Protecting and promoting cultural rights

"Artistic expression is not a luxury, it is a necessity – a defining element of our humanity and a fundamental human right enabling everyone to develop and express their humanity". (Farida Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights (2013))

As highlighted in the Norwegian Government’s political platform and the white paper The Power of Culture – Cultural Policy for the Future (Meld. St. 8 (2018-2019)), art and other forms of cultural expression have the power to build societies.

Cultural activities and civil society are crucial for the development of societies and for ensuring an enlightened public debate. Art and culture are an integral part of any democratic and free society. A vibrant, diverse cultural sector is dependent on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and human creativity. It is important that cultural activities are varied and relevant to all segments of society.

For all these reasons, it is vital to ensure the freedom to create and enjoy art and other forms of cultural expression.

Cultural rights under pressure

Cultural rights and artistic freedom of expression are under pressure. People are being denied the right to take part in cultural activities for political reasons, or on grounds of religion or tradition. The work of artists is being censored and artists are being persecuted. Women are particularly vulnerable.

Norway’s priorities

Fostering robust, independent cultural sectors in developing countries is a key objective of the Government’s development policy. Promoting cultural rights and protecting cultural heritage, including world heritage, are key priorities. These efforts are an integral part of Norway’s global engagement to promote human rights, including freedom of expression.

The normative framework

Cultural rights are enshrined in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that ‘everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits’. These rights are clarified and reinforced in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which deals with freedom of expression, is also relevant in this context. Unesco’s six conventions on culture, under which Norway has obligations as a state party, also form part of the normative framework.

1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage
2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage
2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions
1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict
1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property
2001  Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage

Unesco's 2005 Convention

The Unesco Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions is particularly important as regards the responsibility of governments to create favourable conditions for art and culture, safeguard artistic freedom, promote artists’ opportunities to develop, and facilitate their access to markets. Unesco’s focus on artistic freedom was given a significant boost in 2016, when the Norwegian-born film director and human rights defender Deeyah Khan was appointed Unesco’s first Goodwill Ambassador for artistic freedom and creativity.

According to Unesco, artistic freedom means that everyone has:

  • the right to participate in cultural life
  • the right to create without censorship or intimidation
  • the right to have artistic work supported, distributed, remunerated
  • the right to freedom of movement
  • the right to freedom of assembly
  • the right to freedom of association
  • the right to protection of social and economic rights


International reports draw attention to the increased use of counter-terrorism legislation as grounds for imprisoning artists, including in Europe. Artists are a vulnerable group, because they may not know their rights or where they can turn for legal assistance. It is often difficult to find reliable documentation of these violations, because artists are often under the radar of human rights organisations. Efforts to increase awareness of the right of artists to protection is therefore an important aspect of Norway’s human rights work. These efforts should seek to increase awareness among both artists and the authorities in the countries concerned.

"Fundamentalism and extremism are human rights issues. It is critical to focus not only on the security implication thereof, but also on their impact on a broad range of rights, including cultural rights, and to take a human rights approach to addressing them. Full implementation of human rights norms is a critical tool for combating fundamentalism and extremism, as well as a limitation on how this can be done."

Karima Bennoune, UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights

Displaced people are particularly vulnerable. Large groups of people have been forced to flee their homes due to protracted conflicts or natural disasters, and are living in temporary shelters or camps, under extremely difficult conditions. Refugees are cut off from the culture and traditions of their home community, working life, and religion.


  • support for international and national civil society organisations that work to promote artistic freedom of expression;
  • support for the protection of artists who have fled their homes, for example through the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) and SafeMUSE;
  • support for organisations and groups that are working to improve conditions for artists and cultural workers by providing training at all levels;
  • support for Unesco’s work to strengthen artistic freedom; and
  • support for the mandate of UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights through the OHCHR Secretariat in Geneva.

The significance of cultural heritage

Both tangible and intangible cultural heritage form part of the individual and collective memories that are passed down from generation to generation. We often say that we understand the present through the recorded past, including material from archives, museums and libraries. The collective memory of a social group also includes skills that are learned from earlier generations, such as handicrafts, songs and dances, food traditions and rituals, and all the other things we call our intangible cultural heritage. Cultural heritage is an important component of people’s sense of identity and belonging. It forms part of the basis for social and political development. Access to history and cultural heritage is a democratic right, as set out in the white paper The Power of Culture – Cultural Policy for the Future (Meld. St. 8 (2018-2019)).

World heritage

The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which was adopted in 1972, is generally considered to be Unesco’s flagship. In order for a landmark or area to be designated a world heritage site, it must represent something unique or exceptional in terms of the cultural or natural environment that can teach us about the history of the earth or humanity. The Unesco World Heritage Convention, which has 193 states parties, is one of the most widely endorsed global conservation instruments. Unesco’s World Heritage Committee, of which Norway is a member for the period 2017-2021, is responsible for both the World Heritage List and the World Heritage Fund. During its term, Norway is giving priority to Africa’s world heritage. African cultural and natural heritage is underrepresented on the World Heritage List. It is also vulnerable, due to development pressures and a lack of adequate human and financial resources for its management.

Illicit trade

In times of war and conflict, cultural heritage may be deliberately attacked and destroyed. Irreplaceable cultural objects are traded illicitly, often with the help of criminal networks involved in the illegal drugs trade or human trafficking.  

Norway’s priorities:

  • support the work of the Unesco World Heritage Centre to strengthen and protect Africa’s cultural and natural heritage, with particular emphasis on natural heritage;
  • support the work of the African World Heritage Fund to protect and strengthen world heritage in Africa;
  • support protection and emergency response measures when cultural and natural heritage is being threatened or destroyed;
  • channel this support through the secretariat of Unesco’s Heritage Emergency Fund, which has an international network of experts that can be deployed together with humanitarian aid in the event of natural disasters or situations of war or conflict;
  • support the intangible cultural heritage of Asia;
  • support the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in its work to raise awareness about and provide training in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property.

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