MODULE 17 (continued)

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Problematic Issues Related to Cultural Rights

As is already clear, issues of culture, cultural values and cultural rights are highly complex and difficult.  Activists working in the human rights arena have encountered a number of problematic issues associated with cultural rights.  These include:

"Cultural specificity”

The issue of "cultural specificity,” which has been extremely contentious in many po­litical and other forums, grows out of a seeming contradiction among various provisions in international human rights law.  One set of provisions guarantees to each group the right to "enjoy its own culture.”18 Another guarantees the universality of human rights-the principle that the human rights contained in international instruments belong to each and every individual on the basis of equality and nondiscrimination.  The potential con­flict lies in the fact that certain practices in different cultures contradict or seem to contradict provi­sions in international law.  If objection is made to these practices on the basis that they vio­late human rights, do these charges in turn not violate the right of all peoples to enjoy their own culture? 

The debate is not made any easier by the fact that cultural relativism is sometimes articulated as a reason to abandon certain notions of basic human rights, especially by authoritarian re­gimes that seek to quell oppositional struggles in nations and societies.  At the same time, it is true that certain "universalizing” notions of liberal humanism have privileged existing power structures and have systematically excluded marginalized voices and identities to the point where there is a direct impingement on the human rights of these groups and people.  The debate on this very important and sensitive issue continues.

The rights of indigenous peoples

A further problematic (and related) issue arises from the fact that the UDHR and associated treaties and documents are part of a system of interna­tional law among states that has histori­cally refused to recognize the status of indigenous peoples as subjects with sovereign status or rights.  (See Module 6 for more discussion of the rights of indigenous peoples.) 

By deeming indigenous peoples incapable of enjoying sovereign status or rights in international law, international law was thus able to govern the patterns of coloni­za­tion and ultimately to legitimate the colonial order, with diminished or no conse­quences arising from the presence of aboriginal peoples.19

Dams, Resettlement and Tribal Peoples

According to Arundhati Roy, an Indian writer, a huge percentage of the people displaced by the construction of big dams in India are tribal.

"Many of those who have been resettled are people who have lived all their lives deep in the forest with virtually no contact with money and the modern world. Suddenly they find themselves left with the option of starving to death or walking several kilometres to the nearest town, sitting in the marketplace (both men and women), offering themselves as wage labour, like goods on sale.

"Instead of a forest from which they gathered everything they needed-food, fuel, fodder, rope, gum, tobacco, tooth powder, medicinal herbs, housing material-they earn between ten and twenty rupees a day with which to feed and keep their families. Instead of a river, they have a hand pump. In their old villages, they had no money, but they were insured. If the rains failed, they had the forests to turn to. The river to fish in. Their livestock was their fixed deposit. Without all this, they're a heartbeat away from destitution . . .

"For the people who've been resettled, everything has to be re-learned. Every little thing, every big thing: from shitting and pissing (where d'you do it when there's no jungle to hide you?), to buying a bus ticket, to learning a new language, to understanding money. And worst of all, learning to be supplicants. Learning to take orders. Learning to have Masters. Learning to answer only when you're addressed.

"In addition to all this, they have to learn how to make written representations (in triplicate) to the Grievance Redressal Committee or the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam for any particular problems they might have. Recently, 3,000 people came to Delhi to protest their situation - travelling overnight by train, living on the blazing streets. The President wouldn't meet them because he had an eye infection. Maneka Gandhi, the Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, wouldn't meet them but asked for a written representation (Dear Maneka, Please don't build the dam, Love, The People). When the representation was handed to her, she scolded the little delegation for not having written it in English." 20

 The cultures of indigenous peoples typically differ in significant ways from the liberal West­ern perspective.  The UN Special Rapporteur on the Realization of ESC Rights has said that if, for example, indigenous peoples’ rights

do not include full guarantees for the enjoyment of their cultural rights, including the right not to be assimilated and the right to cultural autonomy, the protection offered to the indigenous peoples for other rights can have no significance at all.21 

Forced Marriage and Cultural Rights

"Rukhsana Naz, a 19-year-old, British-born woman of Asian origin, died in Derby in 1998. Her brother ritualistically strangled her with a ligature while her mother held her down by her feet. In court, her mother reportedly said 'it was her kismit (fate)'. Her brother claimed provocation-a cultural defence-arguing that the killing was committed in the name of 'honour'.

"Rukhsana was murdered for 'shaming her family' by refusing to stay in a marriage to the man who had been chosen for her. She had decided to return to the man she loved and by whom she was pregnant at the time of her death. Under the pretext of reconciliation, her family lured Rukhsana home in order to execute her . . .

"Her case may be at the extreme end of the spectrum, but many other Asian women in the UK face cruel treatment for refusing to conform to family expectations. Forced marriage is not confined to Muslim women, but cuts across faith, age, class, caste and racial group . . .

"In August 1998, the UK government established a Home Office Working Group on forced marriage. It was an unprecedented move since the state has always tended to allow minority communities to police themselves. The politics of multi-culturalism does not allow for outside intervention: interference is considered intolerant, even racist. Although Asian women's groups have raised the issue of forced marriage for years, the government only responded after the scandal of the Rukhsana Naz case and of another high-profile case . . .

" . . . [T]he Home Office minister responsible for the working group . . . and the government have declared that community leaders must resolve the problem themselves. The fact that they are mostly male, conservative, orthodox or even fundamentalist (and not in Islam alone) seems to have escaped the government. Women are invisible and silenced . . .

" . . . Will the Working Group deliver? Success depends on whose voices are considered legitimate: those of community leaders, or of women? Who and what will the state censor? Will it pursue a policy of appeasement of men and community leaders for the sake of 'good community and race relations', or listen to the voices of minority women and take on board their demands. If it listens to women, it will challenge the community leaders, male power, as well as racism and the multi-cultural policies, which currently deny women their rights to the state's protection." 22

Women’s rights and culture

Women’s self-identity is closely connected with the culture within which they live.  At the same time, unfortunately, a range of cultural practices in so­cieties around the world violate the dignity and integrity of women.  For example, school dropout rates are highest among girl children in parts of Asia, Africa and the Arab world.  In these cases their right to educa­tion is often hampered by cultural traditions and certain values of marriage and family, which in turn affect their individual civil rights.  The right to food, especially for women and girl children, is also frequently transgressed by cultural practices in different countries.  In certain communities in India, for example, when it comes to food distribution in the family, particu­larly in situations of dire poverty, women and girl children are given the least and suffer most from hunger and deprivation.  This is again due to traditional perceptions that ascribe less value to women’s lives and their rights. 

The Neem Tree, Culture and Globalization

For hundreds of years, farmers in India have used a pesticide extracted from the seeds of the neem tree. Because the technology for extracting the emulsions is simple, farmers making the pesticide typically do not store it, but instead use it right away. Despite the simplicity of the process, the pesticide has proven to be very effective, warding off approximately 200 different insects. There has also been considerable research done by Indian scientists during the past century on the use of neem as a pesticide. However, the technology and pesticide derived from neem was never patented in India, because many Indians oppose the patenting of life forms and agricultural products, and Indian law prohibits the patenting of agricultural and medicinal products. Feelings on this matter are particularly strong in regard to the neem tree, because the tree has played an important role in Indian culture and religion.

In the past decade the multinational chemical corporation, W. R. Grace Company, has secured a patent on the production of pesticide from the neem tree from the US Patent and Trademark office. With the acceptance of the GATT agreement by the Indian government, all Indian manufacturers are forced to adhere to international patent laws. This will require that Indians stop using their own technology to make the neem-based pesticide or pay royalties to W. R. Grace. The patent has sparked an outcry among Indian farmers, scientists and political activists, who object to patent rights being granted on a product that is the accumulation of centuries' worth of Indian knowledge and effort. There is also concern that the patent will deprive local farmers of their ability to produce and use neem-based pesticides by altering the price and availability of the need seeds themselves. A number of Indian organizations, as well as organizations from other countries, have mounted a legal challenge to the granting of the patent by the US Patent and Trademark office. 23

Because human rights guarantee equality and nondiscrimination, as well as respect for physi­cal and psychological integrity, many women take human rights as a basis on which they work to improve the conditions within which they live.  This reliance, while effective in many ways, has put them in conflict in many cases with their own cultures.  This dilemma has been discussed in some detail in Module 4.

Scientific progress and culture

Article 15(1)(b) of the ICESCR recognizes the right of everyone "[t]o enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.”  While this guarantee sounds relatively straightfor­ward, it is, in reality, fraught with complexities.  Once again, the relationship of power to culture comes into play.  Access to technology and the products of scientific prog­ress may be constrained for large numbers of people, because they cannot afford to buy them.  In addi­tion, economic power can monopolize the products of scientific progress in a way that is detrimental to the cultural and other rights of people around the world.

While almost no one doubts the benefits that can accrue to the quality of life from scientific progress, problems that should be of concern to cultural rights activists arise from the fact that the concept of "scientific progress” is grounded in the Western liberal tradition.  The be­lief in "scientific progress” has been termed an ideology, and as with all ideologies, it can serve as a blinder to experiences and perspectives that might be in conflict with it.  Since dif­ferent cultures embody different perspectives, such a blinder potentially threatens to shut out other cultural experiences and beliefs.  The safeguarding of the cultural rights of people without depriving them of the fruits of technological advance and scientific progress implies that new paradigms of social transformation have to be evolved where without any sacrifice of their cultural moorings and creative potential, populations and communities can achieve sustainable development.

Some thoughts on cultural freedom

"At this point, the true nature of technological and industrial advancement has to be set in a proper perspective of rights and obligations. For, in the name of civil and political rights and liberties . . . Capitalism has made its way on to the pinnacles of status and power. Yet in the course of its development, the economic and social rights of the majority of the people have been trampled upon, thereby jeopardizing the civil and political rights themselves. Here comes a powerful economic and technological force working itself toward domination and inequality. It was first set to work against its own rural people and labour, and then went on to overseas expansionism, thus making itself prosperous as well as politically powerful and domineering. All this has been perceived, incidentally, for both Capitalism and Marxism alike, as part of historical necessity and inevitability, at least insofar as the Industrial Revolution is concerned. At any rate, it is the empirical basis upon which the classical theory of economic growth has been established. The same can obviously be said of modern science and technology as generally conceived of and practised up to the present time.

"Of even more importance still to the conception of human rights . . . is the people's potential and prospect of self-development that has been suppressed and disrupted under the hegemonic and exploitative regimes. The current capitalistic system and, for that matter, modern science and technology, not only breeds flagrant inequality within and among nations. It also sees the meaning of progress as a unilinear historical movement: that is to say, as proceeding by stages as to be capitalistically and technologically determined. This is not merely a matter of the right to development conceived of in individualistic terms. But it is virtually the far more fundamental question of cultural values and dynamism, through which science and technology can be made to truly contribute to human and social progress along with technological advancement . . . In contrast with the hegemonic and imposed industrial civilization currently being perceived as uniform and universal, this line of approach is to give full recognition to the diversity of cultures and values . . . It is mainly through respect for cultural pluralism and dynamism that the principle of equality and freedom can be secured and promoted along with economic and technological growth and development.

"This point of understanding is most pertinent to today's developing nations as late-comers in the field of modern science and technology, but with no tradition of civil and political liberties behind them. Within advanced industrial countries, hegemonic and exploitative relationships have been qualified and restrained somewhat within a democratic framework of civil and political participation. Most of the Third World's developing countries, by contrast, are under authoritarian regimes and traditions, and practically all the public decisions are left to the tiny groups of so-called modernizing elites . . .

"Notwithstanding all the nationalistic claims, however, the fact remains that these national elites' aspirations and goals are closely associated with and strongly inclined toward the Western master culture . . . Here, the cultural impact and influence of Western-styled education and professional training has to be noted . . .

"Now it is through such a socio-cultural process and conditioning that modernization and the required modern scientific technology serve as the transmitter of hegemonic social relations, within and among nations . . . And all of this is in the name of growth, with all the hope that the material benefits thus accrued will somehow trickle down to the common and underprivileged sectors of population at the grassroots. Meanwhile for at least three decades now, out of this unbalanced growth strategy, its 'innate tendency to extreme and ever growing inequality' has increasingly expressed itself in the extreme form of glaring and growing poverty and unemployment as well as chronic indebtedness among developing nations . . .

" . . . If the Western historical experience is to be of any guide at all, the issues have to be traced further back to the plight and predicaments of those common lots in the rural sectors who were forced to be dislocated and alienated in the process of technological advancement and industrialization. So also are the plight and predicaments of the overwhelming majority in the rural and traditional sectors of today's developing countries. For, on top of the adverse impact on economic and social rights as well as civil and political rights, their traditional cultures and productive capability as a means of self-expression and creativity are being suppressed and disrupted. Not only deprived of the benefits of modern scientific technology, their own cultural potentialities for self-development also come to a standstill and eventually fall into disuse. Under such structural constraints, modern science and technology per se can be no substitute for the common people's cultural deprivation . . .

"All that has been observed of the structural nature of modern science and technology by no means suggests an anti-Western or opposing anything to do with modern scientific knowledge and its application. Neither does it imply a need or desirability to fall back on the traditional past away from what has been going on in the contemporary world. That in itself would be tantamount to compromising one's own cultural and creative potential to contribute to progress which is prerequisite to the quality of life with even more freedom and creativity.
" . . . The real issue and possible solution confronting the developing countries ought therefore to be a more positive and constructive one. The prospect certainly does not lie in either escapism or aversion to scientific knowledge and technology as such. It is fundamentally the question of how non-colonial science and creativity can be promoted and developed, in order that real human and social progress could be promoted. This only means that ways and means have to be found for modern scientific technology to be made use of, not for dominating, but as a liberating tool and thus transforming the whole productive forces into a balanced and self-sustained process of growth and development . . .

"Fundamentally, then, the question of self-reliance in science and technology is concerned with that of cultural freedom and creativity that has been lost in the process of forced industrialization. Ironically enough, both Capitalism and Communism, though ideologically poles apart, pose quite a comparable problematique here. In fact, by the very same logic of technological domination, the two as agents of industrialism under the Second Wave civilization are not much different . . . Each could admittedly be said to represent the consequences of its respective historical factors and conditions. The point is that neither of them is to provide the answer to the question of cultural freedom, if carried to the extreme as has so far been the case.

"From the foregoing and insofar as developing countries are concerned, it comes down to one most fundamental question as to if and how self-reliance is to be recognized as a right associated with cultural freedom and capacity to grow as well as develop oneself. Again, implicit in this is equal respect for cultural pluralism and dynamism. This is far beyond the conventional libertarian or egalitarian approach to the problem of human and social relations. It is of course of little use to get stuck in the historical past. But developmental efforts toward self-reliance also involve restoring and regenerating endogenous creativity that has been lost under the impact of industrial scientific culture.

"This adds a cultural and thus collective dimension to the problem of technological self-reliance. This is, again, beyond the mere question of individual's right to 'enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications' (article 15(b) ICESCR). It is basically concerned with the problematique of cultural identities of the whole rural and traditional communities that have been undergoing adverse social change and transformation. This is by no means in defense of traditionalism. But neither is there any valid reason to allow the current trend of hegemonic industrial culture to go on oppressing people for its own sake . . . The real and most obvious alternative is to let endogenous sources of knowledge and creativity be revitalized and developed as the basis upon which modern scientific technology could be effectively adapted and assimilated.

"For all its feasibility, technological self-reliance and cultural freedom is in the final analysis a question of political relationships, both within and among nations. Like all the other human rights problematiques, it requires a structural change and transformation. In this very sense, it is likely to remain an open question for quite some time to come; that is, in the absence of, in Fouad Ajami's words, 'the politics of love and compassion' as against the current one of 'realism' (Ajami 1978:2-4) where the sole objective of power is to rule." 24

Challenges Facing Activists

Because of the complexity of cultural rights, activists addressing these issues need to be very thoughtful in their analyses and in developing their strategies.

Analyzing and ensuring that cultural rights are recognised as an integral part of economic and social rights implies that activists have to keep the complex dimensions of this issue in mind when working on the development of their rights discourse.  When defining the content of cultural rights, it is critical to always place the process within a particular sociopolitical context, and examine them in terms of the specific nature and developmental goals of a society.  This would obviously include a realistic appraisal of existing power structures within that society, and an awareness of the various ways in which culture is transmitted and communicated within a society.  It should also include an understanding of institutionalised forms of culture, where it works positively and also where it fosters discriminatory practices and is used as a weapon of control.  The inclusion of women’s rights, children’s rights, the rights of the elderly and the rights of minority groups and indigenous people in creating a framework of cultural rights is vital to the creation of a more just and equitable social situation.  The recognition of the centrality of the culture question in the human rights discourse is essential to the development of a pluralistic, less exclusive and more humane world order.

Women's Rights and Religious Fundamentalists

During the 1970s the women's movement in India began to point out how women are oppressed under different religious laws, especially with regard to inheritance, divorce and ownership of property. They raised a demand for a uniform civil code. In the decade of the 1980s, the same demand was taken up by Hindu fundamentalist groups in the society, who wanted a uniform civil code with a view to denying the different communities and religions in India their distinct laws and customs. The women's movement became concerned that a uniform civil code would be used to "hinduize" minorities rather than protect the rights of women. They thus redefined their demand, and asked for "gender just" laws within each religion or community. Since the Hindu fundamentalist party came to power in the central government, the women's movement has steered away from the issue of a uniform civil code, and has sought to reach the goal of promoting women's equality in the family through secular criminal and civil laws, particularly related to rape and domestic violence.

Author: This module was written by Ann Blyberg on the basis of significant contributions by Ligia Bolívar, Enrique González and Nirmala Lakshman.



18. Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious or Linguistic Minorities.  See note 6 above.

19.  James Anaya, Indigenous Peoples in International Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), page 22.

20. Arundhati Roy, The Cost of Living (London: Flamingo, 1999), 65-67.

21. Danilo Türk, Final Report of the Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, The Full Realization of Economic, Social and Cultural rights, UN ESCOR, Commission on Human Rights, Forty-eighth Sess., Agenda Item 8, UN Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1992/16 (1992), p. 198.

22. Hannana Saddiqui, "The Ties that Bind,” in The New Slavery: Forced Marriage (London: Index on Censorship 1/2000), 50-52. 

23.  This description is excerpted from the website of the Third World Network based in Malaysia.  Available from

24.  Extracts from Saneh Chanmarik, "Technological Self-Reliance and Cultural Freedom,” in Democracy and Development-A Cultural Perspective (Bangkok: Local Development Institute, 1993), 175-217


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