On the 14th of April We held a one day workshop entitled Cultural Rights in Critical Perspective: a Socio-cultural Conundrum at the British Institute in East Africa (BIEA). Nairobi. We invited a wide range of stakeholders and had approximately 40 attendees. The day was divided into three different discussion panels on human rights, land rights and devolution. The panel was chaired by Lotte Hughes and included Esther Njenga, Celia Nyamweru, Faith Alubbe and Agnes Pareyio. The panellists all spoke briefly to allow as much time as possible for discussion, we hope to continue those discussions here. Please read the panel summary below and feel free to comment whether you attended the workshop or not.
Where do cultural rights end and human rights begin?
The premise of this panel discussion was the potential for conflict between constitutional ‘cultural rights’ and outlawed harmful cultural practices which can constitute an abuse of human rights. Examples of the latter include FGM, forced early marriage, and discrimination against women in land and other inheritance disputes. Speakers suggested that the two sets of rights can co-exist in some spaces, but there is a need for more education so people can ‘be moved towards an understanding of the difference between “good” culture and “bad” culture’. Human rights advocates said they were proponents of cultural rights ‘so long as they are not retrogressive or repugnant’, pointing out that some harmful practices did not simply constitute HR abuses against individuals but harmed the community itself. It was best, they said, to appeal to the change makers in communities, when trying to change attitudes and practices. It was agreed we need to challenge the view of culture as static; it is in fact dynamic and constantly being remade. Several speakers spoke to FGM, one to Maasai women’s rights, while an anthropologist discussed the positive aspects of ethno-biology and cosmology, suggesting certain cultural rights can be drawn on to enhance environmental management at community level. One audience member lamented, ‘we have killed all our spiritual guides so we have lost our wonderful indigenous system of knowledge’. But others challenged the idea that elders are custodians of culture, claiming this notion can ‘entrench a particularly narrow view of culture’ and involve discrimination. The influence of elders – good or bad?