Cultural destruction in Ukraine by Russian forces will reverberate for years, UN rights expert warns
The attempted destruction of Ukraine’s historic culture by invading Russian forces, will have a devastating impact on the pace of recovery in the post-war era, an independent UN human rights expert warned on Wednesday. “As in other conflicts, we currently witness the unfolding of suffering in Ukraine that does not seem to end and we cannot stop,” said Alexandra Xanthaki, Special Rapporteur on cultural rights.
“The questioning and denial of the Ukrainian identity and history as a justification for war, is a violation of the Ukrainians’ right to self-determination and their cultural rights.
“Self-identification is the paramount expression of these rights and all discussions, by States and in social media, should respect this.”
She said that the considerable loss of cultural heritage already, and destruction of cultural artefacts, was worrying for the identity of both Ukrainians and minorities within the country, and would impact the return to a peaceful multicultural society after the end of the war.
Museums under fire
Ms. Xanthaki expressed her concern at damage inflicted by Russian forces on city centres, cultural sites and monuments and museums, housing important collections.
“These are all part of the identity of people in Ukraine; their loss will have a lasting effect,” the expert said. She shared UN cultural agency UNESCO’s concern that there is an existential threat to Ukraine’s entire cultural life.
The expert said the cultural rights of all individuals – Ukrainians, Russians and other members of minorities living within Ukraine, the Russian Federation, and elsewhere – must be fully respected and protected.
“As the battles rage on, we are not completely powerless,” she said. “Beyond recalling that the rules of international humanitarian and human rights law should be scrupulously applied by all parties to the conflict, we must ensure that culture helps us maintain our dignity and is not used as a means to pursue and fuel the war.
“We often do not measure how devastating violations of cultural rights can be for peace”, she continued.
“Attempts against academic and artistic freedoms, linguistic rights, falsification and distortion of historical facts, denigration of identities and denial of the right to self-determination, result in further degeneration and fueling of open conflict.”
The expert paid tribute to the many cultural professionals in Ukraine devoted to protecting the country’s heritage, who are using powerful artistic expression, against the war, and in favour of peace.
‘Regret’ over retaliation
The Special Rapporteur also expressed her regret about the indiscriminate exclusion of Russian artists from cultural events.
“I am saddened by the numerous restrictions affecting Russian artists in retaliation for the actions of the Russian Government, as well as by the deprogramming of sometimes centuries-old works of art from Russian writers or composers”.
Ms. Xanthaki cited reports of Russian musicians prevented from performing or taking part in competitions, and of Russian artists being asked to publicly take sides.
“It is especially in this situation of continuous dehumanization, that culture and cultural rights must be visible and visibly push for humanity, empathy and peaceful co-existence,” she said.
UN Special Rapporteurs are independent experts, appointed by the Human Rights Council. They are not UN staff, nor are they paid by the UN, for their work.