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States Must Prevent COVID-19 Cultural Catastrophe: UN Expert

GENEVA (3 March 2021) – A UN expert today warned that COVID-19 may lead to a global “cultural catastrophe” with severe, long-lasting consequences for human rights if urgent measures, such as establishing a global cultural fund, are not implemented.

Karima Bennoune, UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, said in a report to the Human Rights Council that culture sectors have been among those hit hardest by the pandemic crisis.

“The cultural rights commitments of states under international law require them to take action so as to avoid catastrophe but also to lead to cultural renewal as an essential component of any efforts to build back better,” Bennoune said.

Arts workers and cultural practitioners are among those most affected by pandemic-related unemployment crises worldwide. An entire generation of young artists may be forced to turn elsewhere for jobs, diminishing cultural life for years to come, the expert said.

“This is not the time for cuts in culture funding but for increases,” the Special Rapporteur said. “Culture and arts funding should be integrated into all COVID-19 relief and stimulus packages, with the specific nature of cultural and artistic work accounted for. Additionally, adequate, direct support for cultural workers is critical now, including full consideration of vulnerable sectors such as young artists. The creation of a global culture fund to save the cultural life of humanity should be considered.”

Bennoune said the pandemic has had a grave impact on women’s participation in cultural life and urged that responses to the current crisis must fully consider the cultural rights of women.

The expert also expressed concern that some governments had exploited emergency powers to censor and criminalise artists with dissenting views. “I call for all those imprisoned for their artistic or cultural work to be immediately released, such as Ahmed Kabir Kishore, a Bangladeshi cartoonist, and Nigerian singer Yahaya Sharif Aminu.”

The Special Rapporteur cautioned that as important as digital cultural life may have become during the pandemic, it is a complement, not an alternative, to a shared public cultural life in physical public spaces. States must commit to the full renaissance of such a public cultural life. when that becomes safe again.

“Future generations must not lose the opportunity to go to the cinema, to the theatre or to browse in a bookshop. If they do, the pandemic will have not only killed and impoverished millions but have also destroyed some of the best tools we have for imagining a better future,” Bennoune said.


The expert: Ms. Karima Bennoune was appointed as Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights by the United Nations Human Rights Council in October 2015. Ms Bennoune, grew up in Algeria and the United States. She is Professor of Law and Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall Research Scholar at the University of California-Davis School of Law where she teaches courses on human rights and international law. Her research and writing, including on cultural rights issues, has been widely published in leading journals and periodicals. Her mandate covers all countries and has been renewed by Human Rights Council resolution 37/12.

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