UC Davis law professor discusses plans for three-year term.
This October, UC Davis School of Law Professor Karima Bennoune was chosen out of 38 candidates to be appointed as special rapporteur of cultural rights to the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council.
As special rapporteur, Bennoune will report to the UN Human Rights Council (the highest political body focusing on human rights in the UN) on issues including artistic freedom, cultural heritage, scientific freedom and issues in education.
“I will, every year, deliver a written, thematic report on cultural rights to the [UN] Human Rights Council and I will also deliver one to the UN General Assembly,” Bennoune said. “I will raise specific cases in the field with governments and will also carry out visits to countries that have invited me.”
Special rapporteurs are appointed for a three-year term with the possibility of renewal for one more term. Though she officially starts her position on Nov. 1, Bennoune has already begun preparations for the next three years with a group of her research assistants.
“I am incredibly lucky to have a core group of research assistants who have great expertise in international law, and, in some cases, cultural rights particularly,” Bennoune said.
Bennoune plans to involve her research assistants not only to use their input as academics, but also to give them the opportunity to gain experience.
“At the end of the day, I really want this to be an experience that is also beneficial for my students, something that they can learn from,” Bennoune said. “And I want them to contribute to the work that I’m doing — so there’s kind of a holistic relationship there.”
Bennoune’s assistants said they have enjoyed doing research with her and are looking forward to working with her during her term as UN Special Rapporteur.
“I think [Professor Bennoune] is an amazing scholar,” said third-year law major and research assistant Anita Barooni. “I’m really looking forward to having somebody who has the views that she has on human rights […] work on these issues — she can bring these issues to light.”
Another one of Bennoune’s research assistants, Level 3 law student Courtney Lafranchi, agreed that Bennoune will have a lot to bring to the table during her term, including issues revolving around women’s rights.
“[Professor Bennoune] is a universalist. I think that’s really important, especially when you’re talking about cultural rights,” Lafranchi said. “So I look forward to just seeing what she does with that position and I also look forward to her helping women have an increased role in the issue of cultural rights, because women’s rights are a big part of what she does.”
Lafranchi is also interested to see how Bennoune’s position will function logistically during the next few years.
“[I’m interested in] exactly what she does: what can she do, what’s she expected to do, what she can’t do — it’ll be interesting to see how that works,” Lafranchi said. “It’ll be interesting to see sort of the diplomacy aspect of it, because there’s a big difference between being an independent activist, [an] independent academic or [an] independent researcher and becoming somebody who’s got a position with the United Nations — it’s a totally different world.”
In her new role, Bennoune is looking forward to giving support to human rights defenders who are working to protect cultural heritage.
“I think about the amazing Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, who was killed at the age of 82 by Islamic State [on Aug. 18] because he was protecting the artifacts of Palmyra,” Bennoune said. “I think about amazing people doing work like that all [around] the world and what an honor it will be to try to find ways to support their work at the international level.”
Bennoune said that she thinks one of the biggest challenges is figuring out how to communicate across generations and promote awareness over the importance of cultural heritage.
“One of the important challenges is [figuring out a way] to communicate with people in your generation and younger, whose responsibility is going to be to protect all of this in the future,” Bennoune said. “You know, I was thinking about the 2000-year-old temple that Islamic State destroyed. How do you convince 20 year-olds that a 2000-year-old temple matters?”
Furthermore, Bennoune stresses the importance of learning to speak in ways that are relevant to younger people in a heavily technologically-based age.
Though the new workload that comes with being UN Special Rapporteur seems daunting, Bennoune said she is ready to take on any challenges she may encounter.
“Given how important the rights are in this area, I am just excited to take on every one of these challenges,” Bennoune said. “All I see right now are the positive aspects — the potential of what could be done through the UN system on these issues.”
Previously, Bennoune was a legal advisor for Amnesty International, a consultant for UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and a former member of the Executive Council of the American Society of International Law. Working in these many different capacities over the years has furthered Bennoune’s knowledge and experience over relevant matters of importance, helping her to build up to the position she is in now.
“I think without that level of experience I wouldn’t have even thought of applying,” Bennoune said. “But it’s the area that I always knew — basically — that I wanted to work in.”
In 2007, she was awarded the Derrick Bell Award from the Association of American Law Schools and her book, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, was the winner of the 2014 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for nonfiction. She has also participated in human rights field research all around the world, including in conflict zones.
“I have learned so much from the human rights defenders around the world that I have had the great honor of working with,” Bennoune said. “I never want to forget that at the end of the day, this is about the people on the ground. This is about ordinary people’s cultural rights and [about] seeking ways to advance them.”
Though Bennoune hopes to achieve many goals, her biggest goal is also one of the most important ones.
“I really want to contribute to advancing the universality of human rights, which I think is a critical idea in this day and age,” Bennoune said. “The idea that truly everyone — regardless of his or her gender, race, sexuality, where he or she lives — that everyone has equal human rights by virtue of simply being human. It’s an idea that is all too often eroded and it’s an idea that I think really needs defense.”