Bennoune Urges Fight for Cultural Rights

By Andrew McCullough - The fundamental human right to culture is often overlooked. Cultural rights are frequently targeted by parties aiming to weaken or divide a culture or group. And cultural sites are often some of the earliest casualties of war. On January 19, 2017 at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, Karima Bennoune, professor of law at UC Davis, delivered a rallying cry for the preservation of cultural rights. Her lecture was entitled “Defending the Right to Culture.”

Bennoune’s talk represented the first installment in the 2017 UC Davis Human Rights Lecture Series. The author of Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here began by emphasizing the role of museums, libraries, and archives in the collection, promotion, preservation, and sharing of collective heritage. We are all responsible, she said, for these immensely important sites, collections, and symbols. Cultural rights are not a luxury—they are the foundation of all human rights.

Bennoune, who also serves as the United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of Cultural Rights, described many destructive acts that have targeted culture. In the late 1990s, for example, the Taliban destroyed nearly 3000 pieces of art—ancient Buddhist pieces, mostly—at the National Afghan Museum. At the time, the predominantly Muslim curators begged for the works to be spared, risking their lives in the process. Bennoune also mentioned the 2001 destruction of the colossal Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan, as well as more recent tragedies such as the 2015 destruction of the ancient Roman Temple of Baal in Palmyra, Syria. What would we be willing to do, she asked. Would we beg for the protection of cultural heritage that is not our own?

Taking culture for granted

Human rights are categorized in three “generations”. The first generation of human rights includes civil and political rights, many of which are codified in the founding documents of the United States. The second generation includes economic, social, and cultural rights. The third extends to ideas such as environmental and communication rights.

Bennoune then identified the myriad ways in which “universal” first-generation rights are based firmly in cultural rights. For example, cultural heritage is a foundational resource for freedom of expression, conscience, thought, and religion. Nevertheless, the second-generation status allocated to cultural rights increases the tendency for societies to take them for granted.

Codifying rights into law

Bennoune also described the history of the codification of human and cultural rights into law by way of international agreements and treaties. She lamented the fact that the United States is one of only a few countries not to ratify many of these agreements, such as the Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

From Afghanistan to Tunisia, South Korea to Fiji, Bennoune has conducted fieldwork all over the world. In an early project, she helped Greek and Turkish groups work together to preserve and protect cultural artifacts on the island of Cyprus. She has also worked to expose the Saudi-led destruction of ancient cultural relics in Yemen. Regardless of whether the orchestrator of that destruction is a geopolitical ally of the United States, she said, the end result would be the obliteration of an ancient Yemini culture that is essential to present-day Middle Eastern culture, and thus essential to all human cultures. Bennoune declared this outcome unacceptable.

Ultimate sacrifice

In the United States, she is currently working alongside the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to expose human and cultural rights violations surrounding the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (for example, the attempted annexation of sacred ancestral lands and burial grounds for commercial purposes). More generally, Bennoune expressed her belief that “political exclusion is rampant” worldwide—particularly exclusion based on religion or cultural heritage. She expressed her ambition to promote cultural inclusion, suggesting that people need to actively and proudly share their culture and heritage.

Paying tribute to individuals who have given their lives preserving and protecting cultural heritage and fighting for cultural rights, Bennoune described the story of Aida Buturovic, a librarian killed in 1992 while rescuing books from a fire at the National University Library in Sarajevo. She lamented the recent losses of Khaled al-Asaad (an archaeologist and the preeminent scholar on ancient Palmyra, who was killed in 2015 by a terrorist organization after refusing to divulge the location of ancient artifacts), and of Berta Cáceres, a Honduran advocate for indigenous people’s rights and environmental justice, who was killed in her home in 2016.

From ruins to dust

Summing up, Bennoune read a line from a poem by Saleh Beddiari: The people of the new millennium are determined to reduce their ruins to the dust of ruins. Bennoune suggested that it is up to the current generation of cultural rights advocates and activists, students of law, culture, geopolitics, and other disciplines, to protect the shared symbols of humanity for current and future generations.

She concluded by citing examples of cultural symbols at risk today, including an ancient Roman theater in Palmyra, Syria. The theater, dating back to the 2nd century, was partially destroyed by a terrorist group the day after Bennoune’s lecture.

Learn more about Professor Karima Bennoune.

Learn more about the 2017 UC Davis Human Rights Lecture Series.