The world honours Human Rights Day every year on December 10 to commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. In its remembrance also lies the recognition of the fundamental contribution of the UDHR, the codification of the inalienability and universality of human rights. However, the idea and concept of what constitutes human rights has evolved significantly since.
Culture as an exercise, expression and source of community identity, often contested and always contextual, is one such value intrinsic to human rights. The right to participate in the cultural life of the community found sanctuary in the UDHR, while the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966 gave it a political expression, linking the freedom of individuals very closely to their practise of cultural development. The socio-political transformation of the late 20th century further accentuated the need for a value-based approach to human rights and cultural co-operation became the focus of several international instruments. The common heritage of mankind, culture, was to be protected and promoted through the democratisation of its expression and actualisation of its means, as envisioned in the 1976 Unesco Recommendation on Participation by the People at Large in Cultural Life and their Contribution to It. However, access to cultural participation and the instability of conditions enabling it, remains a debate that requires frequent revisiting, especially on this Human Rights Day.
The COVID-19 situation has revealed structural problems and longstanding challenges. The report of the United Nations Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Farida Shaheed, has noted the impact of economic and social burdens on artistic freedoms and creativity. The deteriorating professional, social and economic state of artists directly raise concerns about the conditions of their dignity.
Human dignity can be understood as both a measure and aspiration of human rights. At its outset, the UDHR proclaims equal emphasis on the equality of the rights and the dignity of all human beings, raising entitlements to the realisation of cultural rights indispensable for the existence of dignity. There is no daylight between questions of preservation of dignity and matters of access to cultural life with its enabling conditions.