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Cultural rights, human rights, extremism, and listening: An interview with Karima Bennoune

Karima Bennoune was appointed the United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights in 2015. She reports on the protection of cultural rights, including the right to freedom of artistic expression. She is a professor of law at the University of California-Davis School of Law where she teaches courses on human rights and international law. For more than two decades she has worked on a wide range of human rights issues, and her research and writings on cultural rights have been widely published. Her 2013 book Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism, updated in 2014, tells the stories of people of Muslim heritage who challenge extremism, based on more than 300 interviews with people in 30 countries.

Sara Whyatt interviewed Ms. Bennoune for IFEX.

Still from video of Karime Bennoune's presentation at TEDxExeter, 2014
Still from video of Karime Bennoune's presentation at TEDxExeter, 2014

Karime Bennoune

SW: You have spoken and written about how your family's experience of repression in Algeria inspired you to work on human rights

KB: There are periods of your life that mark you forever, that change your trajectory and shape your world view. For me it is the periods in my life that I spent in Algeria, which was my father's home country. We moved there in the late 1970s, towards the end of the socialist period, and living there gave me a sense of being part of a very young country - Algeria having been independent for only 15 years. Then I spent a period of time going back and forth during the 1990s, a time of extreme fundamentalist violence that Algerians call the "dark decade." Armed groups seeking to take power, including the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a precursor to today's so-called Islamic State, were attacking the society, attacking culture and attacking intellectuals.

This had an impact on my family because my father, Mahfoud Bennoune, was a university professor, outspokenly critical of fundamentalism and determined to defend the country that he and others had helped to build. He was part of the independence movement and had spent 4.5 years as a prisoner of war held by the French military during the 1954-1962 Algerian War of Independence. So, in the 1990s he was committed to saving this young country that so many Algerians had sacrificed for. What marked me the most was seeing up close what it is like when someone who faces extreme pressure and threats, whose colleagues and friends are being assassinated by fundamentalist armed groups, still refuses to be silenced. My father just would not stop speaking out, even when sometimes we might have liked him to, as his family. He just wouldn't.

What did you find when you returned to Algeria?

A lot of my work has been about going back and trying to understand the work that Algerians did then - activists, intellectuals, artists, ordinary people - resisting fundamentalism at a time when the world offered them very little sympathy or support. I went back to do research and to read what journalists inside the country had been writing at that time. I found many extraordinary things. One example is the newspapers that were written in the ruins of Press House in Algiers the day after it had been the target of a 1996 truck bomb that killed 18 people and wounded 58, among them journalists. The journalists had still regrouped and gotten their newspapers out the next day. I found an amazing piece that was written by an Algerian woman journalist that day - her name is Ghania Oukazi. She asked: "Pen against Kalashnikov. Is there a more unequal struggle?". Then she answered her own question, saying "What is certain is that the pen will not stop".

What lessons can we learn from those days?

An important aspect of this is about listening. We need to listen to people with direct experience and give them the floor. What I find amazing is that while all these discussions about extremism go on, nobody seems too interested in hearing what the commentators, experts and ordinary people who have been living on the frontlines of fundamentalist violence think or in reading what they have been writing. There are concrete things that can be done like providing asylum for people at risk, funding for civil society initiatives on the ground where they can make a big difference. I say support initiatives across the spectrum, from the symbolic to the very concrete.

I am grateful to organisations like UNESCO that condemned the 1990s fundamentalist attacks on intellectuals in Algeria - what has been called an "intellectocide" in statements and communiqués, which raised morale at least. But not enough organizations did so, and the international human rights movement in particular failed Algerians at that time.

What we have to do is to break out of this vicious circle, because what really keeps me up at night is the idea that we are going to be leaving young people with a world in which all they seem to have is the bleak choice of competing extremisms.

There are some who say that condemnation of fundamentalist extremism and calls for it to be curtailed curtail freedom of expression. What is your response?

There are two different parts of your questions. On the one hand, is condemnation of these actions good? Absolutely, yes. In my latest report to the Human Rights Council on fundamentalism, extremism and cultural rights, I speak about the importance of systematically condemning fundamentalist and extremist attacks on inter alia cultural rights and challenging fundamentalist and extremist ideology as among the absolutely essential things that need to be done. But I also talk about how important it is that one form of fundamentalism or extremism is no justification for another. In fact what we are seeing is a terrible phenomenon, what has been called "reciprocal radicalisation" where one extremist group - let's say the National Front in France - uses the existence and rhetoric of another - say Islamic State- to try to justify its own campaign against immigrants and so on. This is completely unacceptable. What we have to do is to break out of this vicious circle, because what really keeps me up at night is the idea that we are going to be leaving young people with a world in which all they seem to have is the bleak choice of competing extremisms. Human rights are about making sure that other, better alternatives are available.

What does a Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights do?

Rapporteurs produce thematic reports every year for the UN on issues within our mandates, as we interpret them, in my case one to the General Assembly in New York and one to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. The first year my focus was on the intentional destruction of cultural heritage, and this year it is on the impact on cultural rights of diverse forms of fundamentalism and extremism, on which I delivered a report to the Human Rights Council in the spring. I will present another report to the General Assembly in the fall focusing on fundamentalism, extremism and the cultural rights of women, in particular. I am looking at the impact on cultural rights of fundamentalism and extremism across the board, including far right extremism in the west, and Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim fundamentalism, as well as Christian fundamentalism which is among the most politically powerful fundamentalisms. There are also a lot of other themes I would like to explore in the future.

Fundamentalism and extremism are clearly major concerns for you. Are there other areas which you see as affecting artistic freedom?

Artistic freedom is a key concern and I have been following up on the recommendations made in the 2013 report on freedom of artistic expression by my predecessor Fareeda Shahid. I've been very concerned that in some of the cases I have taken up and communicated with governments about, the individuals in question continue to languish in jail or otherwise be at risk. One such case is of the Rajabian brothers in Iran, artists who ran the Barg music production house. I am especially concerned that one of them is in poor health. There is a slogan used to campaign on their case: #ArtIsNotaCrime. These men are in jail simply for the crime of art and that is entirely unacceptable. They must be released immediately.

How have states responded to the report you delivered to the UN Human Rights Council earlier this year?

I was actually shocked at the positive response to my report! I had expected to be raked over the coals because it names countries where there are concerns with regard to fundamentalism, extremism and cultural rights, including countries like India, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United States. With regard to the latter, I talked about the threats to educational institutions and minorities following the election last fall. The report was completed in December, so I could not include things that happened after that. I talk about some of the violence and rhetoric in the UK post-Brexit, to the extent that some people said they were afraid to speak their native languages - Polish in particular - in public. Notably, the one state that openly challenged the report was Russia, which said that extremism has nothing to do with cultural rights. This is ironic because in fact fundamentalism and extremism are among the biggest obstacles - even if only one of many obstacles - that we are seeing right now around the world to the advance of cultural rights.

One of the statements I found most moving was from Libya, in light of the role of fundamentalism in that country at the moment. It is being ripped apart, while almost no-one appears to be paying attention internationally. What I was really struck by was their call for accountability, accountability for those who engage in fundamentalist and extremist abuses of human rights. In my reply, I strongly agreed with this call and also demanded accountability for those - including other governments elsewhere -which are funding the movements that are carrying out these crimes.

What are your thoughts about bringing artists' rights into the sphere of human rights?

The right to the "freedom indispensable for creative activity" is clearly guaranteed by international human rights law. There are some very real challenges we face in building networks between those of us working on human rights, including on freedom of artistic expression, and diverse artists, in making the UN known as a relevant space for artists and in developing a popular understanding about cultural rights. We need to use culture in defence of cultural rights. When delivering my first report, I surprised people by reading part of a poem on the floor of the Human Rights Council. My dream is to try to organise a concert in New York during the General Assembly around my next report on fundamentalism and extremism and the cultural rights of women. But, of course that depends on funding and visas! I took part in a session at the UN Commission on the Status of Women in March, with women poets from Africa, and talked about how it is a way of exercising human rights to be a poet and how important that is. One of the poets said to me "I've never heard anyone say that." It is a question of bringing these discourses together, bringing human rights people together with artists. Finding a language through which we can speak and understand each other is critically important.

At this point, would publish: "Home page(home_page)"

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