One of the things I’ve been discussing with singers here at Ulster Youth Choir (UYC) is the concept of cultural rights. Based on my experiences in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, I'm intrigued by the idea that communities have a legal right to express culture. This may entail a form of protection for art, poetry, music, philosophy, language, songs. This would mean that citizens are entitled to practise these aspects of their native culture without fear of repression – so long as they do not contradict human rights law.
Last month, I attended the NUIG International Summer School on the Arts and Human Rights and I was interviewed for the promo video (have a watch below!). Amongst a distinguished crowd, in attendance was Farida Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of Cultural Rights. That was a fascinating weekend and it left me pondering a lot of questions. One of them was: what are cultural rights?
At the moment, I define culture simply as “the way we live”. Culture is expressed when we walk the streets and in how we relate to each other in our own homes. It determines how we spend our weekends. It determines what time we sit down for meals and it affects the age at which we are considered fully ‘grown up’. Culture dictates what is an acceptable way to treat another person. This varies between countries, between cities. It even varies between families!
I believe that we directly affect our culture and, as individuals, we collectively constitute our own culture. If you choose to smile at someone, you just might influence their mood. If your workplace decides to recycle, you are making an impact on your local environment. If you spend money in fast food franchises, you are perpetuating a culture of unhealthy and convenient eating. Likewise, if you and people in your community decide to act together towards a shared goal, you are creating your own culture. You are contributing to your own local memories and traditions.
Art both reflects and influences culture. As art evolves, so too does culture. New songs are written and some of those new songs become classics over time. New composers emerge and new styles break through. Culture is far from static – it lives and grows. If we realise this and consciously see ourselves in the context of our own community, each with a participative role, we can take responsibility for our own actions and commit to a meaningful and productive sense of belonging.
You have to ask yourself what type of society you want. Do you want an individualist, competitive economy? Do you want a communal, equal world? Do you want a fair meritocracy? Do you want a world of diversity and shared experiences? Do you seek an anarchist existence whereby people self-regulate and self-govern? Do you want to be as powerful and wealthy as possible, knowing that everyone else might want the same thing? Do you want a utopia of peace and harmony?
Whatever the answer, its creation boils down to simple acts. For example, supporting local trade; taking pride in clean streets; caring for a shared garden; running your own farm; contributing to community initiatives of all sorts; facilitating experiences for young musicians, etc.
Of course, culture can be created on a small scale. It can start in your home. It can spread to the street you live on. Or maybe your village. Even a workplace can have its own culture. You impact the community you associate with, and you’d be surprised how many people you can influence over the period of a week.
My point is that you can create your own culture from within. The way I see it, culture is not necessarily something that affects you from outside. Bearing all this in mind, another question presents itself. Would the legal protection of cultures around the world function effectively as a long-term method of conflict resolution or peacekeeping?
I think it could work as a way of addressing cultural conflicts, providing a judicial forum in which to mediate cultural clashes. In conflicting societies, art is an important outlet for opinions that might not be tolerated in the mainstream. It’s a creative and expressive form of communication. This is often essential in situations of cultural conflict. To take an example very familiar to me, Northern Ireland is the site of an ongoing cultural conflict. This is played out in the media and, thankfully, is largely non-violent. It manifests in Stormont and in the Parades Commission and in Belfast City Hall. It erupts at urban sectarian interfaces in Belfast and a few other locations across Northern Ireland.
The problem with many political entities, including Northern Ireland, is that the system is tied to nationalistic governance. Post-conflict societies where violence has mainly been abandoned invariably tend to expose the inadequacies of Nationalism. In Northern Ireland, political parties exist as one of three persuasions: Nationalist, Unionist or Other. Where power is divided along these stark lines, it’s no surprise that citizens are pitted against each other and we're left with a tense and uneasy democracy, battling against threats to our perceived identity.
The language of cultural rights was included in the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, one of the outcomes of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement 1998. In the 17 years since, no action has been taken by authorities to implement the Bill of Rights as legally binding. If cultural rights were legally binding, the “particularities” of Northern Ireland’s circumstances would produce jurisprudence on issues such as symbols and flags, parades and commemorations, and the issue of language. These are each very divisive topics in Stormont today, and the current consociational power-sharing government is ill-equipped to address the conflicts arising out of the status quo. With a legalistic approach to cultural rights, new ways may be discovered to mediate conflicts between opposing nationalisms (in this case, British and Irish).
I've seen how cultural expression can strengthen community identity. Singing songs that bring people together (rather than ones which promote political or social superiority) is a beautiful way to express oneself. We should promote positive and communal aspects of local culture. This does not require that we sacrifice uncommon ideas, but it does mean working hard to perpetuate useful and non-divisive elements of culture. In a democracy, this is imperative.
Perhaps disassociating with nationalism and promoting localism is an appropriate way to start doing this. It requires that you live according to your convictions rather than compromising your values in favour of the status quo. Start at community level. Ask yourself (your family, your friends) what type of society you want to live in. Then make it together. Your actions will inevitably affect your community and its culture, and it will change; very slowly, probably imperceptibly. And, most likely, things won’t end up how you thought. Perhaps, over a period of time - a generation or two - you’ll actually have created something close to the society you wanted. It’s up to you.