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Speech by Rie Vejs-Kjeldgaard, ILO Representative in Viet Nam at MOFA workshop on Cultural Rights

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Date:       Tuesday, 25 March 2008
Event:      Ministry of Foreign Affairs workshop "The implementation of Cultural Rights in Viet Nam"
   Bao Son Hotel, Ha Noi
Rie Vejs-Kjeldgaard, ILO Representative in Viet Nam


  • Excellency Mr. Pham Binh Minh, Standing Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs
  • Excellency Mr. Le Hoai Trung, Director General Department of International Organizations.
  • Ladies and Gentlemen, distinguished guests

Please allow me to first and foremost bring you the warm regards of John Hendra, the United Nations Resident Coordinator. He is unfortunately not able to be with us this morning. He much regrets.

On behalf of the Resident Coordinator and the United Nations Country Team, let me first thank you for your invitation to speak at this event. The Resident Coordinator and the UNCT commend you for continuing the series of human rights seminars, following last year’s focus on the right to development.

December 10, 1948 – 60 years ago - the General Assembly of the United Nations ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a seminal document guaranteeing the rights of all people and acknowledging that all forms of discrimination based on race, colour, sex, language, religion, national or social origin, property, birth, opinion or other status is prohibited.  The Declaration has become the most translated document in history and the foundation for human rights legislation around the world.

2008 marks the 60th anniversary of the Declaration. And 60 years later, despite great progress in many countries, the obligations laid out in its 30 articles are still not a living reality for all – even among its signatories. 

The Declaration’s 22nd Article states [and I quote]: “Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.”

In this article, human rights are sub-divided into economic, social and cultural rights.

But what do we mean by cultural rights? In some ways, cultural rights are less tangible and easily defined. Cultural rights can be considered those elements which are required for people to have a right to choose who they want to be. This means that people should be free to decide their religious views, to choose which language they speak, which music they listen to, which newspapers they read… In short, it is the rights of people and communities to live, preserve and protect their way of life.

Think of it as a system including things like religion, cultural traditions, language, dress, food, music, value systems and beliefs. They reinforce one another and are individually important -- no question -- but together form an interdependent whole. How social groups are ordered, and how they express themselves, these are the fundamental differences that provide our world with the diversity and knowledge that is so valuable. And as our world continues to globalize, it is even more important to preserve this multiplicity of culture and ways of life.

Nowhere is this better expressed than in the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, and I quote: “cultural diversity is as important for humankind as biodiversity is for nature.”

Just as destroying a rare plant species in the Amazon can have serious consequences, so too can the disappearance of language, culture and tradition impact global knowledge, diversity and tradition. As in biology, the impact can have ramifications far beyond the single example. After all, the rights identified in the Declaration are inter-connected and dependent on one another. Cultural rights are no different.

Imagine the child suddenly forced to learn everything in a foreign language. Discouraged, unmotivated and lacking support, the chances for a basic education are already limited, and so too will be her opportunity to develop the skills needed to reach her full economic and social potential and contribute back to the society from which they come.

A right to mother-tongue based education is fundamental right and a necessity required in order to access further education and equal opportunities in life in more general.

Although no one right is more important than others, a right to choose and use one’s own language seems to be linked to many other fundamental human rights.

2008 was declared as the International Year of Languages by the UN General Assembly in recognition of the need for policy makers, educational institutions and other local, national and international organisations to take action now to promote multilingualism.

It is often said that ethnic minorities are marginalized because of geography, because of their distance from the centres of development and power. In today’s knowledge societies this cannot be the case. There is plenty of evidence worldwide that it is more often the ideological and cultural distances that divide us than the physical one.

The UN stands ready, with our comparative advantages, our expertise and global experiences, to work with the Government of Viet Nam in its efforts to bridge these gaps. To help all Vietnamese men, women, girls and boys realise their human rights.

Already, cooperation between the UN and Viet Nam is expanding in this area. Last week UNDP signed an important project with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to support national efforts to fulfil its obligations under international human rights treaties.
The UN is available to support  building Government capacity in applying a human rights-based approach in its programmes and strategies.    

In general, we can raise awareness of all people to better understand and exercise their rights, to understand their role as rights holders and to ensure those rights are being met by the Government, as duty-bearer.

Providing equal opportunities for all isn’t easy. Viet Nam is an incredibly diverse country. Fifty-four ethnic groups, speaking 100 languages live among its mountains, deltas, forests and valleys.  But real and sustainable development cannot happen without equal cultural rights for us all. 

I wish you great success with this workshop and look forward to even further dialogue and action on human rights in Viet Nam.

Thank you.