UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Day of General Discussion on article 15 (1a) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on the right to take part in cultural life
9 May 2008
Excerpted from an article in Intellectual Property Watch – 15 May 2008
Intellectual property rights came into play in a recent discussion on the right of all humans to take part in cultural life organised by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR). The right to take part in cultural life is an accepted fundamental human right, mentioned in several international legal instruments, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which in Article 15(1a), recognises the right of everyone to take part in cultural life. The CESCR implements the covenant.
Discussions at the event were organised around four main themes:
- Exploring the definition of cultural life in the context of human rights;
- Analysing the right to have access to and participate in cultural life;
- Identifying the linkages between cultural rights and the universality of human rights; and
- Assessing the individual and collective dimensions of the right to take part in cultural life.
The impact of copyright on access to culture was presented by Joost Smiers, professor emeritus at the Utrecht School of the Arts in the Netherlands. He created a stir in the audience when he said that two main factors were preventing people to take part in cultural life: The system of copyright and the domination of cultural markets. He advised that copyright be abolished and that big cultural conglomerates be “cut into many pieces.” A “no copyright” system would avoid heavy investments in production of books, music or movies and offer an open space for diversity for artists not in the mainstream as no corporations would have the market power to push an artist out of the public eye, he said. CESCR Chairperson Philippe Texier said that although a reform of IP rights might be necessary, he did not see how the whole system of copyright could be abolished.
Later in the discussion, according to a CESCR release, Dommen said it is essential for the committee to address threats to cultural rights, such as pejorative provisions in free trade agreements or biopiracy, the misappropriation of genetic resources and traditional knowledge, which are not fully protected by the IP system. In addition, she said, the way policies are made could affect the right to culture as, for instance, technological protection mechanisms used to control access to copyrighted material limit access to the digital content.