Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


An introduction to The Transforming Power of Cultural Rights

Helle Porsdam

Among the core cultural rights, outlined in the International Bill of Human Rights, are the rights to education, to participate in cultural life, to benefit from science and its products, and author’s rights. These rights promote cultural and scientific creativity. They also enable the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, thereby working as atrocity prevention tools. As I argue in The Transforming Power of Cultural Rights, this gives cultural rights a very central role to play in building up cultural capacities and in promoting the full human personality. This should make them of interest not only to the human rights community, but also to scholars working within law and humanities. In a globalized world where people are increasingly thrown together, willingly or not, and where many problems demand global solutions, the discourse of cultural rights gives us a respectful tool with which to negotiate identity and interests which may more or less openly clash. At present, human rights discourse is one of the few global ethical references we have. Critics have demonstrated a number of problems with this discourse, and it most certainly is not a panacea for all things wrong or unjust. Nevertheless, the fact that critics and enthusiasts from the most varied of backgrounds are able to exchange viewpoints in the common languages of cultures and rights is itself a powerful demonstration of its potential as a medium of values, beliefs, and philosophies.

What sorts of issues are we talking about? The topics on which the two Special Rapporteurs in the field of cultural rights have written their reports until now provide a fine illustration of both the depth and the breadth of these rights: The impact of fundamentalism and extremism on the enjoyment of cultural rights; intentional destruction of cultural heritage; intellectual property regimes; the impact of advertising and marketing practices on the enjoyment of cultural rights; history and memory; the right to artistic freedom; cultural rights of women; the right to benefit from scientific progress and its applications; and access to cultural heritage.

The Special Rapporteurs’ reports on these topics have been important sources for my work, and I have quoted from and used them in my discussions throughout my new book. To help illustrate and clarify the at times somewhat theoretical nature of the arguments involved, I also rely on a number of literary texts: Malala Yousafzai’s work and biography; Orhan Pamuk’s 2009 novel The Museum of Innocence and his 2012 book The Innocence of Objects; Pernille Rørth’s lab-lit work, Raw Data: A Novel on Life in Science (2016); and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s two short pieces of non-fiction, We Should All Be Feminists (2014) and Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions (2017).

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