Human Rights Defender on cultural heritage and human rights



Lucas Lixinski


As I write these lines, another news alert pops into my screen about attacks on museums in the conflict in Syria between the Islamic State and the Syrian government. As those institutions are attacked, some of its artefacts are destroyed, and many are sold in the black market to finance the conflict. In the process, the Syrian people, and to some extent all of us, lose a little something. We lose some of our identity, some of what makes us human.

This issue of the Human Rights Defender engages with the role of cultural heritage with respect to human rights. Cultural heritage here is different from culture. In many respects, it is culture condensed, crystallized in certain objects, places and practices. It is those little specs around which we can gather as a group of people who shares something. It is in many cases that something.

From museums to storytelling, from community groups to large temples, cultural heritage is a vast domain. The stories in this issue give us a glimpse of how cultural heritage relate to human rights, for good or bad.

On the good side, this issue features an interview with Dave Johnston, one of Australia’s foremost Aboriginal Archaeologists, about what heritage means for the rights of First Peoples. Likewise, Amy Strecker tells us about the experience of Indigenous groups in the Caribbean who used heritage as a means to claim their citizenship and be included in the national census.

Alessandro Chechi talks about the restitution of heritage items, and how things taken away a long time ago in the name of science or empire leave a gaping hole, that can be partially refilled by returning those objects. Those things include masks, paintings, and even skeletons. Imagine how you would feel if the skeletons of your ancestors were dug up in order to have you studied?

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is a big part of what the connection between cultural heritage and human rights promotes. Moya McFadzean tells us of how powerful it is to get to know the other in their own terms by telling us of the stories and heritage of the many peoples who have come to Australia.

The knowledge of others, though, can often be compromised by quick glimpses at what we think their culture is. And cultural heritage can help explain someone else’s culture, and even promote resistance and change against adversity. Janet Blake reminds us of those possibilities, by looking at how cultural heritage can help promote the rights of women in Middle Eastern societies.

Adversity is an important part of our shared human experience, as long as we learn lessons from it. And sometimes what cultural heritage does is precisely to allow us not to forget the past, and the lessons we can learn from it. Madeleine Grey’s review of the recent movie Woman in Gold discusses how the return of art taken during World War II can serve as a reminder of the horrors of that war and of Holocaust. And Roslyn Russel’s piece on the Memory of the World Program and the use of archival heritage explores those perspectives, and how cultural heritage can help us not go through the same trouble in the future.

But cultural heritage can sometimes be a part of the problem, too. Laura Kraak tells us a story of how protecting Buddhist temples as cultural heritage can actually prevent people from practicing their own religion in their own terms, at least in Myanmar.

Finally, a centrefold to this issue brings these many strings together, asking “how can heritage help human rights causes?” But another equally important question is: how can we help heritage help human rights causes? Hopefully the pages that follow will help us figure out some answers.

This issue would not have been possible without the support of the Australian National Commission for UNESCO, whose generous support helped us print this issue, which is partly the result of conversations in a workshop co-organised by myself and Professor Andrea Durbach, AHRCentre Director. To the Australian National Commission, our sincere thanks for believing in this idea, and allowing us to start and continue a conversation on this pressing topic.


As always, enjoy the read!

Access this issue online.