Farida Shaheed
UN Special Rapporteur, Field of Cultural Rights

Closely linked to human dignity and identity, cultural heritage embodies resources that enable the cultural identification and development of individuals and communities, through which they express their humanity, give meaning to their existence, build their worldviews, and articulate their encounters with the external forces affecting their lives.

Linking the past, present, and future, cultural heritage comprises things inherited from the past that people consider so significant or valuable today that they want to transmit them to future generations.

A dynamic process, like culture itself, cultural heritage inevitably reflects ‘people’s constantly evolving values, beliefs, knowledge and traditions,’ and has ‘considerable importance as habitat for the cultural survival and identity of particular living traditions.’4 All tangible cultural heritage has an intangible aspect in how it is understood and the meaning it is assigned. This makes the access to and enjoyment of cultural heritage an essential feature of being part of a community and society as well as a citizen.

It also raises some important questions: who defines what cultural heritage is and decides which heritage merits safeguarding; which individuals and communities can access and enjoy cultural heritage and have a say in assigning significance; how to resolve conflicts and competing interests over cultural heritage when different individuals, communities, and/or the state may claim ownership of, interest in, and rights to the same cultural heritage.

Decision making is always inextricably linked to power. Power differentials deeply impact the ability of individuals and groups, within and across communities and countries, to effectively contribute to defining what is accepted as cultural heritage. As a human right, the access to and enjoyment of cultural heritage requires that all members of a community or society, especially the marginalized, have equal opportunities to participate in decision making. Effective participation, including prior and informed consent of relevant communities, is important for a variety of reasons: People with dissimilar historical memories and experiences commonly have diverging interpretations of cultural heritage and views on what should be safeguarded. Cultural heritage inevitably includes past actions and practices that do not accord with human rights; these may contradict current understandings and aspirations of the community. Full effective participation can promote the transmission of heritage in alignment with human rights.

Globalization, the exploitation of economic resources, the promotion of tourism, and development programs can all adversely influence the right to cultural heritage and intensify a disconnection between people and their heritage. This makes it more important to ensure that people, in particular source communities, are empowered to participate meaningfully in all decision-making processes surrounding the identification, interpretation, and development of cultural heritage. It is equally important that the access to and enjoyment of cultural heritage be free of political, religious, economic, or physical encumbrances.

The state always plays a major role in decision making both within the country and in international arenas. Internally, a selective recognition of cultural heritage by states can be problematic. Cultural symbols of dominant communities may be glorified, and the content of education and information on diverse cultural heritage may be distorted; aspects of the past may be emphasized or removed. This may force individuals and communities to assimilate into a mainstream community or society as well as undermine cultural diversity. When states promote the cultural heritage of specific communities as national symbols or treasures, it is vital that this be with community consent and that communities benefit from this.

Respecting ‘the intangible cultural heritage of the communities, groups, and individuals concerned’ under the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003) needs to be guided by the meaning a heritage holds for a specific community, rather than its ‘universal value’. For example, the consent of source communities should be ensured in the storage and display of their cultural heritage, particularly in museums, libraries, and archives, and practices must respect the significance and interpretation assigned to such heritage by source communities. Careful policymaking is required to guard against the misappropriation of cultural heritage that impairs the rights of communities to exercise control over, access, and enjoy their own cultural heritage but also avoid overly strict protection measures that may stifle creativity, artistic freedom, and cultural exchanges.

In concluding, I should clarify that my mandate as Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights is not about preserving culture. Its concern is ensuring that conditions exist to provide opportunities for every person, individually or collectively, to continuously (re)create a plurality of cultures that enable humankind to flourish. A vital aspect of the right to take part in cultural life is the right of people to access and enjoy all cultural heritages that hold meaning for them and have the freedoms necessary to continuously re-create, revisit, reinterpret, and create new cultural heritage and transmit it to future generations.