“Cultural Rights and WHR in Dominica: a Human Rights approach”

Martha Vanya David
Posted November 18, 2020 from Dominica

I am trying to understand how to apply a rights framework to our understanding of culture in my local context in Dominica, where we usually think of it as the performing and visual arts, although in certain other areas of life we say, “it is our culture”. I find some expressions of our culture problematic, but I have not been clear about how to object without infringing on people’s right to express their culture.  I also find the way women political candidates are treated problematic but many would say it is part of our political “culture.” The report of the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights on “Universality, cultural diversity and cultural rights” by  Kamina Bennoune (A/73/227)  nudges me to use the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, alongside legally binding human rights obligations from the treaties, as a framework to think about culture, but I am not fully clear on how to do this, so I am still processing my thoughts.

The report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights reminds us that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written “at a time of devastation and insecurity” (para. 4, p.25) and that “not a single country voted against” (para. 9, p. 26) it. The world is now passing through a similar time when the coronavirus COVID-19 has caused us not to know what the next day will bring and what changes we will have to make to our culture. Already we can’t shake hands, cannot hug, cannot sing or play together. We now enter a bank and other public place wearing a mask, whereas this practice was forbidden.  So it seems to me that as the world culture is changing. Human Rights standards are an important framework for protecting people’s rights to their culture. Let’s look at some of the definitions that help us understand the human rights framework for cultural rights, drawn from the report of the Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights: United Nations A/73/227 “Universality, cultural diversity and cultural rights” by Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights.



 Declaration: In UN usage a declaration is a statement of principle that is not binding on countries under international law therefore countries do not have to ratify and submit reports[1].

Reservation[2]: the power to accept a treaty but at the same time object to a specific provision and have no legal obligation to that provision.

Principle of Universality: according to the document, means “Universality means that human beings are endowed with equal human rights simply by virtue of being human, wherever they live and whoever they are, regardless of their status or any particular characteristics” (para. 2, p.4).

Cultural rights: are a subset of human rights and everyone has a right to partake of cultural life without discrimination (p.4).

Cultural diversity: relate to both the unique and many identities of groups and societies that make up humankind, and “is a source of exchange, innovation, and creativity” (p.5).

Highlights of the framework

  • Cultural diversity does not override universality. It cannot be used to limit the right of others. Hence, both human rights and cultural diversity are universal.
  • Promoting the fact that everyone has a human right to chose and change what culture s/he partakes in “is itself an important cultural project” (p.14) and governments have an obligation to ensure that this happens. However, it is a task for everyone – media, civil society, institutions, and others.
  • At the same time, culture cannot be used to create a set of “second-class humans” (p.15) so that different people have separate human rights that are determined by those who want to assume power over others.
  • CEDAW has the most reservations out of all the legally binding UN human rights treaties, and many of them are excuses, on the grounds of culture, to deny women their human rights. “Reserving the right to discriminate on the basis of claimed religious and cultural arguments when ratifying a treaty whose main goal is to prohibit discrimination is a clear violation of universality, as well as a nonsensical endeavor that should be without legal effect” (p.16)
  • We must promote the human right of everyone to participate freely in the cultural life of their group or nation “through scholarship, advocacy, policy, law, arts and culture” (p. 20).

The Special Rapporteur makes several recommendations (pages 21 – 23) to protect the universality of human rights and the human rights framework and reminds us that human rights are universal, indivisible, and interdependent so that we cannot separate them out into parcels, accepting some and rejecting others or deciding when to apply them and when to reject. For these reasons, it is important to make everyone aware of the human rights framework enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other UN treaties and to use it as the framework for making decisions nationally and individually.


This is a very informative analysis. I will read it and refer to it in my work to reduce violence against women and to promote CEDAW in all aspects of the work of DNCW.  You can find the original report here: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/CulturalRights/Pages/UniversalityDiversity.aspx


[1] https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/services/human-rights-glossary.html




Comments 3

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Nini Mappo
Nov 19
Nov 19

Hello Martha,
It is shocking and worrying how much culture has been used as an excuse to subjugate women, a blanket term that often has no reasonable explanation or origin, except to benefit patriarchal hierarchies.
I am glad to learn that the UN is providing valuable tools to navigate possible cultural discrimination based on gender and ensure that women have access to this vital resource.
Thank you for sharing, and a warm welcome to World Pulse.

Hello, Martha,

Welcome to World Pulse! I'm so happy that a new voice from Dominica is rising up!

You are right in your observation on how culture and human rights clash. That is a dilemma to solve and it may take another generation or generations to break this. Thank you for raising your voice on this issue. We love to know more about you.

Please keep wiriting. Welcome again to our growing sisterhood!

Tamarack Verrall
Nov 21
Nov 21

Hi Martha,
What is termed "culture" is described as "always having been this way", passed simply from generation to generation, with so much of the truth of our histories kept hidden from us. I depend on women herstorians like Max Dashu who has documented proof that woman hating and woman dominating aspects of "cultures" were not always this way, and still are not, especially within many Indigenous cultures. CEDAW has been making some progress, but the UN response is far too slow. We do not have another half century to be given promises. Thank you for bringing this out so we can follow it more closely.