Participation, cultural rights and the 2020 Rome Charter

Yesterday was the opening day of an international conference, focusing on the 2020 Rome Charter that was published in the summer. Along with many others, I’d planned to be in Rome for these days, but had to participate remotely, from home. The session I chaired yesterday gathered people from Pakistan, Switzerland, the Philippines, Ghana, Egypt, the United States, Turkey, Indonesia, China, Nepal among other places. I was moved to be sharing a room, even virtually, with people from so many places and cultures, united in a shared belief in the central place of culture in human potential. In the plenary sessions, 1,500 of us heard politicians from across the world welcome and endorse the Charter, and experts in international law, cultural rights, religion and civil society offer insightful analyses of its ideas. 

How could such a gathering happen in the midst of a traumatic pandemic and in a world where multilateralism struggles for breath? And, more importantly, does it signify even the possibility of a turning point in how culture supports sustainable development and human flourishing?  The second question will be answered in years to come by the actions of those same politicians, experts and, above all, the people who discover, create, enjoy, share and protect their cultures. But the first? Yesterday, I had the sense that the Rome Charter might have done what, in my more optimistic moments, I hoped it would: capture people’s imagination. 

The Charter is an initiative of Roma Capitale (the municipal government)  and the culture committee of UCLG (United Cities and Local Government). It was produced by a small drafting committee (of which I was one) and with the advice of an international group of experts and city representatives. Although discussions started in 2019, our work really took place in the urgency and stress of the lockdown. My first draft went to the committee on 7 March: twenty-one versions later, the Charter was published in May 2020, with lockdown just starting to ease. That context is inseparable from the vision of the 2020 Rome Charter, as we explained on the website. Today, with the experience of the conference in my mind, I want to share some ideas that shaped my thinking about the text, because they might explain why it seems to be catching people’s imagination.

The first was that it had to build on existing, internationally accepted (if not fulfilled) accords. The drafting committee agreed that Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the right foundation.

Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts, to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

Article 27, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Charter does not attempt to innovate in terms of the rights it advocates (it would, in the present climate, be almost impossible to secure consensus for such a gesture). Instead, it challenges governments to meet their existing commitments.  

The second idea was that the capabilities approach developed by Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum and others provided a clear and realistic framework for what those existing rights meant. In order to participate in the cultural life of the community, people need certain capabilities, without which they cannot exercise that right. 

But behind these large questions of principle, law and theory, I had simpler, more practical concerns. Democracy depends on people’s capacity to know and understand their rights. International charters, declarations and accords, drafted in the language of politics, philosophy and law, are like ancient scripture to most of us: arcane and incomprehensible. From our earliest discussions, I argued that the Charter must be understandable to any citizen – with a little effort, perhaps, but always respecting their ability to engage with its ideas. That led me to propose concretely that it should fit onto a single sheet of paper: it does. The Charter is the Preamble and Cultural Capabilities: everything else is explanation. 

But brevity is not a virtue unless what is said is worth hearing. So I set myself five tests for what I wrote. I wanted the: Charter to be:

  • UNDERSTANDABLE – Not just in language, but in its concepts, the Charter had to be clear to anyone willing to make the effort to engage with the text. That also meant that they should understand why it mattered to them and their cultural identity, enthusiasms and journey.
  • MEMORABLE – The core of the Charter is a promise to citizens that they should expect to be able to discover, enjoy, create, share and protect culture. Five words, five capabilities that encapsulate people’s cultural rights and the commitments of those in authority towards enabling them.
  • INTERPRETABLE – Cultural diversity is a fact. Everywhere, people are different and their culture expresses their different ways of seeing and making meaning in the world.  As we worked on drafts, every additional word risked narrowing the Charter’s resonance and reach. It had to be equally applicable in New Orleans and Accra, Venice and Ulaanbaatar, and that would be possible only if people in each place could interpret the capabilities in ways that made sense to them.
  • ACTIONABLE – The Charter should directly encourage and enable people to take action, which is why the five words that define the capabilities are all verbs., Discovering culture, creating culture, sharing culture, protecting culture, enjoying culture: these are all things we can do — and we know too when we are prevented from doing them. 
  • UNIVERSAL – The idea of universalism has become highly contested (including the idea of universal human rights) and for understandable reasons, since it has often been used to mask culturally-specific power. But the Charter aspires to a universal resonance in this sense: it is hard to imagine someone who would not wish to be able to discover, enjoy, create, share and protect their culture. What that means to them is another question, and a territory of legitimate disagreement, but the capabilities are, I contend, part of what it is to be human. 

And yesterday, listening to so many people from so many places talk about those capabilities, I began to hope that we might have got this right, we might have created a resource that people can use to think, debate and negotiate about the place of culture in their communities and so find better responses to the particular and global challenges that they now face. If that’s so, the 2020 Rome Charter will have exceeded our very best hopes.

Photos of the conference from the live stream