Statement by Ms. Farida Shaheed, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights to the 23rd session of the Human Rights Council

31 May 2013

Honourable Chair, Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen;

It is my great pleasure to appear before you today and to inform you about the activities I have undertaken since last June.

In 2012, I concentrated my thematic research on two distinct areas. The first thematic research related to the enjoyment of cultural rights by women on an equal basis with men, which was the subject of my first report to the General Assembly (A/67/257). I would like to draw your attention to this report, which proposes a paradigm shift, from viewing culture as an obstacle to women’s rights to one of ensuring women’s equal enjoyment of cultural rights.

The second area under my consideration this year was the right to freedom of artistic expression and creation (A/HRC/23/34), which is the topic of the report I am presenting to you today. I circulated a questionnaire to all stakeholders on this issue and convened an experts’ meeting and an open consultation in December 2012.

Mr. President,

I chose the topic of artistic freedom so as to explore and elaborate further the content of article 15 of ICESCR, under which States have undertaken to respect the freedom indispensable for creative activity. I was impressed by the wealth of information I have gathered regarding the multi-facetted ways in which the right to freedom of artistic expression and creation may be curtailed. There is a growing concern worldwide that artistic voices are being silenced by various means and in different ways, in many countries, and on all continents.

My report aims to understand the challenges and obstacles that impede the flourishing of artistic creativity. Its findings are multi-fold.

First, media attention to a few cases of prominent artists tends to eclipse the reality lived by many people engaged in artistic activities around the world. My report is not restricted to the rights of artists per se. It addresses the right of all persons to freely experience and contribute to artistic expressions and creations, through individual or joint practice, to have access to and enjoy the arts, and to disseminate their expressions and creations.

Second, restrictions occur at various stages of the artistic creation: from developing an initial idea through to the final production, performance, publication and distribution; and motivations for restrictions stem from political, religious, cultural, moral or economic interests. Restrictions can result from oppressive laws and regulations, but also be the outcome of a fear of physical or economic coercion. I am deeply concerned that artists in many parts of the world feel threatened or have been attacked by aggressive audiences. I encourage States to review critically their legislation and practices imposing restrictions on artistic freedoms, in cooperation with representatives of independent associations of artists and human rights organizations. States should also abide by their obligation to protect all persons participating in artistic activities or disseminating artistic expressions and creations from violence by third parties. States should de-escalate tensions when these arise, and maintain the rule of law.

Third, freedom of artistic expression and creativity cannot be dissociated from the right of all persons to enjoy the arts. In many cases, restrictions on artistic freedoms aim at denying people access to specific artworks. Removing creative expressions from public access is a way to restrict artistic freedom. I wish to stress that cultural producers and artists refer to the existence of a “censorship by the market”, arising in particular when cultural industries are basically market-oriented, public funding is under pressure and alternative distribution is minimal. It is necessary to assess and address more comprehensively the impact on artistic freedoms of aggressive market strategies and situations of monopolies or quasi-monopolies in the area of media and culture.

Mr. President,

One section of my report is devoted to possible limitations to artistic freedoms. A particular reference is made to article 15 of ICESCR, but also to article 19 of ICCPR, relating to the right to freedom of expression, which sets out more precisely the framework for possible limitations. Artists, in that regard, do not enjoy more rights than others.

It is important, when resorting to possible limitations to artistic freedoms, to take into consideration the nature of artistic creativity (as opposed to its value or merit), as well as the right of artists to dissent, to use political, religious and economic symbols as a counter-discourse to dominant powers, and to express their own belief and world vision. An artwork differs from non-fictional statements, as it provides a far wider scope for assigning multiple meanings. Artistic expressions and creations do not always carry, and should not be reduced to carrying, a specific message or information. In addition, the resort to fiction and the imaginary must be understood and respected as a crucial element of the freedom indispensable for creative activities and artistic expressions: representations of the real must not be confused with the real, which means, for example, that what a character says in a novel cannot be equated with the author’s personal views. Hence, artists should be able to explore the darker side of humanity, and to represent crimes or what some may consider as “immorality”, without being accused of promoting these.

Mr. President,

At this session, I am also reporting on the country visits I undertook in the Russian Federation and in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in 2012. I wish to warmly thank both Governments for their invitation and their cooperation before, during and after the visits. I visited the Russian Federation from 16 to 26 April 2012 (A/HRC/23/34/Add.1).

Measures taken by the Russian authorities to promote the realization of cultural rights of all persons, including in the most remote areas, must be welcomed. These include organizing national exhibitions and numerous contests to promote creative activities and participation in cultural life; mobile libraries in remote areas; support to a multitude of cultural and sports clubs, as well as efforts to ensure country-wide Internet connectivity, in particular, for cultural and educational institutions. Considerable efforts are also being made to ensure the rights of persons with disabilities, in particular in terms of physical access to cultural and sport institutions, as well as access to education.

I appreciate that the Constitution and laws of the Russian Federation contain far-reaching provisions relating to cultural and linguistic rights, including of minorities and indigenous peoples, and that many projects have been adopted in this regard. I call upon the Government to make additional efforts to ensure a better application of these provisions, including for groups which do not fit into the definition of numerically small indigenous peoples. A number of interlocutors I met noted the greater influence of the Russian Orthodox Church in public debates and cultural matters, including when identifying and interpreting the “cultural values” of the Russian Federation. There is a need to clarify the term “cultural values”, taking into consideration the multiplicity of views of various groups, religious and non-religious, in the country. I also recommend a review of the reform on the new unified school examination and the pilot project on the teaching of the basics of religious culture or secular ethics, taking into consideration the concerns expressed by representatives of minorities and indigenous peoples, as well as alternative proposals prepared by regional authorities in the country.

Overall, there is agreement that, since the end of the Soviet Union, substantial progress has been made in achieving the enjoyment of greater artistic freedom and in the freedoms of expression, religion and participation in cultural life and this must be recognized. However, some actors note a clampdown on freedom of expression in the past five years, including against art activists. In this regard, I call for a shift in policy towards artistic expression criticizing political power or the Russian Orthodox Church, or both.

During my visit, I also considered issues relating to the participation of concerned individuals and communities in the identification, classification and stewardship of cultural heritage, and paid specific attention to the enjoyment of cultural rights by specific categories of the population such as women, persons with disabilities, the Roma and LGBT. I made a number of recommendations on these issues.

Mr. President, I also visited Saint Vincent and the Grenadines from 5 to 9 November 2012.

I am pleased to report that, over the last decade, commendable efforts have been made by the Government to ensure a better recognition of the country’s diverse cultural heritage, despite resource constraints. Public statements made at the highest level of the State were referred to frequently as having created a climate favourable to cultural diversity.

During my visit, I was impressed by the public desire for and commitment to retrieving and reviving parts of their cultural heritage, including history. A related matter is how individuals and groups identify themselves, including during population censuses. The situation is very complex, in particular when population groups are in the process of retrieving culture(s) that have been lost or neglected. However, I believe that population censuses may also be used to draw up, not a “racial” profile of the population, but a cultural profile, based on how people self-identify in terms of cultural identity, cultural practices and common history.

The efforts of Vincentians to research and write their nation’s history confront many difficulties. One major challenge is that the archives of former colonizers constitute the main sources of information, which poses difficulties in terms of both access and content. I recommend that the Government strengthen its support to heritage clubs in schools, and find and support ways to integrate local histories and literature into the school curriculum. The Government should also support the dissemination of alternative history textbooks and the organization of extracurricular activities on Vincentian history in schools, and address the issue at the Caribbean (regional) level on how local histories can be better reflected and incorporated in textbooks as well as examinations.

There are numerous challenges in identifying, protecting and safeguarding the cultural heritage of all groups in the country, as well as ensuring that heritage remains part of a vibrant cultural life in a globalizing world. Artists face a paucity of spaces to meet, perform and practice. In my report, I have also made a number of recommendations to address these issues.

Mr. President, let me conclude by stressing that in 2012, I participated in a number of conferences dealing with the issue of cultural rights. I also met with the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to discuss common issues of interest, and I intend to continue developing working relationships with the UN treaty body system.

I thank you very much.