Tuvalu cultural survival at risk from climate change, says UN human rights expert

GENEVA / FUNAFUTI (25 September 2019) – The UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, has ended a fact-finding visit to Tuvalu in the South Pacific with a call for the world to do more to head off climate change.

In the week of the UN Climate Action Summit, the Special Rapporteur urged the international community and governments around the world to urgently take the necessary steps to respond to the climate emergency and the existential threats posed to island nations like Tuvalu.

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“The very cultural survival of entire peoples may be at stake as never before, undermining all human rights, including cultural rights. As one Tuvaluan official asked me: ‘If we are not here any more, what will happen to our culture?’” Bennoune said, presenting a statement of her preliminary findings at the end of the visit.

“The voices of those most affected, and who have done the least to cause the harm, such as the voices of Tuvaluans, must be heard loud and clear at this week’s summit in New York.”

Bennoune said she was taken to a location in Funafuti where waves are for the first time reported to be rising onto the narrow land at high tide. “I will never forget the words of a woman who told me: ‘Tuvalu is drowning. Its shorelines are receding. The world needs to help Tuvalu.’”

The human rights commitment of the new Government should begin with speedy ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and full implementation of existing human rights obligations, the expert said.

“Such steps are essential for a country that has been a global leader in the fight against climate change, which is the most significant threat to human rights in the world today,” Bennoune said. “Tuvalu can only consolidate that leadership role by fully embracing the human rights framework which is an essential tool in the fight against climate change.

The Special Rapporteur said it was an honour to visit a country where culture is considered so important that it is a pillar of the constitution, and homage is paid to it regularly in official documents and discourse.

“It is tume for the resources devoted to culture to match the rhetoric about it. The Department of Culture cannot complete its work with only one staff member, and no resources for programming,” she said.

“I strongly support the proposed project of building a national museum and library and call for the creation of further cultural spaces and cultural programming, in particular for young people, which may also assist in combating social problems such as excessive drinking.

“It is also vital that all Tuvaluans, including women and people with disabilities, have equal rights to participate in cultural life. I welcome steps made toward further inclusion, such as the Family Protection and Domestic Violence Act, and the possibility of the appointment of female pastors. However, much more must be done to achieve the full cultural participation of women.”

This was the first mission to Tuvalu by a UN Special Rapporteur since 2012. Bennoune welcomed the engagement of the Government of Tuvalu with the UN system and called for this to continue and accelerate.

The Special Rapporteur will present a comprehensive report and recommendations to a future session of the UN Human Rights Council.

Ms Karima Bennoune (Algeria/USA) was appointed as Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights by the United Nations Human Rights Council in October 2015. Ms Bennoune grew up in Algeria and the United States. She is Professor of Law and Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall Research Scholar at the University of California-Davis School of Law where she teaches courses on human rights and international law. Her research and writing, including on cultural rights issues, has been widely published in leading journals and periodicals. Her mandate covers all countries and has most recently been renewed by Human Rights Council resolution 37/12.  

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights country page — Tuvalu