Everyone has the right to the enjoyment of his or her culture in conditions of equality, human dignity, and non-discrimination. Our cultural rights are related to both material and non-material aspects of life such as our type of housing and the people we share it with; the food we grow or eat, and how we grow or eat it; the rituals and religion we identify with; and the property holding patterns we consider just. Culture is expressed through our relationships with parents, children, relatives, friends and strangers as well as with other cultures and with the physical world around us. Consciously or unconsciously, culture is one of the primary sources of every human being’s self-definition and sense of group belonging. As a result, challenges to culture generate strong, emotionally charged, survival responses.
This fact sharpens a long-standing dilemma: How can universal human rights exist in a culturally diverse world? As the international community becomes increasingly integrated, how can cultural diversity and integrity be respected?
Human Rights and Cultural Relativism
Cultural relativism is the assertion that human values, far from being universal, vary a great deal according to different cultural perspectives. Accordingly some claim that human rights are relative rather than universal, to be interpreted and applied differently within different cultural, ethnic, and religious traditions.
Traditional culture is not a substitute for human rights; it is a cultural context in which human rights must be established, integrated, promoted and protected. Human rights must be approached in a way that is meaningful and relevant in diverse cultural contexts. Furthermore, cultural rights are not unlimited. They are qualified when they infringe on other human rights, meaning that cultural rights cannot be invoked or interpreted in such a way as to justify any act leading to the denial or violation of other human rights and fundamental freedoms. The denial or abuse of human rights is wrong, regardless of the violator’s culture.
Human rights “represents a broader consensus on human dignity than does any single culture or tradition.” As the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948) proclaims, human rights are a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”
Cultural Rights as Collective Rights
Cultural rights are often considered collective rights, especially regarding religious and ethnic minorities and indigenous societies that are in danger of disappearing. Unlike individual rights, collective rights pertain to groups of people in order to protect some shared group interests such as the lands and cultures of indigenous peoples.
Indivisibility and Interdependence
Because culture affects all aspects of human life, cultural rights illustrate the indivisibility and interdependence of all rights more comprehensively than any other rights. While cultural rights are often an inextricable part of other rights, they are often in conflict with other human rights. For example, everyone has the right to education, but education is never value-free: state-sponsored education is designed to convey content and values important to the state. However, that content and those values may be at variance with those of a minority culture. Similarly, when seeking to further the culture of one group, education may explicitly or implicitly promote the superiority of one ethnic or racial group over another.
Traditional culture is not a substitute for human rights; it is a cultural context in which human rights must be established, integrated, promoted, and protected. Human rights must be approached in a way that is meaningful and relevant in diverse cultural contexts.
Cultural Rights in the Human Rights Framework
Direct references to cultural rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948) are rather narrow. Article 27.1 says:
Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (IESCR, 1966) is not much more expansive.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1989) not only guarantees the child the right to “enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practice his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language“ (Article 30) but also that education should foster – “respect for … his or her own cultural identity, language and values.”(Article 29(c)).
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948)
- International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (IESCR, 1966)
- Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1989)
 Charles Norchi, “Human Rights and Social Issues,” in A Global Agenda: Issues before the 48th General Assembly (University Press of America, 1993), p. 213-311.