UN Special Rapporteur urges separation of religion and state

The UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, told the Human Rights Council in Geneva: “We face a global avalanche of hate in the form of rising fundamentalism and extremism around the world. This must be tackled with urgency, using a human rights approach. Culture and cultural rights are critical components of this response”.

The Special Rapporteur is deeply concerned at the normalization of fundamentalist and extremist ideology and rhetoric in many political, cultural and media contexts, in diverse forms and in all regions of the world, and the increasing embrace they find in mainstream political parties and candidates.

In her report to the UN Human Rights Council, the expert highlights how diverse fundamentalist and extremist ideologies have in common a mindset based on intolerance of differences and pluralism, and all attempt to stamp out cultural diversity and dissent.

She gives examples of cultural engineering aimed at redesigning culture based on monolithic world views, focused on “purity” and enmity toward “the other”; these include the policing of “honour” and “modesty”, claims of cultural and moral superiority and the imposition of what is hailed as “true religion” or “authentic culture”.

“These ideologies abuse cultural rights by stifling freedom of artistic expression and curtailing scientific freedom,” she said. “They impose ways of life, including through pressuring educational institutions, personnel and students, targeting minorities, promoting discrimination that infringes on the right to take part in cultural life, erasing symbols of coexistence, and undermining the universality of human rights”, she added.

“Universality is one of the most important tools in the struggle against the harmful effects of fundamentalism and extremism on cultural rights, and must be resolutely defended,” Ms. Bennoune said.

Emphasizing that the threat from fundamentalist and extremist ideologies was far-ranging, she said extremists also aimed to limit the enjoyment of women’s human rights, and restrict the sexual and reproductive rights of all.

Artists and intellectuals are often targeted, she said, both because creativity and expression are seen as a threat by fundamentalists and extremists and also because they often resist and offer alternatives.

The Special Rapporteur stressed that cultural rights are a critical counterweight to fundamentalism and extremism and called for more to be done to guarantee the conditions for all to fully enjoy them. “The arts, education, science and culture are among the best ways to fight fundamentalism and extremism and to prevent or stop the human rights violations to which they give rise. They are not luxuries, but critical for promoting inclusion, making space for peaceful contestation and protecting youth from radicalization,” Ms. Bennoune emphasized.

In her report, Ms. Bennoune called for policies to combat discrimination in the right to take part in cultural life or promote freedom of artistic expression, scientific freedom and education as core aspects of combating fundamentalism and extremism. She also called for policies to promote and protect the separation of religion and State, and ensure that those at risk from fundamentalist and extremist abuse, including as a result of exercising their cultural rights, were not returned to any contexts where they will be at risk of xenophobic attack. “It is a tragic spectacle to witness victims of one form of extremism becoming victims of another when they seek safe haven”.

“In particular,” she said, “we must listen to the local opponents of fundamentalism and extremism – civil society, human rights defenders, including women human rights defenders, educators and people who simply wish to participate in cultural life in their own way -, who have been resisting extremists in some cases for decades. They must be granted the necessary protection against the threat fundamentalist and extremist movements represent and should be included in strategic discussions at all relevant levels”.

In the report, the Special Rapporteur points to cases from all regions where fundamentalist and extremist ideology has motivated abuses of cultural rights by state and non-state actors; she condemns attacks on freedom of artistic expression in Russia, Saudi Arabia, India and Iran, and on intellectuals in Bangladesh. She is also concerned about extremists interfering with the right to take part in cultural life without discrimination such as post-election violence and threats in the United States, sometimes targeting educational and cultural institutions. She highlighted violence against minorities and their cultural sites whether recurring in parts of Europe, or widespread as in Myanmar, and possibly rising even to the level of genocide at the hands of “hyper-extremists” such as Daesh.

Ms. Bennoune said diverse forms of fundamentalism and extremism, though sometimes viewed as opponents, often actually reinforce each other. “One form of fundamentalism or extremism is not a justification for another. Each is a reinforcing reminder of the global humanist crisis that lies before us. We must break out of this vicious circle that will leave youth globally facing a political landscape offering only a bleak choice of competing extremisms”.

The Special Rapporteur called for effective, concerted global action to combat fundamentalism and extremism, and stressed that this must be done in accordance with international standards and not misused as a justification for violations of human rights. She said: “Whereas it is important to clearly condemn and act against violent forms of extremism, we must also tackle fundamentalist and extremist ideologies as these provide the basis for violence and violations. Extremist actors will not be truly disarmed unless their ideology is comprehensively challenged and repudiated,” she emphasized.