The 2020 Rome Charter and why it matters

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

Article 27.i of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

For most of my working life, I have argued that community art stands on Article 27.i of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s what I mean by a ‘human rights approach’ to culture. I’ve also argued, most recently in A Restless Art, that Article 27 is fundamental to people’s ability to exercise and protect their other human rights because, if you can’t participate in the cultural life of the community, you are effectively silenced. You cannot express yourself equally, and you risk becoming only the object of other people’s narratives and representation. Then, as many minorities and marginalised people can witness, you become vulnerable to oppression.

All that seems clear enough to me, and there is plenty of historical evidence to show why the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community needed protection in 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted. It hasn’t prevented every subsequent horror, but the principle is established and can be used to defend people.  

But what does ‘participate in the cultural life of the community’ mean in practice?

If you asked the governments of China, Russia, Brazil, or the United States, they would all claim that their citizens enjoy this right, but what that actually amounts to in each of those countries, and whether the people themselves would agree with their government’s interpretation, is another matter entirely. And a right that cannot be clearly defined, is hard to claim or protect.

Last year, as lead writer of the 2020 Rome Charter, I had an opportunity to address that challenge, using the capabilities approach defined by thinkers such as Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. This is a way of thinking about freedom in relation to the actual choices that people have about their lives – not what they can do in theory, but in reality. For example, a person who has not had access to education cannot exercise the same life choices as someone who has. As Nussbaum writes, capabilities:

Are not just abilities residing inside a person but also the freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social, and economic environment.

Martha C. Nussbaum. Creating Capabilities, 2011

With this in mind, I proposed five capabilities in culture that have been adopted as the core of the 2020 Rome Charter, which proposes that everyone should have the right to Discover, Enjoy, Create, Share and Protect culture. My thinking is that if you can freely do all of these things, you can effectively exercise the right to participate in the cultural life of the community. The charter uses clear ideas and direct language because no one can claim a right they don’t understand. The paradox of most cultural policy that aspires towards access or even social justice is that it depends on a high level of education. The 2020 Rome Charter, which can be summed up in five words, aims for something different.

Tomorrow is the first anniversary of the Charter’s publication, and I have asked Carla Schiavone, who led the project secretariat with tireless commitment, to explain how it came about, what it sought to achieve and how it has been taken up so far. Next week, I’ll publish a daily post on one of the five capabilities, to sketch the thinking behind these ideas.

The charter itself can be downloaded from the website here.