Climate the Leading Global Threat to Cultural Rights, Special Rapporteur Tells Third Committee, as Delegates Tackle Root Causes of Entrenched Bias, Exclusion
Independent Expert Denounces False Claims against Persons with Albinism as ‘Carriers of Coronavirus’
Governments must ensure that people facing discrimination are included in dialogues and decisions affecting their lives, experts told the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today, as delegates discussed cultural rights, as well as the human rights of persons with disabilities and albinism.
Even during the COVID‑19 pandemic, the climate emergency is the leading global threat to cultural rights, said Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur on that topic. Centuries of human cultural achievement, including heritage sites, practices and entire ways of life, are at risk of being damaged or “simply wiped out” in many cases. “This reality has not been adequately acknowledged in current climate change initiatives,” she said, adding that it must be recognized as a matter of international legal obligation and addressed as a priority.
In the Maldives, for example, a centuries-old cemetery — said to contain the graves of those involved in bringing Islam to the island — lies less than 100 metres from the ocean, she said. Locals fear that rising seas will ravage the site within the next decade. She underscored the importance of climate justice, given that those most affected by climate change and who have often done the least to contribute to it have fewer resources to protect their cultures from its impact. “We cannot be passive observers of cultural extinction,” she stressed.
When the floor opened for comments and questions, an animated dialogue ensued, with the representative of the Russian Federation expressing surprise at the “alarmist tone” of the report as well as its “exotic” choice of topic, given the long list of more “pressing matters” affecting peoples’ cultural rights. The United States’ delegate, meanwhile, responded by upbraiding China for its repressive actions in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
Responding to their comments, the Special Rapporteur said characterization of the topic as exotic was “profoundly offensive”, when unprecedented warming is taking place in Siberia, and some small island States might disappear in the coming decades. She expressed disappointment that the United States’ representative had “not even one or two words” to say about climate change, as one of the world’s leading emitters of greenhouse gases. She hoped to see “some leadership” from both countries, which are permanent members of the Security Council, as the climate emergency and the mass migrations it spurs on will be issues they grapple with over the decades.
Meanwhile, Ikponwosa Ero, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism, expressed concern about persistent attitudinal barriers, including myths and erroneous beliefs, faced by persons with albinism. Such challenges lead to a lack of inclusion in the making of decisions and policies that affect them, despite their constituting a “hypervisible minority”. She expressed concern that persons with albinism have been falsely labelled “carriers of the coronavirus”, leading them to be banished from villages in Ghana, India and Kenya, and barred from accessing sanitation facilities in the United Republic of Tanzania and Zimbabwe.
Earlier in the day, Danlami Basharu, Chair of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, said people who have disabilities are among the hardest hit by COVID‑19, largely due to preexisting circumstances of structural discrimination and exclusion, which increase their vulnerability. Noting that the pandemic has highlighted the risks to those in institutions, he said that the subjection of persons with disabilities to institutionalization constitutes discrimination and is incompatible with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Also presenting his report today was Gerard Quinn, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities.
The Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Friday, 23 October, to continue its discussion on the promotion and protection of human rights.
Interactive Dialogues — Persons with Disabilities
The Committee began the day with interactive dialogues featuring presentations by: Danlami Basharu, Chair of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; and Gerard Quinn, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities.
Mr. BASHARU said persons with disabilities are among the hardest hit by COVID‑19, largely due to pre‑existing circumstances of structural discrimination and exclusion, which increase their vulnerability. Noting that the pandemic has highlighted the risks to those in institutions, he said that the subjection of persons with disabilities to institutionalization constitutes discrimination on the basis of disability and is incompatible with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. He touched on work done by the Committee during the pandemic, including a noteworthy case that called for the transformation of the education system to make it inclusive of children with disabilities, and making public its inquiry report into alleged grave or systematic violations by the State party concerned of the rights of persons with disabilities to equal recognition before the law. Turning to the draft General Comment on the right to work and employment for persons with disabilities, he said that with support from the International Labour Organization (ILO), he will ensure efforts taken to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 8 (sustainable work, economic growth), Target 8.5, are guided by the Convention. He also expressed concern about the “grim” financial situation at the United Nations and the consequent protection gap this would cause for many rights holders. He called on Member States to strengthen the treaty bodies and enable them to fulfil their mandates.
In the ensuing dialogue, several delegates shared their respective countries’ efforts to strengthen the rights of persons with disabilities and asked about measures they can take to bolster their protections, particularly in the context of the pandemic.
The representative of the United States outlined measures taken through the Steering Committee on Accessibility at the United Nations, which is working to ensure accessibility and improving the employment of persons with disabilities at the Organization. “Increasing the employment of persons with disabilities at high levels will strengthen our efforts to create a more inclusive world,” she said, before asking how persons with disabilities can be better included in the United Nations response to COVID‑19.
The representative of Afghanistan said he looked forward to the Global Disability Summit in Oslo in 2021 and asked about best practices for promoting the rights of persons with disabilities in peace processes and agreements.
Several delegates outlined measures taken to strengthen accessibility and inclusion, with the representative of the Republic of Korea outlining policy plans that were devised in consultation with persons with disabilities, while the representative of Algeria touched on efforts taken to improve access to education and the labour market. As many as half a million Algerians benefit from a monthly subsidy programme provided to low-income families sponsoring one or more persons with disabilities, he said.
In a similar vein, the representative of Hungary said that her country is committed to support the right of persons with disabilities to live independently and to be included in the community by strengthening social services based on dignity and individual needs. It also protects Hungarian sign language as an integral part of its culture. Noting that the report mentions the challenge of accessing online platforms, she asked what role the Committee could play in ensuring that accessibility requirements are incorporated into technologies.
Meanwhile, an observer from the European Union said the pandemic has a disproportionate impact on more than 1 billion persons with disabilities. The bloc is working to scale up its commitment to guarantee equal access to information, transport and communication tools, in line with the principles of the Convention. He asked how protective measures can be strengthened for persons with disabilities in lockdown situations, and for examples of best practices to fight exclusion in crisis situations.
Mr. BASHARU, responding briefly, said countries can provide free data to enable persons with disabilities to carry out virtual meetings. There must be more consultation with persons with disabilities before deciding to adopt policies. It is important to enhance their employment at the United Nations, and for States to consult with persons with disabilities when devising strategies to tackle the pandemic. He commended Algeria and the Republic of Korea for their efforts to enhance education, employment and inclusion for persons with disabilities. In response to the observer from the European Union, he said article 11 of the Convention touches on measures to strengthen the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk. The Committee is working with the United Nations to ensure its platforms are more accessible. “Persons with visual impairments like myself depend on personal assistants to access Interprefy, the platform currently used by the United Nations,” he said.
Also speaking in the discussion were representatives of Morocco, Colombia, Mexico, and the United Kingdom.
Mr. QUINN, presenting his report (document A/75/186) on disability-inclusive international cooperation, underscored the need for the voice of persons with disabilities to be included in the collective response to COVID‑19. The pandemic is having a severe impact on the rights and inclusion of persons with disabilities, who themselves are among those most affected by the virus. “In some countries, evidence suggest that the majority of COVID‑19 deaths have been [among] persons with disabilities,” he said, especially the elderly. Many find themselves in situations of heightened risk, including in segregated institutions. Many have been disadvantaged by Government responses to the pandemic, cut off from support and services, or dropped out of school or lost their jobs. Some have become homeless and millions risk falling into poverty or extreme poverty. He drew attention to the long-term mental health impact of COVID‑19, calling for multilateral action and disability-inclusive international cooperation, with human rights at the centre of all response efforts. Disability-inclusive international cooperation involves the meaningful participation of persons with disabilities in decision-making, he clarified, pressing States to consider adopting targets for disability-specific funding and guidelines on inclusive budgeting.
When the floor opened for questions and comments, delegates echoed concerns that COVID‑19 is deepening pre-existing inequalities, with an observer for the European Union noting that before the outbreak, many persons with disabilities were already in vulnerable situations, owing to intersecting forms of discrimination and oppression. He asked the Special Rapporteur to identify key elements for ensuring the meaningful participation of persons with disabilities in implementing and monitoring interventions.
In a similar vein, the representative of Hungary drew attention to the importance of multi-stakeholder cooperation in delivering support to persons with disabilities, noting that capacity-building for local authorities and civil society is essential for sparking a long-term impact. She asked the Special Rapporteur about the prerequisites for international cooperation frameworks to foster capacity-building in the field.
The representative of the United Kingdom said her country is committed to increasing international cooperation with organizations that support persons with disabilities. She pointed to the National Strategy for Disabled People, which considers the impact of the pandemic and ensures the views of persons with disabilities are heard. Stressing the need to evaluate disability-inclusive programmes using data disaggregated by disability, she asked the Special Rapporteur to specify ways in which States can be encouraged to do so.
The representative of Philippines said persons with disabilities are at a higher risk of contracting COVID‑19, developing severe complications or dying from it. All local chief executives in the Philippines are required to prioritize persons with disabilities in food distribution and transportation services, he said, asking about best practices in terms of evidence-based programmes that ensure a disability-inclusive COVID‑19 response.
The representative of the Republic of Korea said her country is striving to strengthen disability inclusion, as manifested in the fifth Comprehensive Policy Plan for Persons with Disabilities (2018‑2022). The Government is holding press briefings on the national COVID‑19 situation with sign language interpretation twice a day.
The representative of New Zealand asked the Special Rapporteur about best practices for engaging with civil society and ensuring their meaningful participation in the design of international cooperation programming. She further asked about the best approach for addressing the intersecting forms of discrimination.
The representative of Guatemala underscored her country’s commitment to promoting human rights of persons with disabilities and ensuring their full inclusion in society.
Mr. QUINN, responding, expressed his intention to integrate the disability perspective into collective challenges, such as armed conflict, climate change, peace processes and COVID‑19. While COVID‑19 has revealed deep structural inequalities, it is also giving rise to new phenomena, such as pandemic-triggered homelessness, and he underscored the importance of building resilience for future crises. He drew attention to the 2019 Security Council resolution on the protection of civilians with disabilities during armed conflict — a topic that interests him deeply and personally. “It is time that we work on closer alignment with international humanitarian law, not just in terms of our treatment of refugees who result from conflicts, not just our immediate humanitarian response from conflict, but the actual conduct of the conflicts themselves,” he stressed. Noting that there are at least 16 conflicts ongoing in the world, he expressed deep concern over their impact on persons with disabilities and reiterated his intention to maintain the conversation on this issue, both in the mandate and the Security Council.
Also speaking were representatives of Spain, Korea, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Qatar, Poland, United States, Georgia, Finland, Ireland, Algeria, Malta, Bangladesh, China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
In the afternoon, the Committee continued its interactive dialogues on the broad theme of human rights, which featured presentations by: Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights; and Ikponwosa Ero, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism.
Ms. BENNOUNE said that even during the COVID‑19 pandemic, the climate emergency is the leading global threat to cultural rights. These freedoms could be simply wiped out in many cases, and “we may lose centuries of human cultural achievement,” she said, a reality that has not been sufficiently acknowledged in climate change initiatives. It is a matter of international legal obligation to do so. She called for a complete mapping of cultural rights damage and the development of strategies for responding to it. She described her mission to the Maldives, where she visited a centuries‑old cemetery containing the graves of those involved in bringing Islam to the country. “That cemetery is less than 100 metres from the ocean,” she said. “Sea level is rising,” and “locals fear the site will be gone in 10 years.” While the climate emergency threatens all human cultures, the impact hits specific peoples and places disproportionately, notably small island developing States, the Sahel and the Arctic. “Climate change-induced destruction of cultural heritage has particularly significant effects on indigenous peoples, for whom connections to land and ecosystems play such an important role,” she said, urging States to commit to climate culture justice. “We cannot be passive observers of cultural extinction,” she stressed. International cooperation and funding are needed, and so is local empowerment. In the battle against climate change, cultural rights and cultural resources are powerful allies, as “culture allows us to reimagine the world.”
In the ensuing dialogue, the Russian Federation’s representative expressed his surprise over the alarmist tone of the report and questioned why the Special Rapporteur had chosen such an “exotic topic”. The Russian Federation does not question the importance of climate matters; rather, it believes they should be discussed in the relevant multilateral forum. He urged the Special Rapporteur to focus on the suppression of the cultural rights of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine and the Baltic countries.
Several delegates discussed aspects of cultural rights unrelated to climate change, with the representative of the United States expressing concern over the repression of the Tibetan community and restrictions on their cultural identity. This manifestation of repression is part of a campaign by China to repress minority groups. She asked the Special Rapporteur for an assessment of the alleged arbitrary detention or disappearances of human rights defenders in Tibet. China’s delegate retorted that her country strongly opposes these groundless accusations, adding that China’s constitution states that all ethnic groups have the rights and freedom to develop and use their own languages. China pays attention to the development of traditional culture in Tibet, she assured.
Several other delegates stressed the importance of preserving cultural heritage in the face of climate change, with an observer for the European Union noting that both tangible and non-tangible elements of cultures are at risk of extinction due to climate change. The rights of climate change protesters and activists, as well as cultural rights defenders, must be protected at all costs in the name of freedom of expression. He asked the Special Rapporteur for her views on digitizing culture and cultural exchange, particularly given the technology gap among societies around the globe. The representative of Greece, associating himself with the European Union, asked about the type of accountability measures that would be most effective if cultural heritage is destroyed as the result of a natural disaster.
Also speaking were representatives of Cuba and Algeria.
Ms. BENNOUNE, replying to the Russian Federation’s delegate, said she finds it “profoundly offensive to refer to climate change as an exotic topic”. Rather, it is an “existential threat to humanity,” she emphasized, noting that the world is experiencing an unprecedented level of warming, including in Siberia. “We are facing the reality that some small island nations may disappear in the coming decades, losing their culture and identity,” she said, urging the permanent Security Council members to uphold their obligation to lead on these issues. “We may face wiping out entire ways of life,” she stressed. More broadly, she drew attention to positive examples in Cuba, and the traditional knowledge involved in the use of pile dwellings during floods.
She described cultural rights and sustainable development as “two sides of the same coin”, pointing to the codification of the right to a healthy environment in national laws as a best practice, along with bringing together policymakers in the fields of culture and the environment and viewing climate change through a human rights perspective. It is also important to take a gender-based approach, as culture can sometimes be an obstacle for women. For example, women in some places do not learn to swim, and therefore are more at risk during natural disasters. Women must be involved in all discussions about climate policies.
She went on to express disappointment over the failure of the United States delegate “to say a single word about climate change”, stressing that “as one of the leading emitters in the world, you could have said a word about the single largest threat to cultural rights we are facing today.” She objected to climate denial and called for leadership. If the COVID‑19 pandemic has taught anything, it should have taught that waiting to respond to risk until it has fully manifested is a very dangerous — sometimes deadly — approach, she said.
Persons with Albinism
Ms. ERO described persons with albinism as an “underrepresented group”, meaning that they are not often at the table where decisions impacting them are made. While racism and racial discrimination are at the forefront of human rights debates, these issues are often confined to dialogues in the United States and Europe — and rarely addressed in Asia, Africa and South America, where persons with albinism face racial discrimination on a daily basis. Among the reasons why persons with albinism are underrepresented is due to their numbers: they are a minority quantitatively speaking. This fact is juxtaposed with the hypervisibility of albinism. “Everyone knows where I live,” Ms. Ero said, citing one of her interlocutors. This contrast is a hallmark of their unique situation. In addition, persons with albinism are underrepresented due to culturally instituted myths and erroneous beliefs, often so strong that they become a structural barrier to participation. “They also lead to normalized stigmatization and extreme forms of discrimination, including attacks, ritual killings, abandonment and trafficking,” she stressed, crimes that have been reported in the hundreds. Persons with albinism often have a visual impairment, leading to intersecting discrimination — based on colour and disability — with cases that have been reported in Africa, as well as in India, Pakistan, Japan, Turkey, Brazil, Mexico and Colombia. During the pandemic, they have been stigmatized as “carriers of the coronavirus,” banished from villages in India, Ghana and Kenya, and prevented from using sanitation stations in the United Republic of Tanzania and Zimbabwe. She called for action plans with time-bound measures to protect persons with albinism, as well as specific budgets to ensure their implementation by multiple Government agencies and civil society representatives.
In the ensuing dialogue, several delegates highlighted the additional challenges faced by people with albinism during the COVID‑19 pandemic. The representative of Ghana said COVID‑19‑related discrimination against people with albinism is accorded the highest attention in her country. The President held consultations with persons living with disabilities to discuss how best to address the impact of the pandemic on their lives. The Independent Expert’s allegation about discrimination and the pandemic is “news” to the Government of Ghana and will require investigation. An observer for the European Union, meanwhile, asked the Independent Expert about the effects of the pandemic on persons with albinism and what can be done to address them.
Delegates also presented examples of efforts by their countries to counter discrimination against persons with albinism, with Namibia’s representative noting that despite much work, there is still a lack of visual aids in education for children with albinism. She asked the Independent Expert for advice on dealing with challenges related to education, work and data collection. The representative of Brazil recalled that the Independent Expert recently visited his country and that the Government is taking steps to address issues raised during the visit. The representative of Malawi cited cases of violence against persons with albinism in his country, with two reported cases in 2020 alone. The Government has adopted a national action plan to address the problem. Current challenges include a lack of support to victims and their families, as well as the involvement of close family members in conniving with perpetrators. The representative of Israel asked about how national action plans can pave the way forward for people with albinism.