- International human rights and cultural diversity: a balancing act
- Romanian Journal of Comparative Law
- Volume | Issue number
- 2013 | 2
- Pages (from-to)
- Document type
- Faculty of Law (FdR)
- Amsterdam Center for International Law (ACIL)
It is broadly agreed that international human rights law and cultural diversity have a mutually interdependent and beneficial relationship. Many human rights, such as the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, as well as the rights to take part in cultural life and to education, play a direct role in the promotion and protection of cultural diversity. At the same time, the enjoyment of human rights is promoted by a pluralistic society. The manner in which this relationship works out in practice is, however, often subject of heated debates at national and international level. These debates often center on religious issues. For
instance, portraying of the prophet Mohammed in a film and in cartoons and the violent protests by Muslims stirred up the discussion on the possible conflict between freedom of expression and freedom of religion. Another example is the debate on the (proposed) ban on wearing facial coverage in several Western European States, which was preceded by similar discussions on the wearing of religious symbols, such as headscarves, turbans and kippas in public schools. In Germany passionate debates took place on male circumcision after a German Court ruled that this religious practice amounted to bodily harm. Cultural diversity is of course broader than religion and its relationship and interaction with human rights may raise many other hot topics. These include the use of a minority language in court, education in minority languages, the recognition of non‐formal marriage and divorce rituals and land rights for indigenous communities in relation to economic development. The reason debates on these issues are often heated and polarized is because they concern expressions of the culture, identity and dignity of individuals and communities. One of the main challenges in the analysis of the relationship and interaction between cultural diversity and human rights is formed by the dynamic and complex notion underlying cultural diversity: the concept of ‘culture’. Apart from the abundance of definitions of ‘culture’, it is a concept with a dynamic and changeable character, being not only a product but also a process. While culture is generally considered to be important to human beings and to communities, at the same time it is not an abstract or neutral concept and it may be a mechanism for exclusion and control. Some harmful aspects of culture are reflected in cultural practices that are very questionable from a human rights perspective. The broadness, complexity and sensitivity of cultural diversity is a serious challenge in the integration of this concept into human rights law. At the same time, international human rights law cannot provide a final solution to all issues related to cultural diversity.
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