Cultural Rights as Human Rights

Stone Town, Zanzibar

I. Seeking out the spirit of human rights

Three weeks ago I spent seven days with artists, cultural activists, and human rights advocates from sixteen African countries in a workshop on human rights as a part of the ArtWatch Africa project. It has taken time for me to process the experience. The collective intellect, energy, and emotion present each day in our small conference room was remarkable. The Arterial Network team had done a great job at bringing together a diverse group of individuals from festivals, arts centers, think tanks, human rights organizations, and government institutions, all eager to learn more about using a human rights-based approach to protecting artistic freedom of expression and promoting cultural rights.

Habib Koite from Mali performing at the Zanzibar International Film Festival, which took place the same week as the ArtWatch workshop.
Habib Koite from Mali performing at the Zanzibar International Film Festival, which took place the same week as the ArtWatch workshop.

Ours was an intense initiation. We learned tools for advocacy campaigning, studied closely various United Nations and African Union charters, conventions, and declarations, and took part in creative exercises that challenged us to sketch, perform, map, even sculpt out our interpretations of human rights concepts and goals.

It was not always an easy or comfortable process. We were asked to question our most fundamental assumptions about justice, fairness, development, and culture. Who defines these concepts and makes the rules? Whose responsibility is it to ensure universal human rights are realized? What do we do when rights appear to conflict with one another, or when traditional culture and human rights are at odds?

And most importantly of all, once we have found answers to these difficult questions, what will we do with them? What do the principles of human rights — such as non-discrimination, participation, accountability, and equality — look like in practice, once they’ve been pulled from the page to become manifest in our day-to-day reality, in the ways we construct and consume culture, confront power, and create meaning and identity?

Our search forced us to look deep within ourselves to discover the spirit of human rights, that which makes them universal and indivisible, the basis for their power. We found it in our shared humanity. And what is more central to the human experience than art?

II. Speaking truth to power

My own interest in cultural rights as human rights was piqued not long after I started working as Managing Director of Busara Promotions in November 2012, during the planning for the 2013 Sauti za Busara festival. That year, during the landmark 10th edition, the festival featured a special focus on freedom of expression under the theme “Speaking Truth to Power”. We programmed censored artists including Nawal from Comoros, Comrade Fatso from Zimbabwe, and Khaira Arby from Mali, who was then living in exile from her native Timbuktu after her band’s instruments were destroyed and her life was threatened by the violent extremists who had banned secular music throughout northern Mali. We hosted a special panel session on strategies for combating censorship during our Movers and Shakers networking forum. The speakers included representatives from Free Muse, artists who have championed freedom of speech, and festival directors from Sauti za Busara and Oslo World Music Festival. In 2014, we continued this theme with a seminar focusing on how the media can support cultural and artistic freedom by writing about and amplifying the voices of artists and cultural activists.

I don’t remember when or where I first heard the term “speaking truth to power”, but it seemed to be the perfect phrase to articulate our call to action. I was eager to rally artists, journalists, culture sector professionals, festival audiences, and anyone else who would listen around this idea of courageous voices speaking out against oppression and injustice. Dictators, despots, corrupt governments, politicians inciting violence or ignoring need, these were the sorts of power-wielders whom I thought we could challenge with our brave truth-telling.

Artwork by Jason Kibiswa (DRC)
Artwork by Jason Kibiswa (DRC)

But since then, my ideas on the topic have developed, sometimes in surprising directions. In a seminar entitled “Music as a Weapon” at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo during the Oslo World Music Festival in November 2013, Festival au Désert founder and director Manny Ansar spoke about Malian culture and music as a force for peace stronger than any desert windstorm. That same night, a French music journalist sitting next to me told me a story that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind since (I repeat the story here as I remember it; I fact-checked online but was unable to confirm all of the details below. It is mostly for illustrative purposes.)

The entrancing and well-known Tuareg group Tinariwen was caught in the conflict in northern Mali that reached its peak in July 2012. Like all musicians in the region, they were living in exile or undercover, unable to perform due to a blanket ban on secular music. Several of the band members had their instruments seized and burned in the streets, with threats to stop playing or end up with severed fingers or tongues. Luckily, most of Tinariwen’s members managed to escape. One of the guitarists, however, was bold enough to attempt to sneak back to his home in the middle of the night to save his guitars. He was captured by a group of militants. They took his guitars, tied him up, and left him under watch while they went to debate what to do with him. His guard was a young man who, like many young people in Mali, happened to love Tinariwen’s music. When he realized his captive’s identity, he decided to release him, apologizing and promising to take the blame for his ‘escape’.

Love of music probably saved the musician’s life, and also helped his young captor realize the rebels’ brutality and flawed ideals. Once this story broke, the peace-keepers had an important new weapon: the understanding that many of the young people swept up by the militant Islamist Ansar Dine movement were not as extreme as their leaders wished them to be, which meant they could be convinced to abandon the bloody cause.

Stories like this helped me to realize that the power doesn’t just come from above, it rises from below and within us. The true power-wielders whom we need most desperately to address are not the ring-leaders of violence, but the young people and the communities who turn to them when they feel there is no other way. We can speak truth to them. We can remind them to listen and to love.

Another good example is the Arab Spring protesters, who showed the power of ordinary people taking to the streets and demanding change. It was their unity and communication on the ground that gave their individual hopes and dreams the force to become a movement. Like them, we must remember to speak truth not only to the powers-that-be, but also to each other. We can raise our voices as one.

III. Unity in diversity

Artwork displayed during the ArtWatch workshop by Souleymane Ouologuem from Mali
Artwork displayed during the workshop by Souleymane Ouologuem from Mali

Since the ArtWatch workshop ended and we all went home, spreading back across the African continent, I wondered what would happen next. I had pages of notes scribbled through my notebook, print-outs of documents, photos and recordings of presentations, and a mixed feeling of empowerment and intimidation at the weight and scale of the work before us.

I also came away with a new vocabulary to be able to speak about human rights issues. Before the workshop, I had a limited understanding of the different types of rights and how they relate to each other. Like many people, I thought of civil and political rights – the so-called ‘first generation’ or ‘negative’ rights—as the only truly universal human rights. Economic, social, and cultural rights, the ones that entitle people to something (such as education, housing, health, or culture) rather than protecting them from or against outright oppressionhave historically been side-lined, treated as secondary or merely optional. I, too, devalued them in that false hierarchy. Yet I was heartened to see a more holistic understanding of both development and human rights emerging. Just as development cannot be measured in GDP or mean income alone, neither should human rights be conceived as just freedom of movement, freedom to vote, etc (even though they often begin there).

This more expansive understanding of rights has had an immediate impact on my day-to-day life. I read the news with a new sensitivity, as if understanding human rights has given me a powerful set of glasses that brings everything I see into sharper focus. A clearer view gives rise to deeper understanding, which leads to better strategies for approaching and solving problems that used to seem unsolvable. Now, stories and events I might formerly have viewed as purely political, or environmental, or business or health-related, are clearly a matter of human rights – the dire consequences when they are violated or their great power, when granted, for enabling change.

But this understanding, this clarity of purpose, is just the beginning.The Arterial ArtWatch workshop will help equip us with the tools we need to carry the vision forward. In fact, they have already given us the most important one: each other. Shanez from Algeria, Pamela from Zimbabwe, Sarah from Namibia, Musola from Zambia, Daba from Senegal, Abdulaye from Burkina Faso, Philomena from Ghana, Jahman from Nigeria, Souleymane from Mali, Andrew from Uganda, Emmanuely from Tanzania, Joy, Christine and Njoki from Kenya, Mabelle from Cameroon, Jason from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Basma from Egypt, Jean Pierre from Gabon, Diana from Madagascar, Peter from South Africa, Jenny from Sweden, and Simone from Brazil, have taken up the torch of human rights.

Artwork by Jason Kibiswa (DRC)
Artwork by Jason Kibiswa (DRC)

I’m grateful for these brothers and sisters who come from many countries, speaking many languages, touching many lives. They have reminded me of the great truth in Nelson Mandela’s words: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” 

-R.C., 15 July 2014

Do you want to support the work of ArtWatch Africa? A great first step is advocating for the inclusion of Culture in the Sustainable Development Goals, which follow the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals(MDG’s) that have driven development attention and funding since they were articulated in 2000. Both individuals and institutions can sign this online petition to help enshrine cultural rights as human rights in the coming era.  


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