Karima Bennoune has worked in the field of human rights for more than 20 years. She is Professor of Law and Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall Research Scholar at the University of California-Davis School of Law where she teaches courses on human rights and international law. She has received numerous awards, including the Dayton Literary Peace Prize (2014) for her recent book, “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism.” The book was based on some 300 interviews with people from 30 countries and tells the stories of people of Muslim heritage challenging extremism. The TED talk based on the book has been viewed by over 1.3 million people. Karima Bennoune grew up in Algeria and the United States.
Cultural rights are human rights. Yet in some parts of the world, culture is not valued as such and can even be considered a luxury. What is your view on this interpretation?
Culture is not optional, it is a priority at all times. It is utterly important for all human beings to safeguard their history. It is on top of history that we build the future. They are part of universal human rights along with politic, economic, and socio-economic rights. I believe in interdependence and indivisibility. I believe that if we forget culture, we forget ourselves.
We have made an artificial separation amongst human rights. In fact, in real life, people experience them in an integrated way and it is in the experience of a real human being impossible to separate out these categories—they go together. The recognition of cultural rights is simply about the recognition of this holistic nature of human rights.
What are cultural rights and why are they important?
The foundation of cultural rights is in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. It addresses the right to take part in cultural life without any discrimination, for everyone regardless of their identity. This is a cross-cultural aspect of human rights law. We also find the right for artistic expression and the right for scientific endeavors to name a few. Cultural rights also cross the boundaries between social, civil, and political rights and also draw very importantly from freedom of thought, religion, and conscience. All these things are integrated and are also related to the right to education.
Cultural rights are a human rights issue. It is not just about monuments, objects, and practices. It is linked to the economic rights of the people who work at tourism sites. The destruction of cultural heritage is often interpreted as a property crime, but I think it is a misunderstanding. In fact, they are attacks on human beings and on their human rights. It is a universal message—this is about everyone’s cultural heritage.
That is not saying that culture can never be changed but it has to be done in accordance with everyone involved. Change is not an excuse to violate human rights. The preservation of cultural heritage is guaranteed by human rights law.
As a feminist, what do you think of the cultural relativism argument stating that culture justifies a different approach to women’s rights ?
We must make an important distinction between cultural relativism and respect for cultural diversity. It is absolutely clear to me and it was clear to my predecessor Farida Shaheed, a human rights expert and distinguished special rapporteur to the U.N. on Cultural Rights. It is clear if you look at what states have agreed to the Vienna Convention and program of action: culture is not an excuse for violation of human rights or discrimination. Absolutely not.
Culture can and does change over time through the social process and needs to reflect our current understandings of human rights. Women’s rights are not an exception to this, women’s equality is not an exception to this. My predecessor Mrs. Shaheed wrote an important report about women’s cultural rights which I totally endorse. She says that rather than always seeing culture as an obstacle to women’s rights, what we need to fight for is for women’s equal rights to define culture, to participate in culture, and for them to enjoy their cultural rights. This is not a deviation from the universal norms, this is embedded in the universal norms.