Cultural Rights (13): Their Place in the System of Human Rights

I know I’ve neglected cultural rights on this blog. That’s not because I think they should be neglected. Cultural rights are indeed important and they deserve a thorough discussion. First, what are they? Cultural rights are the rights of

  • indigenous peoples,
  • ethnic, racial or linguistics minorities or “nationalities”,
  • immigrants
  • and perhaps also other marginalized groups.

In certain circumstance, some such groups can legitimately claim cultural rights because without these rights they will be unable to preserve, experience and act in accordance with their cultural identity. This cultural identity includes institutions, beliefs, practices, a way of life, a language etc., all of which can be under pressure from another, dominant culture or from some other hostile forces (e.g. globalization, capitalism etc.). Other, more commonly accepted human rights such as religious liberty, non-discrimination etc. are of course helpful as well but sometimes insufficient for this purpose. For example, a state can’t help but to impose an official language, and the users of this official language have therefore an unfair educational, economic and political advantage. Minority groups can then claim that they need the cultural right to receive education in their own language. Non-cultural human rights won’t be much help.

The background assumption of cultural rights is the equal value of all cultures. All cultures have an equal right to survival and all groups have an equal right to preserve their cultural way of life. The pressures that threaten cultures can take various forms, going from genocide (or ethnocide, or cultural genocide) at one extreme to milder forms of acculturation at the other extreme. Some typical forms of pressure are:

  • reducing birthrates through forced sterilization
  • forcibly transferring children to other groups
  • relocating entire groups
  • interfering with education or the transmission of culture to future generations of a group
  • forced conversion
  • erasing the group’s existence or practices from the historical record
  • attacking a culture’s resource base (e.g. deforestation)
  • etc.

The concept of cultural rights should be distinguished from related concerns about economic or political domination. Marginalized cultures can indeed suffer cultural as well as other types of oppression simultaneously, and depriving a culture of its economic base can be as lethal as a direct attack on its identity. However, I think it’s useful to isolate the cultural and identity issues. So I’ll focus on those, and I’ll also deliberately sideline the thorny question of the definition of “culture”, a notoriously overbroad concept: which groups can legitimately claim to be a “culture” deserving of cultural rights? Are cultures really distinct and self-contained? Let’s just assume that there are some such groups, and that some of those are threatened.

Which cultural rights?

Apart from the general right to cultural survival, it’s not very clear which are the more specific rights that are bundled together under the general right, and it’s commonly accepted that the concrete realization of cultural rights depends on the circumstances. In some cases cultural rights can imply a right to some form of affirmative action, in other cases a right to regional self-determination etc.

Article 27 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights only mentions a right of groups to enjoy and practice their own culture. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is somewhat more precise, but only somewhat. Hence, cultural rights are often attacked for a double vagueness: vagueness about the specific rights involved, and vagueness about the beneficiaries (which groups qualify as a “culture”?). However, we’ll see below that a more fundamental criticism of those rights is also possible.

Justifications of cultural rights

And yet, I do believe that cultural rights are an important addition to the body of human rights. The justification for these rights is based on two things:

  • the importance of culture for individuals, and perhaps also some vaguer notion of the general importance of cultural diversity and the “heritage of humanity” (in which case cultural rights are important for everyone and not just for members of threatened cultures)
  • the failure of more traditional human rights to protect culture in all cases.

People need a cultural life, a life in a community that transcends time. They want to belong to a group and share a traditional identity. These human values can only be enjoyed collectively and are often neglected in more individualist and liberal theories of rights. Individual human rights such as freedom of religion and association, anti-discrimination laws, tolerance, democratic pluralism etc. are helpful for the preservation of culture and other collective values (such as religion), but not in all circumstances. Take the example I gave before: the simple fact of an official state language and school language puts some minorities in a disadvantaged position, not just culturally but also economically and politically. And indeed there’s nothing that ordinary human rights or tolerance can do about that.

Another justification of cultural rights can be based, not on the value of culture, but on the need for reparations for past injustices. For example, indigenous people can claim that respect for their cultural rights is due to them because of the injustices perpetrated by past generations of the dominant culture, even if there are no present-day threats to their culture.

Criticism of cultural rights

Contrary to the more traditional, individual human rights, cultural rights don’t require the recognition of individuals as equal human beings, equally deserving of respect in spite of their differences. They demand, on the contrary, the recognition of differences and respect for those differences, and differences between groups of individuals rather than differences between individuals. Common identity, group difference and recognition are the keywords behind the notion of cultural rights.

This explains why these rights are often criticized in liberal democracies. Liberalism focuses on the individual. It recognizes group interests but those are typically understood as cooperative, associational and interest based. People, according to liberalism, voluntarily join groups in order to advance their interests. Groups are defined by shared goals and interests, not by the shared identity of the members. Individuals are there first, and groups are secondary. From this point of view, cultural rights can be seen as essentialist: they reduce the identity of members to the identity of the group to which they belong.

This essentialism can indeed be detrimental to individual group members. Because cultural rights are rights aimed at the preservation of cultures, there may be a temptation to use these rights in order to discipline members who deviate from the cultural orthodoxy. Such deviations can be viewed as a threat to the group’s identity and survival. In that case, cultural identity becomes a goal in itself rather than a good for the members. Ideally, cultural rights are valuable because the members of the cultural groups in question value cultural identity, cultural practices and language and can use these rights to protect what they value. It’s those members who have an interest in cultural preservation, not the cultures themselves. (Will Kymlicka has developed this argument). This means that when members lose this interest, they should be free to do so, and cultural rights should not be used to impose an identity, practices or a language. Individual members should be free to evaluate their culture and to reject it if that is what they decide.

It follows that cultural rights should not grant groups power or priority over individuals or over individual rights. If an individual member of a group decides to use her freedom of religion to change her religion, her freedom of movement and residence to physically leave the cultural group, her freedom of expression to decide to start speaking another language etc., then there’s nothing the group can do. The group’s cultural rights can’t trump the individual’s rights. And if individual rights are threatened by cultural rights, the latter should give way. For instance, if a religious group claims the right to oppress its female members or sacrifice its children, that group can’t claim cultural rights as means to protect those practices.

That doesn’t mean a group can never legitimately limit the individual rights of its members. It can, as long as it guarantees a realistic exit right. Individuals can waive their individual rights if they think the rules and practices of their group are more important than their individual rights. This exit right, however, should be realistic and not just formal. There should be no indoctrination and alternatives should not be cut off. For example, Muslim communities should be allowed to discriminate against their female members as long as these members have a realistic right to go elsewhere, realistic meaning that going elsewhere shouldn’t imply abandoning their religion, their family etc., meaning also that they have a real choice and haven’t been indoctrinated into submission (more here).

The priority of individual rights over cultural rights does not force us to adopt an extreme individualist philosophy in which the individual is always prior to the community or in which the community doesn’t count at all. This priority of individual rights is compatible with a communitarian stance. Cultures and cultural rights are important, and they are important for communitarian reasons, but they are not so important that they can trump individual rights. Cultures or other groups have value only in so far as they are of value for the individual members. They can’t have intrinsic value. In other words, they can’t have value for themselves.

The problem of enforced internal orthodoxy within cultural groups, which I mentioned above, may be exacerbated by the possible recognition of cultural rights. Group leaders may believe that they need to enforce orthodoxy and silence “minorities within minorities” in order to present a united culture. Presenting a united culture can make it more likely that the wider society recognizes cultural rights for the minority culture. For example, a leader (or leading class) of an indigenous group may believe that it’s necessary to emphasize the distinctive nature of the group by reviving traditional practices. This revival makes the group seem more valuable from a cultural point of view, and that’s something which will make it more likely that special recognition and special rights are forthcoming. Leaders may even have a personal and selfish interests in those rights, for example their personal leading role may be cemented after the recognition of those rights or during the struggle for recognition. However, some of these traditional practices can be harmful to the individual rights of certain members (e.g. gender discrimination, polygamy etc.) or can go against one particular current of belief within the minority group which is subsequently repressed.

So cultural rights may harm individual rights and may promote internal orthodoxy before they are recognized – and as a means to achieve recognition – as well as after they are recognized – for example, regional autonomy can imply restrictions on intervention by the central authority in the case of rights violations occurring within the regional group. It’s relatively easy to make the granting of cultural rights conditional on respect for individual rights within the group demanding cultural rights (and withdraw those rights when they result in violations of individual rights), but it’s a lot more difficult to avoid the dynamic of groups violating individual rights and suppressing internal dissent in the process of a struggle for cultural rights.

Actionability of cultural rights

Individual rights trump cultural rights, but this raises the question of the actionability of cultural rights: when exactly can they be used to protect cultures? They can’t if a culture’s preservation is in danger because individual members decide to leave, for example through voluntary assimilation into other groups, or decide to fashion the group’s identity differently. Neither can they be actionable when a culture dies because of low fertility rates for instance. Artificially propping up fertility rates for the sake of cultural preservation would harm the rights of individuals in a manner which few would accept. A culture that can’t gain the uncoerced adherence of its members or promote the vitality necessary for the reproduction of its members at replacement rates, doesn’t seem to be worth preserving. Again, cultures are important for individuals. And if individuals lose their interest or change their minds, there’s not much one can do.

If one were to limit individual rights in order to prop up a culture, one would violate the principle that culture are important because they are important for individuals. One would have to adopt the unlikely view that cultures are important in themselves whatever people believe, and that they have an intrinsic value even if no one wants to be a member. Of course, it’s sad when a language dies or when some cultural practices disappear, but this sadness isn’t enough to give cultures the right to force people to do something against their will. Even if it would be somehow morally OK to force people, it would be pointless. One may succeed in getting people to speak a language, take part in rituals etc., but that would happen for the wrong reasons. A culture has to come from within. It shouldn’t be an externally imposed duty.

Perhaps cultural rights become actionable when the preservation of a culture is threatened, not by the free choices of individual members, but by economic forces, migration patterns or political oppression. Indeed, it’s not entirely unreasonable for the French government for instance to subsidize French language cinema in order to protect it against the “onslaught” of Hollywood. Or for the Tibetans to complain of Chinese “demographic aggression”. (Similar talk about Eurabia seems a lot less reasonable). Or for native Indians in the U.S. to resist forced resettlement.

Realization of cultural rights

And when we decide that cultural rights are actionable in certain cases, we still don’t know which actions short of violations of individual rights we can take to protect them. Some possibilities:

  • An obvious policy could be some kind of federalism and limited self-government, primarily but not exclusively when the minority cultures are geographically isolated and when they haven’t voluntarily chosen to live within a larger political unity (e.g. tribal sovereignty for indigenous peoples).
  • Maybe some quota systems in representative bodies could also help to give culture a voice.
  • Affirmative action.
  • Reparations.
  • Special educational provisions (for example the provision of some hours of education in a native language) or other types of assistance to do things that the majority takes for granted (e.g. multilingual ballots).
  • Certain veto powers (for example, the right of indigenous people to veto the use of land).
  • Some group-based exceptions to general laws (such as an exemption to the rule forcing drivers to wear a crash helmet).
  • Granting jurisdiction over family law to religious or tribal courts.
  • A politics of recognition (e.g. teaching black history in U.S. schools).
  • And perhaps even a right to separate from the political community if nothing else works or if the claim to authority of the central state is weak (as in the case of colonies).

It’s clear from this that cultural rights can in some cases restrict the rights of non-members. For example, the use of English is restricted in Quebec; affirmative action restricts the rights of non-group members; veto-powers over land use restrict the property rights of outsiders etc. However, it’s not the case that cultural rights necessarily restrict the rights of outsiders. Subsidies or regional autonomy for example do not, by definition, involve such restrictions. But if they do restrict some of the rights of outsiders, then we should be very careful. As stated above, cultural rights don’t trump individual rights; the opposite is true. But this general priority of individual rights doesn’t mean that there will never be cases in which it’s better to give priority to cultural rights (the good this will allow us to do may sometimes far outweigh the harm to some people’s individual rights). The general priority of individual rights over group rights doesn’t mean that there can’t be specific cases where the balance goes the other way.

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