On 29 June 2012, the 20th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council convened a panel to discuss the promotion and protection of human rights in a multicultural context, including through combating xenophobia, discrimination and intolerance. The panel aimed to provide an informative exchange of views and experiences on multiculturalism and how to accommodate diverse cultures at both the national and international level.
Globalization and migration are increasingly driving States toward ethnic and cultural diversification. Unfortunately, this phenomenon continues to give rise to xenophobic and discriminatory feelings and practices in populations around the world. Numerous international instruments, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Racial Discrimination, have been created to promote indiscriminatory access to basic human rights for all human beings, regardless of cultural heritage. The UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity particularly recognizes the value of diverse cultural heritages and addresses the challenge of ensuring harmonious interaction among people and groups with plural, varied and dynamic cultural identities, as well as a willingness to live together.
Despite the high number of conventions and declarations on the topic, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance and discrimination continue to plague most regions of the world. This persistence, said Hisham Badr, Permanent Representative of Egypt to the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG) and Moderator of the panel discussion, signaled a very serious problem that the panel must seek to address.
Has multiculturalism failed?
The introductory panel statements touched on a number of sensitive subjects. Particularly, panel member Gurharpal Singh, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, pointed out that “public policies which recognized cultural diversity regularly contested accepted conventions of nationhood, community and identity, thus giving rise to xenophobia, racism and intolerance.” Dean Singh added that effective multiculturalism required States not only to tolerate minority cultures, but to provide them with positive affirmation and recognition. Nevertheless, governments need to be aware of and combat discourses that promote xenophobia, ethnic, cultural or religious hatred. “To give a general protection to religious traditions so as to place them beyond criticism, reasonable or otherwise, would seem to be unduly restrictive,” said Singh. Mona Zulficar, member and Vice Chair of the Human Rights Council’s Advisory Committee, added that cultural and religious diversity should not be invoked as an excuse to derogate from or violate universal human rights.
A majority of the panel members agreed that the concept of multiculturalism is somewhat misunderstood in political discourse, especially when declared a failure by several Heads of State. Doudou Diène, Independent Expert on the situation in Côte d’Ivoire and former UN Special Rapporteur, declared that, “multiculturalism could not be a failure, for it is a fact of life.” Diversity is not a value, but a natural state. Mario Marazziti, journalist and member of the International Board of the Community of Saint Egidio, suggested that incentives are needed against the creation of parallel societies, such as the use of language that reflects reality instead of political correctness. Furthermore, Mr. Badr questioned whether a society needs to define an enemy in order to create an identity.
During the interactive discussion that followed, Member State delegations expressed their concerns on the matter and requested advice and best practices examples from the panel members. All national and regional group representatives that took the floor echoed the sentiments of the panel, advocating for a holistic approach to promote multiculturalism and diversity. The delegation from Senegal denounced racism and the victimization of migrants; while Uruguay stated that education was the most powerful tool for combating discrimination. Iran called on European States to observe their obligations and take measures to protect ethnic and religious minorities. Chile asked the panel about recommended steps to take towards respecting human rights and cultural diversity.
Several representatives of civil society also shared their concerns during the session. The group North-South XXI criticized the United Nations for refusing to hand out copies of the Durban Declaration during the Rio+20 Conference, and Tchad Agir Pour l’Environnement (TCHAPE) pointed out massive violations against black Libyans and foreigners. Finally, UN Watch took the floor to express deep concerns about the Human Rights Council turning the concept of human rights on its head. Based on statements made by certain Member States, UN Watch worried that the Council was just promoting a concept, instead of shielding individuals from persecution and that it was using cultural diversity to turn a blind eye to human rights issues.
In the concluding remarks, Mr. Diène asked countries to include in their constitution a reference to cultural and religious pluralism as fundamental values. He urged countries to encourage and facilitate inter-cultural dialogue and to implement policies against inciting hatred on any group.
© Jean-Marc Ferré