Intersessional Workshop on Cultural Rights and the Protection of Cultural Heritage Link to heading

On 1 December 2023 the UN Office of the High Comissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) convened a one-day Intersessional Workshop on Cultural Rights and the Protection of Cultural Heritage, as requested by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in resolution 49/7.

The UNHRC and OHCHR regularly convene workshops to better study human rights issues and clarify questions of international law. This was the third intersessional workshop on cultural rights and the protection of cultural heritage. The first was held in 2017 and the second in 2021.

I am grateful to the United Nations for their kind invitation to speak at the event, as well as for their significant efforts in organizing the workshop. The hybrid format was well-executed and attracted a diverse and interesting range of speakers from all around the world.

Opening Remarks of UN Special Rapporteur Xanthaki Link to heading

During her opening statement the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Professor Alexandra Xanthaki, raised a number of important points that deserve attention. In particular:

  • The international community often focuses too much on cultural heritage per se, instead of on individuals, communities and their right to participate in cultural life
  • What do we mean by “cultural heritage”? Most States focus on tangible cultural heritage and push aside living heritage and natural heritage; where there are such initiatives, they are not framed in such terms
  • Cultural rights are for humans, not for States
  • Cultural rights are granted to all inhabitants, not just citizens
  • There is not just one cultural heritage, but many cultural heritages (the plural is important!)
  • Who represents cultural heritage? Even among minorities, indigenous peoples and non-State communities the louder voices attempt to dominate the discourse; we need an effective right to participation for all
  • Women are often called the “carers of culture”, but are pushed aside when cultural heritage is defined and managed
  • The folklorization of indigenous peoples and minorities is a problem; in particular, what are the effects of tourism on their cultures?
  • The World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), the UN Development Program (UNDP) and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) have not even begun a cultural rights discussion
  • The redress for violations of cultural heritage has not been addressed much

Remarks by the Head of the Cultural Mission of Timbuktu (Mali) Link to heading

The entire meeting is worth re-watching, but one other contribution I would like to highlight was the testimony provided by Mr. El-Boukhari Ben Essayouti, the Head of the Cultural Mission of Timbuktu, Mali.

Mr. Ben Essayouti provided first-hand insights on the time when Timbuktu was held by Islamists and much of the destruction of mosques and mausolea occurred that was later the subject of the criminal proceedings against Ahmed Al Faqi Al Mahdi before the International Criminal Court (ICC). In 2016 Al Mahdi was found guilty of directing attacks against nine mausolea and one mosque in Timbuktu during the 2012 occupation.

I think the experiences of Mr. Ben Essayouti are best listened to directly. I’ll post the link to the recording as soon as it is available. His written statement is already online.

My Statement during the Workshop Link to heading

Later, during the discussion part of Panel II, the Chair of the meeting kindly granted me the floor to intervene on behalf of RASHID International, an international NGO in special consultative status with the United Nations since 2019. I raised two points that deserve the attention of the international community:

The statement reflects intense work carried out by the international non-profit organization RASHID International over the years in the field of cultural heritage and cultural rights. The full statement is reproduced below.

PANEL II: Cultural Heritage in Crisis and Work of Cultural Rights Defenders (15.00–17.00 CET)

Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

my name is Seán Fobbe and I serve as the Chief Legal Officer of RASHID International, an international non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the cultural heritage of Iraq. We have been in consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations since 2019.

A core recommendation to protect cultural heritage during crisis is the advance preparation of inventories. We urge all actors to think beyond standard procedures such as written descriptions, drawings and photographs by also considering more advanced technology. Our own work in Iraq, led by Professor Roger Matthews, has focused on applying invisible chemical tracer liquids with encoded signatures to inorganic artefacts, such as stone, metal, glass and clay. This security technology was applied to more than half a million artefacts in five Iraqi museums, permanently protecting them from theft as it clearly documents provenance and allows recovery and prosecution decades down the line. Furthermore, it is impervious to forgery of provenance, as well as loss of records at the relevant site.

Legal measures are another important part of the mosaic of international heritage protection. We are concerned that the List of Cultural Property under Enhanced Protection remains almost unused. The List was created under the 1999 Second Protocol to the 1954 Hague Convention in order to protect heritage of the greatest importance for humanity. It currently lists only 18 sites under full Enhanced Protection and 20 sites under provisional Enhanced Protection. Compare this to the approximately 1,200 sites on the World Heritage List. We urge the international community to not let this instrument fall by the wayside and to ensure that more sites are given Enhanced Protection.

Thank you.