April 5, 2021 - Professor Karima Bennoune of the University of California, Davis, School of Law joined the 2021 University of Houston Law Center Spring Workshop Series, “Race, Social Change, and the Law,” for an engaging discussion about threatened cultural rights in the time of climate change during a virtual presentation last week.
Bennoune began her presentation by showing a video made by a 16-year-old boy from the Maldives speaking about the devastating effects of the rising sea levels, as well as his opposition to forced migration. She then followed with a presentation based on a report she wrote in her role as United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, which details international legal frameworks related to climate change, culture, and cultural rights. She said cultural rights are often overlooked, even in the context of human rights.
“Climate change is a human rights issue,” she said. “Cultural rights are human rights and they guarantee everyone the right to take part in cultural life.”
Bennoune emphasized several points regarding the issue of threatened cultural rights, including the scale of the climate emergency threat and how most human rights are going to be affected. She said we may lose centuries of cultural achievement and many people will be forced to move from their homelands.
“The status quo is unsustainable,” she said. “We’re already seeing the effects of cultural rights being threatened.”
Bennoune said adequate analysis and documentation, as well as prompt response to damage, are crucial to combating climate change. She also said it’s important to remember the scope of those whose lives are affected.
“The impacts hit certain people and places disproportionately,” she said. “For example, indigenous peoples, people in small island developing states and the arctic are affected more, as well as women and those with disabilities.” Hence, she called for an approach grounded in climate culture justice.
During the question-and-answer period, Bennoune addressed topics like the impact of climate change on women’s rights, the right to science, and climate denial.
“We need to build capacity for follow-up, but this depends on people at the national level, such as the national media and courts,” she said. “If we are going to save ourselves and our cultures, we are going to have to have difficult discussions.”
To combat the devastating consequences of climate change on cultural rights, Bennoune said we have to have international cooperation and funding as well as adopt a human rights-based global action plan. On a positive note, she said cultural heritage and the arts are powerful allies and can help mobilize people in the fight against climate change.
“We have to remember that those most affected by climate change have done the least to contribute to it,” she said. “Cultural heritage should be recognized as a climate asset. Culture allows us to reimagine the world.”
Bennoune is a human rights lawyer, a Homer G. Angelo and Ann Berryhill Endowed Chair, and a Martin Luther King Jr. professor of law. She has taught courses in international law, international protection of human rights, terrorism and international law, women’s human rights, and more. She has published work in numerous prestigious academic journals, such as the American Journal of International Law, the Berkeley Journal of International Law, the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, the European Journal of International Law, and the Michigan Journal of International Law. She is a graduate of Brown University and the University of Michigan Law School, and in 2015, she was named the United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights.