, and empowerment.
Her report stressed that the presence of public spaces in the built environment enable “deliberation, cultural exchange, social cohesion and diversity”, and are critical to implementation of the human rights framework. Libraries are, in their very essence, such spaces.
She went on to detail the important relationship between cultural rights and environmental sustainability. In this, all stakeholders are invited to send ideas for the strengthening of cultural rights in environmental issues and to share good practice and concerns.
Following the Special Rapporteur’s presentation, a number of States took the floor to express enthusiasm in strengthening cultural rights at the national level.
Their priorities included a strong focus on culture in the digital era, including questions on how they can be supported in promoting cultural diversity online and protecting the intellectual property of artists and creators.
Many states found the focus on protecting the material and immaterial cultural heritage of minority and marginalised groups to be particularly important. Climate change, in how it threatens indigenous culture and traditions, as well as how this knowledge can be applied to climate action, was also a focus.
There was also an interest expressed by some states in linkages between academic freedom and cultural rights – linkages which benefit from open access to education and cultural resources.
Overall, states called for recommendations on concrete steps they could take to further address these issues.
Library advocacy can help demonstrate how libraries have a role in realising many vectors of cultural rights, integrated with achieving a rights-based approach to sustainable development. When looking for recommendations on concrete steps states could take – libraries should be counted in.
A Conversation with the Special Rapporteur
Following the Interactive Dialogue, IFLA was honoured to have the opportunity to sit down with Special Rapporteur Alexandra Xanthaki and discuss ways in which IFLA and the global library field can support her mandate.
IFLA highlighted our work in engaging the global library field in building awareness of the human rights framework and demonstrating how library professionals at all levels are human rights defenders.
We shared information about our organisation, our structure, vision, and mission – giving special focus to the many Sections in our Professional Programme who are engaging in topics that align with the priorities of the Special Rapporteur.
We highlighted in particular many resources created by Sections that help grow awareness and develop professional practice in this regard. Looking ahead to IFLA’s work on climate action and promoting cultural diversity and multilingualism – especially in the context of the International Decade on Indigenous Languages, there is a great deal of scope for cooperation.
We were delighted to have such a rich discussion with Special Rapporteur Alexandra Xanthaki, and wholeheartedly welcome her enthusiasm for reinforcing connections between her mandate and the global library field!
The Special Rapporteur will begin preparations on her upcoming thematic reports to the Human Rights Council and to the UN General Assembly. These will feature topics relating to culture in sustainable development and the cultural rights of migrants and displaced populations.
IFLA looks forward to bringing a library perspective to these topics through future consultations with the Special Rapporteur.
Curious to learn more about cultural rights and the role of libraries as human rights defenders? Revisit the keynote address from the immediate past Special Rapporteur from WLIC 2021: Libraries Inspire: Transcript of the Session with Professor Karima Bennoune.
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