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Reinvigoration of human rights is imperative to emerge from COVID-19 crisis

This Human Rights Day is an opportunity to revisit the culture-centric approach to human rights, by first improving the conditions of the creators of culture, its practitioners and workers.


December 10, 2020 10:27:21 pm
Culture as an exercise, expression and source of community identity, often contested and always contextual, is a value intrinsic to human rights.

By Junhi Han and Neha Dewan

The world honours Human Rights Day every year on December 10 to commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. In its remembrance also lies the recognition of the fundamental contribution of the UDHR, the codification of the inalienability and universality of human rights. However, the idea and concept of what constitutes human rights has evolved significantly since.

Culture as an exercise, expression and source of community identity, often contested and always contextual, is one such value intrinsic to human rights. The right to participate in the cultural life of the community found sanctuary in the UDHR, while the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966 gave it a political expression, linking the freedom of individuals very closely to their practise of cultural development. The socio-political transformation of the late 20th century further accentuated the need for a value-based approach to human rights and cultural co-operation became the focus of several international instruments. The common heritage of mankind, culture, was to be protected and promoted through the democratisation of its expression and actualisation of its means, as envisioned in the 1976 Unesco Recommendation on Participation by the People at Large in Cultural Life and their Contribution to It. However, access to cultural participation and the instability of conditions enabling it, remains a debate that requires frequent revisiting, especially on this Human Rights Day.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic most significantly impacted rights to access and freedom, including to cultural life and expression. Spaces for the expression of individuality and the practice of collectivity shrunk with lockdowns and restrictions around the world. The first global mapping of cultural and creative industries in 2015 had estimated a sectoral contribution of $2,250 billion to the global economy, in addition to 29.5 million jobs worldwide. Even more so, the value and vibrancy of cultural contributions to human life, social communities and national identity remains invaluable. In addition, most cultural workers, particularly artists, remain a part of the informal economy or undocumented as professionals, owing to the distinctive nature of their work and cultural activities. Given this scenario, both the professional and the public aspects of creative work were the early victims of the pandemic.

While the creative economy and cultural industry were deeply impacted, cultural practitioners, such as artists, were the hardest hit. Emergency funds for artists and cultural institutions were announced globally with countries like Kenya organising special monthly funds to grant artists minimum wage, the UK announcing monetary provisions for disabled artists, and Malta, Mauritius and Hungary announcing early tax breaks and reliefs, a few exemplary policy decisions in a long list of innovative action for culture.

The COVID-19 situation has revealed structural problems and longstanding challenges. The report of the United Nations Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Farida Shaheed, has noted the impact of economic and social burdens on artistic freedoms and creativity. The deteriorating professional, social and economic state of artists directly raise concerns about the conditions of their dignity.

Human dignity can be understood as both a measure and aspiration of human rights. At its outset, the UDHR proclaims equal emphasis on the equality of the rights and the dignity of all human beings, raising entitlements to the realisation of cultural rights indispensable for the existence of dignity. There is no daylight between questions of preservation of dignity and matters of access to cultural life with its enabling conditions.

The constitutional purpose of Unesco harmoniously unites culture with universal peace, justice, fundamental freedoms and human rights. Unesco has delivered concrete instruments, conventions, recommendations and infrastructure dedicated to almost every aspect of cultural life and to that of cultural practitioners, thereby, to the normative development of human rights and human dignity. The 1980 Unesco Recommendation concerning the Status of the Artist is particularly notable as a framework for national adaptation. Its deliberations on social security, collective bargaining, legislative protection and an informed taxation system such as income averaging over several years, premised upon the due recognition of the peculiarity of cultural work and practice, are designed to not only safeguard against such cultural emergencies but mainly to improve the long-term welfare of artists. In South Asia, particularly in a country like India with a rich and diverse cultural landscape, there is an exigent need for such thinking to translate into actionable outcomes. India’s international agenda should feature a strong domestic cultural policy. The challenges of cultural policy development and the wide scope for cultural measurement in India should further be addressed with more rigour and a collaborative effort from both the government structures and civil society.

Culture and creative expressions are bound by enabling conditions. By locating the rights of cultural practitioners within the realm of human rights, a new impetus is given to the spirit of leaving no one behind. In the declaration of the United Nations Decade of Action, culture has been granted a pioneering role in the attainment of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, leaving no doubt that a timely call to rethinking cultural policy must be made, especially in the South Asian context.

This Human Rights Day is an opportunity to revisit the culture-centric approach to human rights, by first improving the conditions of the creators of culture, its practitioners and workers. The reinvigoration of culture, human rights and human dignity as fundamentally interconnected values, is imperative to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis and also the structural legacies it has unearthed. International obligations to culture should not be redolent of a glorious past of commitment to human rights, but rather be an active invocation to improve conditions for cultural and societal progress.

Han is programme specialist and chief, Culture Sector, Unesco New Delhi Cluster Office for Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka, and and Dewan is project officer, Culture Sector, Unesco New Delhi Cluster Office for Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka

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