AFTERNOON - Human Rights Council Discusses Migration and Cultural Rights and Concludes Discussion on Human Rights Defenders
The Human Rights Council this afternoon held an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights on her report on migration and cultural rights, and concluded its interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.
Alexandra Xanthaki, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, said her report on migration and cultural rights identified important gaps that existed in the protection of the cultural rights of migrants, who currently represented no less than 280 million people around the world, including long-term migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, and undocumented migrants. The report emphasised that migration had positive effects both for the individuals migrating and the host society. The positive effects of migration for the cultures of both the migrants and the populations of the host States had to be further acknowledged and shared. At the same time, migrants’ cultural rights were put in danger by the process of migration. The report underlined the importance of the participation of migrants in decision-making on cultural matters.
In the ensuing discussion, some speakers said migrants experienced many challenges and threats, including systemic racism, human trafficking, discrimination, and xenophobia. Institutional challenges could threaten migrants’ ability to access, practice, maintain, and transmit living cultural resources. It was vital for States to respect human rights, including cultural rights, in all aspects of migration management, to fight discrimination, ensure cultural and religious diversity, and the rights of all to enjoy their cultural rights, and strive to advance equity to create a space in which members of society could celebrate and contribute their diverse cultural and religious heritage. Many speakers said the international community must work to strengthen the cultural rights of migrants, as individuals and as active members of their communities. Cultural rights were enriching both for immigrants and for host countries. All States – whether they were transit or host nations – must intensify their efforts to ensure that all migrants, regardless of their legal status, could access and effectively participate in cultural life.
Speaking in the discussion were European Union, Colombia, Bahrain, United States, Germany, China, Cyprus, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Luxembourg, Costa Rica, India, Russian Federation, Venezuela, Viet Nam, Poland, Armenia, Egypt, Malaysia, Spain, Greece, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Chile, Afghanistan, Marshall Islands, Botswana, Azerbaijan, Benin, Kenya, Bolivia, Gambia, Cuba, Ireland, Ukraine, Iran, Cambodia, Pakistan, El Salvador, Portugal, and Syria.
Also speaking was the National Human Rights Institute of Burundi, as well as Human Rights Advocates Inc, International PEN, International Organization for the Right to Education and Freedom of Education, Society for Threatened Peoples, Association Culturelle Des Tamouls En France, World Barua Organization, Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy, Jeunesse Etudiante Tamoule, "ECO-FAWN" (Environment Conservation Organization - Foundation for Afforestation Wild Animals and Nature), Indigenous People of Africa Coordinating Committee, and Jameh Ehyagaran Teb Sonnati Va Salamat Iranian.
At the beginning of the meeting, the Council concluded its interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation with human rights defenders. A summary of the start of the interactive dialogue can be found here.
Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, in concluding remarks, said many States criminalising human rights defenders did not have laws which abided by international standards, and these laws needed to be reviewed and brought into line. Lawyers simply doing their jobs should not be conflated with terrorists – this was unacceptable. Protection mechanisms needed to be resourced, and should take into account the specific needs of women human rights defenders. Ms. Lawlor hoped everyone would be a human rights defender this year and do something in their own personal capacity to improve the rights of others.
In the discussion, speakers said human rights defenders lay at the heart of any social and legislative change, and despite this key role they often faced significant challenges and threats, including to their families. There should be recognition that some human rights defenders, such as women, children, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex defenders were particularly at risk. Any attacks or reprisals against them, including their families, must be strongly condemned and thoroughly investigated. Human rights defenders were important for building a democratic society: States must monitor the risks that they faced.
Several speakers pointed out that under the guise of human rights defenders, people could not violate law or jeopardise public order, as only thus could the rule of law be protected and human rights ensured. Using human rights as an excuse to interfere in a country’s internal affairs could not be tolerated or allowed.
Speaking in the discussion were the United Nations Children’s Fund, Colombia, United States, Paraguay, Belgium, Burkina Faso, China, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Costa Rica, Peru, India, Indonesia, Russian Federation, Cameroon, Venezuela, Iraq, Togo, Armenia, Zimbabwe, Nepal, Uruguay, Netherlands, Egypt, United Kingdom, South Africa, Spain, Malta, Kenya, Georgia, Philippines, Algeria, Chile, Afghanistan, Malawi, Montenegro, Marshall Islands, State of Palestine, Brazil, Romania, Cuba, Côte d'Ivoire, Timor-Leste, Vanuatu, Mauritania, Albania, Pakistan, Iran, Cambodia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Denmark on behalf of a group of countries, Tunisia, UN Women, and Chad.
Also speaking were the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions, Law Council of Australia, International Service for Human Rights, Freedom Now, Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, Oidhaco, Terre Des Hommes Federation Internationale, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Child Rights Connect, and Right Livelihood Award Foundation.
The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s fifty-second regular session can be found here.
The next meeting of the Council will be at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 16 March, when it will hold an interactive dialogue with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on violence against children, followed by an interactive dialogue with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for children and armed conflict.
Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders
The interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation with human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, started in the previous meeting and a summary can be found here.
In the discussion, speakers said that human rights defenders lay at the heart of any social and legislative change, but despite this key role, they often faced significant challenges and threats, including to their families. There should be recognition that some human rights defenders, such as those defending women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender plus community, were particularly at risk. There should be legislation to protect their rights.
All over the world, children had been striving for the protection and realisation of their rights and the rights of others, at both national and international levels, often at great personal risk. Children faced disproportionate barriers in acting as human rights defenders, including because of social norms that challenged their agency and right to participate in public life. They endured restricted access to information and to justice, and suffered from discrimination and violence, as well as threats by adults who disapproved of their activism, or disregarded the special protections due to children. Child human rights defenders were sometimes deliberately targeted as a way of deterring others and could be expelled from school or prevented from entering higher education, resulting in life-long consequences. States should fulfil their obligation to both support children acting as defenders and protect them as they exercised this right. States should also implement the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations.
Human rights defenders must be able to carry out their activities in safe environments. Any attacks or reprisals against them, including their families, must be strongly condemned and thoroughly investigated; legal provisions without political will to enforce them could give a false impression of progress. States must improve their recognition of the rights of human rights defenders, including children, women, and other defenders, and they should be involved in the assessment and drafting of laws, policies and plans. Human rights defenders were important for building a democratic society: States must monitor the risks that they faced. In some areas, environmental and indigenous rights defenders were those most at risk, and Governments must ensure their safety.
One speaker said that people under the guise of human rights defenders could not violate law or jeopardise public order; only thus could the rule of law be protected and human rights ensured. Using human rights as an excuse to interfere in a country’s internal affairs could not be tolerated or allowed. The activities of human rights defenders must be in agreement with the law of the land, another speaker said, as these laws applied to all. Other speakers said the work of human rights defenders must be transparent and lawful, adding that the report of the Independent Expert was politicised.
Among the questions raised were in which areas could human rights defenders benefit from increased support and visibility; how could States that recognised the essential role of human rights defenders support them, in particular in repressive countries, and where were the most urgent needs in that regard; what kind of mechanisms could be used to protect and empower human rights defenders to be able to work in safe environments; what strategies could be used to promote and encourage an environment in which human rights defenders could operate in safety; what good practices existed that had proved effective in tackling threats made against human rights defenders; and how could a State best support the activities of human rights defenders whilst keeping them in line with the law?
MARY LAWLOR, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said it was wonderful to see the support of everyone in the room for human rights defenders to be able to do their important work. Her first recommendation would be to look at what States could do to help those defending the rights of people in their own countries. It was important to not hide behind laws; protection under the law did not guarantee protection.
Referring to Greece, Ms. Lawlor said she was not looking for perfection but instead was looking for Greece to live up to the obligations promised. The camps were not her concern, but rather whether human rights defenders were able to practice their work. Ms. Lawlor looked forward to working with Greece. As one of the most ancient civilizations in the world, she was sure they would do the right thing.
Not a single State had made an input into the report, which was a shame. Human rights defenders needed to be seen as allies, not enemies. The laws and policies had to be put in place and had to be implemented; it was not rocket science. It was about providing visibility to the work of human rights defenders. There needed to be human rights education in schools and public campaigns. There also needed to be a flexible visa system for human rights defenders, which allowed them to go in and out of the country as needed if the danger was too great. In countries under authoritarian regimes, it was important for embassies to consult with human rights defenders, rather than making decisions on their behalf.
In the continuing discussion, speakers said the work of human rights defenders helped to achieve more just and equitable societies, including in tackling the challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment, which further disadvantaged the poor. Human rights defenders were often targeted simply because of their work and as a result faced reprisals. These risks increased considerably when they happened to be women, persons belonging to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender plus community, or environmental and indigenous peoples’ defenders. Despite this, human rights defenders persevered and achieved great success in various fields. The work of human rights defenders must be recognised and celebrated publicly, and public training and awareness-raising processes were needed to better enable understanding and respect for their work.
Human rights defenders played a critical role in promoting and protecting human rights; as individuals and organizations, they worked tirelessly to defend the rights of marginalised and vulnerable communities, to document and report human rights violations, and to hold governments and other actors accountable for their actions. The silver jubilee of the Declaration on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders was the right moment to genuinely acknowledge and honour their work over the last quarter of a century and their contribution to building a more safe, fair, dignified, just and sustainable future. Some of the most pertinent instances in some States included the adoption of legislation outlawing discrimination, particularly against indigenous communities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, women, and children, as well as providing access to health care and education, ensuring accountability, justice and access to legal remedies, and the prevention of corruption and environmental degradation. It was gratifying to note that States and State officials were increasingly important allies in the activities of human rights defenders.
Much work remained to be done, as human rights defenders around the world continued to face many challenges, including harassment, intimidation, threats, physical attacks, and even murder. Their protection should be ensured by States and businesses. During the COVID-19 pandemic, human rights defenders were able to support communities, especially those vulnerable and living in informal sectors, by distributing personal protection equipment, including facemasks and gloves, and supporting survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, as well as survivors of many other violations. Human rights defenders played a role as partners in building just and humane societies where the rights and dignity of everyone were respected and guaranteed; part of human rights advocacy work was speaking the truth and holding duty-bearers accountable for excesses and lapses.
Human rights defenders were agents for positive change and development and were key in protecting against human rights violations and in advancing human rights. They deserved greater engagement from the Council and the international community to address the risks and threats they faced and to support them in strengthening their capacity. Some speakers said that wider engagement of civil society organizations in the work of the Human Rights Council was essential. Without human rights defenders, victims would have no recourse. Human rights defenders should be protected from threats, danger and persecution.
Among the questions raised were: what could be done to strengthen the European Union guidelines on human rights defenders; how could United Nations human rights mechanisms help prevent the instrumentalisation of human rights by certain non-State actions that deliberately blurred the lines between activism and armed struggle to advance violent agendas; how could States provide special protection for human rights defenders that faced gender violence and discrimination; and how could a human rights investigative mechanism investigate the violations of the rights of human rights defenders in countries such as Afghanistan, and what could the international community do to help?
MARY LAWLOR, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said everyone believed in the rule of law. However, this needed to be in accordance with international standards. Many States criminalising human rights defenders did not have laws which abided by international standards, and these laws needed to be reviewed and brought into line. Lawyers simply doing their jobs should not be conflated with extremists and terrorists – this was unacceptable.
Several States in Africa, including Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad, should be commended for their laws to protect human rights defenders. The Democratic Republic of the Congo was also on the way. Ms. Lawlor encouraged all other African States to continue along this path. China had done great things in eradicating poverty and violence against women, but was a disaster when it came to human rights defenders. Ms. Lawlor said she had written to China last year about 15 human rights defenders who had been in jail for more than 10 years, which was unacceptable. It was a shame that Iran felt it had to support the Government’s treatment of human rights defenders. Ms. Lawlor had written to Iran with 18 cases last year, before the current trouble started. Her heart went out to all those people. Russia’s history had seen the State through tough times, but the way human rights defenders were being persecuted was appalling. Protection mechanisms needed to be resourced, and should take into account the specific needs of women human rights defenders.
This was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; human rights defenders breathed life into the Declaration. Ms. Lawlor hoped everyone would be a human rights defender this year and do something in their own personal capacity to improve the rights of others.
Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights
The Council has before it the report by the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Alexandra Xanthaki on cultural rights and migration (A/HRC/52/35).
Presentation of Report
ALEXANDRA XANTHAKI, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, said during the past 14 months, she had invested considerable time connecting with some of the stakeholders working on cultural rights, starting by holding regional discussions with the representations in Geneva, to learn about the issues that were most important for her mandate to consider. She had started a clear process of interaction with other United Nations’ bodies on the issues of common interests, including the treaty bodies, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and other agencies.
With regard to the report on migration and cultural rights, the report identified important gaps that existed in the protection of the cultural rights of migrants who currently represented no less than 280 million people around the world, including long-term migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, and undocumented migrants. The report emphasised that migration had positive effects both for the individuals migrating and the host society. The mixing of cultures, contexts and cultural resources that took place through migration was an enriching and dynamic exercise that brought new ideas and promoted the re-evaluation of values and practices, both of the migrants and of host societies. The positive effects of migration for the cultures of both the migrants and the populations of the host States had to be further acknowledged and shared.
At the same time, migrants’ cultural rights were put in danger by the process of migration. It brought with it the loss of important places, communities and relationships, tools or instruments; the loss of a broader supportive community that fostered intergenerational transmission; and sometimes brought up even resistance or opposition to continuing certain heritage practices in the new home country. The report identified specific areas that needed attention, including: States needed to ensure that the scope of the cultural rights of migrants was understood in all their structures and bodies, including local authorities, cultural public bodies, and decision-making public bodies; understand that discrimination in the exercise of the cultural rights of migrants still persisted; and comprehend that migrants often faced the undermining of their cultural values, the uncritical perception that their cultures of origin were of an inferior nature, and ultimately the dehumanisation of migrants, opening the way for further prejudice and racism against them.
The report underlined the importance of the participation of migrants in decision-making on cultural matters. There must be a paradigm shift, where migrants were not seen as mere recipients of cultural policies but were active partners in the shaping and vision of society and cultural life. The Special Rapporteur hoped that this report would act as a catalyst to focus more on the cultural rights of migrants and ensure further visibility and active participation of migrants in the societies in which they now lived.
In the ensuing discussion, some speakers said migrants experienced many challenges and threats, including systemic racism, human trafficking, discrimination, and xenophobia. Institutional challenges could threaten migrants’ ability to access, practice, maintain, and transmit living cultural resources. It was vital for States to respect human rights, including cultural rights, in all aspects of migration management, to fight discrimination, ensure cultural and religious diversity, and the rights of all to enjoy their cultural rights, and strive to advance equity to create a space in which members of society could celebrate and contribute their diverse cultural and religious heritage. All rights must be treated in a fair and equal manner and on the same footing, as all rights were indivisible, and that included cultural rights.
Some speakers said that when displaced communities were denied access to the sites, objects and artefacts, cultural and natural spaces, including places of memory and the possibility to engage in their living practices, they could not enjoy their cultural rights. When their narratives were pushed to the margins, they could not enjoy their cultural rights. Cultural heritage and cultural practices provided a sense of belonging and continuity across generations and over time. Being deprived of the source of identity and expression – and sometimes a primary source of income – was a denial of the full enjoyment of cultural rights. The international community must work to strengthen the cultural rights of migrants, as individuals and as active members of their communities. It was vital for the resilience of those communities, but also for their meaningful cultural contribution to the host countries, thus fostering broader social cohesion and innovation. Cultural rights were enriching both for immigrants and for host countries.
A respectful environment that respected cultural diversity contributed to ensuring the rights of all, including cultural rights, for all migrants, including refugees, both in the host State and in their own culture. Culture was an inalienable heritage, and the State must provide such an environment in which migrants could enjoy it, with the same rights and guarantees as nationals. States should facilitate mutual understanding and appreciation of migrant cultures and those of destination communities. Those elements were essential to build more inclusive, sustainable societies, and to achieve “Harmony in diversity”.
One speaker asked why Human Rights Council experts, who were supposed to be impartial, ignored certain situations, including the artificial imposition in Europe of a cancel culture, and Kyiv’s forcible “Ukrainisation” of a portion of the population.
Among questions raised were: how could education systems be used to enhance intercultural understanding and dialogue between host communities and migrants, refugees and persons in vulnerable situations, in particular young persons; how could States best defend the cultural rights of migrants in vulnerable situations; were there any best practices in mind in which host countries learnt about cultures and languages of migrant minorities; what were the best practices and measures the Special Rapporteur had encountered allowing young people to freely express their cultural rights; what safe spaces had the Special Rapporteur encountered for cultural expression by migrants; and how did the current global context of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and Islamophobia impact the enjoyment of the human rights of migrants?
ALEXANDRA XANTHAKI, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, said all States should consider signing and ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers. It was clear that the obligations regarding cultural rights of migrants were not known by public bodies, so it was important to ensure the training of officials in this area. Public spaces were important for the inclusion of migrants. Migrants needed positive measures and extra help to take away the obstacles they faced. In several States, migrants were allowed to do as they wished at the periphery of society; this was not how international law viewed the realisation of their rights. It was important that through education, all sectors of the population understood more about migrant culture.
If someone was an alien, they were viewed as a threat, whereas if they were seen as a neighbour, this meant the culture stopped being dehumanised and stopped the hate speech which unfortunately existed in many migrant cultures. Integration should be a two-way street. What were the measures that countries had taken to allow the population to learn more about migrants? Participation at all levels of programmes relating to the cultural rights of migrants was vital. Ms. Xanthaki said in the last year she had taken a stance on marginalised voices, including Russian voices when they were marginalised. She said she really was impartial and looked forward to discussing the violations committed against Russians, as well as by Russians.
In the continuing discussion, speakers said the report was a significant step towards promoting the equal participation of migrants in cultural life and ensuring that their cultural rights were protected and respected. The rights of migrants were violated in many places due to supremacist, racist and discriminatory policies and persistent hate speech, including in public institutions. In a time of global crisis, cultural and artistic traditions must be upheld. While migration could often lead to cultural bereavement, it could also lead to cultural and artistic development. Cultural rights were essential for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
Some speakers said that migrants’ transit made their cultural rights more vulnerable, and could result in discrimination and violence in their host country. However, it did bring advantages for these hosts. The vulnerability of migrants’ rights depended on various factors, including religion, race and colour. Migrants brought together cultural frameworks to improve cultural understanding through tolerance. Speakers said that creating cultural spaces to bring together migrant populations and the resident population was very important in order to support cultural exchange and artistic creation in various areas. It was vital to eliminate stereotypes and promote an exchange of experience with the host society.
All States – whether they were transit or host nations – must intensify their efforts to ensure that all migrants, regardless of their legal status, could access and effectively participate in cultural life. Removing the obstacles which migrant artists faced in their work and promoting intercultural exchange and interaction were particularly relevant goals in this regard. Countries must abandon the concept of cultural supremacy.
A resolution would be submitted during the session on cultural rights, a speaker said, and should be adopted by consensus. The Special Rapporteur should pay special attention to the violation of the cultural rights of the people of Ukraine, another speaker said. There were important challenges for Muslims to preserve their Islamic heritage outside of their homeland, a third speaker said, adding that Muslims should be allowed to express their cultural and religious heritage, including the right to freely perform religious rituals in mosques and holy places.
Among the questions raised were: what were the most important steps that States and other stakeholders could take to promote and protect the cultural rights of migrants; how could States ensure the meaningful participation of migrants in all the processes that had an impact on their cultural rights; what were best practices for States to protect their national cultural heritage while extending efforts to ensure the full enjoyment of cultural rights to migrant people; what measures should States adopt under the various relevant international documents in order to stem the rising tide of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and Islamophobia; and how could States better encourage local governments to integrate a human-rights based approach to cultural policies which effectively ensured migrants’ participation?
ALEXANDRA XANTHAKI, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, said States agreed with her report, now it was important to move towards implementing the recommendations in the report. Together, everyone could make a difference in the lives of migrant children, to allow them to be themselves and to express their identity freely. Ms. Xanthaki hoped this would be the start of many more projects towards fulfilling the cultural rights of migrants.
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