22 Juin 2021

A Place for Libraries in Upholding Cultural Rights through the Protection of Cultural Heritage

At the request of the Human Rights Council, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights convened a workshop with the goal of taking steps towards developing tools for the “dissemination of an approach to the protection, restoration and preservation of cultural heritage that promotes universal respect for cultural rights by all”.

This workshop was held virtually on 14-15 June, and featured a collaboration between Ms. Karima Bennoune, the Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights and a spectrum of other stakeholders and civil society representatives.

Participants were encouraged to provide input on any issues which should be covered by such tools. IFLA attended to bolster recognition of libraries as defenders of cultural rights – including through their role in preserving and providing access to cultural heritage.

Cultural Rights

In 2009, the first Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights established a definition for Cultural Rights as being those rights that protect:

  • human creativity in all its diversity and the conditions for it to be exercised, developed and made accessible
  • the free choice, expression and development of identities
  • the rights to participate in the cultural life of their choice
  • the right to interact and exchange culture
  • the rights to enjoy and have access to the arts, to knowledge, including scientific knowledge, and to cultural heritage
  • the rights to participate in the interpretation, elaboration and development of cultural heritage [source]

Protecting the conditions required for the enjoyment of cultural rights plays a vital role in upholding universal human rights at large. Cultural rights have a critical role in forming identity, peacebuilding, combatting extremism, and creating resilient societies.

Taking a Rights-Based Approach

The agenda of the workshop explored how to mainstream a rights-based approach to the protection, restoration and preservation of cultural heritage. In a rights-based approach to cultural heritage, culture is an active experience for people – one that is about using, accessing, creating, and interpreting it to better their lives.  

Mainstreaming a rights-based approach to cultural heritage can be done through highlighting how cultural heritage is a fundamental resource for the fulfillment of other rights, including that to education, expression, religion, and economic possibility. It should be promoted as a tool to prevent conflict and build peace.

A rights-based approach fits libraries particularly well. As champions of access to information and freedom of expression, libraries have long acted as conduits between people and knowledge, connecting their users to information they can benefit and learn from, use, transmit, and preserve for the future.

To note - the Special Rapporteur has identified a key issue to be explored by the future mandate-holder to be the importance of public space as a forum for the enjoyment of cultural rights. Libraries can certainly play a central role in this facet of cultural rights enjoyment.

Libraries as Cultural Rights Defenders

Cultural Rights Defenders are defined by the Special Rapporteur as “human rights defenders who pursue the elimination of violations of cultural rights and promote respect for and protection and fulfilment of these rights” [source].

Supporting these individuals and groups who uphold cultural rights around the world is vital for the enjoyment of cultural rights for all.

Supporting cultural rights defenders in times of crisis is even more challenging. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, armed conflict, and natural disasters were all identified as exacerbating the need for governments to support cultural rights defenders.

IFLA submitted the following written statement to highlight the role of libraries as cultural rights defenders, and call for the consideration of featuring a cross-sectoral approach in the tools that are developed as an outcome of this workshop:

IFLA’s Statement

Libraries have a vital role in ensuring the right to participate in cultural life for their communities – preserving and providing access to cultural heritage, enabling access to diverse expressions of culture, and championing the right of access to education, information, and expression.  

Threats to cultural rights are complex and require a cross-sectoral approach, where memory institutions like libraries and other cultural actors work together, but also in coordination with government and other sectors.  

We welcome input on ways that we can reach beyond our sector to highlight the necessity of respect for cultural rights both in upholding human rights and as an enabler of sustainable development.

As a federation of library associations, institutions, and individuals, we are interested to work at the international level to find new possibilities and knowledge-sharing opportunities that can better equip our network working at the national level to advocate for greater support for their work as cultural rights defenders.

What can you do now?

  • Collections-holding libraries are invited to explore how preservation of and access to your collections can impact on human rights, and cultural rights in particular. How does your work help your users participate in the cultural life of their choosing? Highlight this, and embrace your role as cultural rights defenders.
  • All libraries are invited to explore how their collections and programmes might help people connect to the cultural heritage sites, expressions, and traditions in their region and beyond in a dynamic way. How do your collections and programmes help bolster other human rights, such as the right to education, information, and economic possibility?
  • Connect to Blue Shield National Committees in your country to ensure the representation of libraries and documentary heritage collections in national-level cultural property protection effortsLet us know!

Let us know! What tools or support do you need to further your work as cultural rights defenders? Email: claire.mcguire@ifla.org 

Access to information, Access to knowledge, Cultural heritage, Human rights, Peace

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