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UN development report calls for cultural freedom to become a basic human right

UN development report calls for cultural freedom to become a basic human right

Countries should treat cultural freedoms as basic human rights that are essential to life in modern, diverse societies, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) says today in its annual flagship report.

The authors of the Human Development Report 2004 argue that countries which do not respect and even promote cultural freedoms not only lose out socially, but also struggle to reap any sustainable benefits from economic globalization.

The Report calls for nations with multi-ethnic or religious populations to establish "asymmetric" federalist structures to allow different groups to maintain both their own identity and a sense of belonging to the nation as a whole.

Citing Belgium, Malaysia, South Africa and Canada as working examples, it says granting some rights and powers to different groups or regions can defuse or avert conflicts and tensions.

The focus of this year's Report - which has examined and measured human development by broad social, political and economic criteria since 1990 - is the value of population diversity after several decades of large-scale international migration.

In the Report's foreword, UNDP Administrator Mark Malloch Brown says "allowing people full cultural expression is an important development end in itself."

Nations with rich, diverse cultures, Mr. Malloch Brown adds, are able to make swifter economic and social progress, especially in an era when mass culture is being exported around the world in films, television, books and popular music.

He says that while there is no template that will work for every country, it is critical that, as a starting point, minorities have their rights guaranteed in a constitution or in legislation.

"But unless the political culture also changes - unless citizens come to think, feel and act in ways that genuinely accommodate the needs and aspirations of others - real change will not happen," he cautions.

The Report debunks a number of myths about diversity, including the idea that a person's ethnic identity has to compete with their attachment to the State.

"Countries do not have to choose between national unity and cultural diversity. Individuals can and do have multiple, complementary identities - ethnicity, language, religion and race, as well as citizenship. Identity is not a zero-sum game."

Outlining the concept of asymmetric federalism, the Report says some provinces or regions enjoy different powers to others because of their individual history or identity - this could include language rights, religious protections or regional parliaments. But all the regions and provinces still fall under a national, unified structure.

Mr. Malloch Brown says the solution is to create institutions and policies that encourage pride in national identity and symbols, as well as pride in regional or ethnic/religious backgrounds.