Culture as an Activity and Human Right: An Important Advance for Indigenous Peoples and International Law

Alternatives 33:7-28 (2008)
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Historically, culture has been treated as an object in international documents. One consequence of this is that cultural rights in international law have been understood as rights of access and consumption. Recently, an alternative conception of culture, and of what cultural rights protect, has emerged from international documents treating indigenous peoples. Within these documents culture is treated as an activity rather than a good. This activity is ascribed to peoples as well as persons, and protecting the capacity of both peoples and persons to engage in culture is taken to be as basic a component of human dignity as are freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and freedom from torture. It is not an accident that this treatment of culture has emerged from international documents treating indigenous peoples. However, the value of this treatment of culture extends beyond the human rights of indigenous peoples. Treating culture as an activity establishes an understanding of what cultural rights protect that clarifies the relationship between cultural rights and other mechanisms for protecting minorities and frames the role of cultural communities in the realization of human dignity as an important physical and political issue, not just a psychological one. For these reasons, the norms regarding cultural rights that are emerging from international documents treating indigenous peoples are a much-needed step forward for peoples' rights more generally.

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Cindy Holder
University of Victoria


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