Cultural Liberty vs. Cultural Imperialism: Creating a Dialogue to Meet in the Middle

The United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) 2004 Human Development Report is revolutionary in its focus on culture – and the importance of what it calls cultural liberty. According to the report, cultural liberty is an important aspect of being able to lead a “full life.” As the Report states, the idea of cultural liberty “is a simple idea, but profoundly unsettling.”[1] It is unsettling because it goes so far in redefining culture in the context of international law.

Although the Report does not specifically mention the Declaration of Human Rights,[2] it intrinsically links cultural liberty with human rights. Specifically, the Declaration on Human Rights considers all people to be equal, protects individuals against distinction of any kind (including race, language, or origin), and it guarantees the right to life, liberty, and security of person. Just as the Declaration was revolutionary for individual human rights, this report is critical for the cultural liberty of both individuals and societies.

This visionary framing of human rights, cultural liberty, and development is not without problems. Just like the 2003 report, which defines Human Security, valid criticisms of this Report include being too broad and sweeping to in order to be effective. This report is not necessarily a norm creator. However, the report is critical in outlining the important foci of development and other international issues today. Culture is important for it affects not only how developing countries should act, but also developed nations. Challenges to Cultural Liberty come from both quarters.

The Report focuses on the challenges to achieving Cultural Liberty in chapter two. Of specific concern is exclusion through living modes and participation. The report defines living mode exclusion as when “the state or social custom denigrates or suppresses a group’s culture, including its language, religion, or traditional customs or lifestyles.” Likewise, exclusion refers to social, economic, and political exclusion along ethnic, linguistic, or religious lines.[3] Challenges come from both states or governments and societies, or people within the states.

Namely, “The core argument of this Report is that societies should embrace, not suppress, such multiple and complementary identities.”[4] Importantly, individuals define identity, not an outside entity. Cultural liberty, according to the UNDP, “is a vital part of human development because being able to choose one’s identity – who one is – without losing the respect of others or being excluded from other choices is important in leading a full life.”[5] In short, cultural liberty requires that democracy hear everyone’s voice. Thus, cultural liberty becomes a foundation for democratization as well as development.[6]

The Report recognizes threats to Cultural Liberty including cultural domination within a state and globalization. The state level challenges include right wing political parties, the tolerance of minority persecution, and outright genocide. It is individual states responsibility to ensure cultural repression does not take place. Globalization in this report represents the unrestrained diffusion of culture around the world that creates a threat for those who wish to preserve their way of life. What marks this threat to cultural liberty is that this Report sees globalization as an unguided force that states must work with, and not attempt to impede.[7] Again, states bear the responsibility for protecting cultural liberty from globalization within their borders.

What the paper does not discuss is the overt and planned imperialism that threatens many aspects of life around the world, including cultural liberty. It is not the purpose of this paper to analyze either the foreign policy of any nation, nor the cultural leakage of globally dominant cultures. By cultural leakage, this paper refers to the export of movies, music, and the accompanied culture also seen as a product of globalization. In this context, cultural imperialism includes what the United States and now the United Kingdom call public diplomacy.

[1] UNDP, Human Development Report 2004. Page 1.

[2] UN General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) of 10 December 1948.

[3] UNDP, Human Development Report 2004. Page 27.

[4] UNDP, Human Development Report 2004. Page 28.

[5] UNDP, Human Development Report 2004. Page 1.

[6] UNDP, Human Development Report 2004. Page 47.

[7] UNDP, Human Development Report 2004. Page 85.

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