Culture is (a) Right

A few weeks ago, the Cultural and Social Narratives Laboratory (CSN Lab) launched its regional dialogue programme on cultural rights — “Culture is (a) Right,” which not only represents the title of the project but also the concept and ideology behind it. For this occasion, the CSN Lab has brought together experts representing the cultural sphere, media, and human rights sectors in Armenia and Georgia.

The programme commenced within the framework of the EVN Media Festival, featuring a panel discussion moderated by Sheila Paylan, an expert in international law and human rights. Under the thematic umbrella of “cultural resilience," the discussion focused on cultural rights, particularly the current challenges, issues, and strategies for overcoming them. Ms. Paylan opened the event with a welcome speech, emphasising the importance of the CSN Lab's initiative, particularly in the context of the forced displacement of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh. She underscored that "Cultural rights are as important as fundamental human rights." Afterwards, Tigran Amiryan, founder of the CSN Lab, outlined his organisation's efforts in forming a public discourse on cultural rights in Armenia and the broader region. He touched upon the interconnectedness of cultural rights and democratic values, discussed the current state of cultural rights in Armenia as well as the South Caucasus region, identified gaps in addressing existing issues by governmental and non-governmental institutions, and underscored the importance of Armenian-Georgian cultural dialogue on this matter. Besides, Mr Amiryan pointed out current threats to young democracies faced by societies in both Armenia and Georgia.

Next, the media, its role in the context of cultural rights, its capacity to produce and disseminate narratives, and its influence on public processes became the focal point of the panel discussion. Media expert, press and information/stratcom officer at the European Union (EU) Delegation in Tbilisi, Maya Mateshvili, commenting on current developments in Georgia, such as the government's adoption of the "Foreign Agent's Law," discussed the increasing number of fake news in Georgian media, which aims to “sabotage democratic processes in the country”. She also elaborated on EU initiatives the goal of which is to promote public awareness of cultural initiatives and enhance media literacy among the general public. Further exploring the media's role in a framework of cultural rights, Andranik Shirinyan, the country representative of Freedom House in Armenia, discussed the role of media in advancing democracy in Armenia. He specifically addressed issues of gender equality in the country, referencing the possible adoption of the "Istanbul Convention" and "Lanzarote Convention," and analysed the portrayal of LGBT+ topics in media negatively affected by misinformation.

In the second part of the discussion, film critic and curator Sona Karapoghosyan, along with cultural manager and translator Natia Mikeladse-Bachsoliani, discussed the hardships surrounding cultural rights in Armenia and Georgia, focusing on the language of culture as a tool to address and resist challenges. While discussing the current affairs facing the film industry in Armenia, Sona Karapoghosyan highlighted several key issues. These included obstacles hindering artists from freely practising their rights, state attempts to impose control over the industry, and insufficient resources allocated to promote the participation of the wider public in cultural life. She also underscored the language-based discrimination within the cultural sphere in Armenia as a violation of cultural rights, emphasising, "Most films in Armenia are not shown in Armenian." In her turn, Natia Mikeladse-Bachsoliani emphasised the significant role of cultural practitioners and institutions in resisting anti-democratic movements in the region, stressing the need for their active regional collaboration and mutual support. Once again referring to the disturbing developments in Georgia, including governmental pressures and restrictions on cultural practitioners, Natia Mikeladse-Bachsoliani emphasised the urgency of regional and international networking and dialogue. She stressed that this is essential to counteract current neo-colonial threats and anti-democratic processes in the region through cultural dialogue.

“How can we overcome extreme polarisation? What role can culture play in this regard?”,- with these final questions the panel discussion eventually engaged the audience, whose inquiries and remarks centred on the turbulent reality in the region and the potential impact of culture in mitigating polarisation within societies and fostering understanding among conflicting groups.

The second event of the "Culture is (a) Right" regional dialogue programme was conducted in the form of a conference, featuring experts, researchers, CSO representatives and cultural practitioners. In a framework of it, invited Armenian and Georgian experts were joined by social anthropologist and project manager of the Heinrich Böll Foundation office in Yerevan Eviya Hovhannisyan, cultural manager and researcher Mariam Yeghiazaryan and political scientist, editor, and translator Hovhannes Galstyan, who moderated the "Culture is (a) Right" conference.

Before presenting his professional observations and arguments on the situation of cultural rights in Armenia and the region, Hovhannes Galstyan highlighted the current challenges faced by democracy in his introductory speech. He pointed to recent regional developments, including the 44-day war in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, the Russian invasion of Ukraine forced displacements, the migration crisis in the region, and the rise of anti-democratic movements in Georgia as well as the border region.

Mariam Yeghiazaryan, who is involved in projects on cultural rights at the CSN Lab, provided an in-depth framework of cultural rights to the attendees. She addressed various components as well as interactions of cultural rights and presented the emerging discourse and developments concerning those in Armenia and the region. Referring to the long-term activities of CSN Lab, Ms Yeghiazaryan elucidated how the CSN Lab advances and promotes the discourse on cultural rights through artistic, cultural, and research-based projects, along with dialogues and exchange programs.

To foster discussion among experts on cultural rights in Armenia, Georgia, and the region, invited speakers had the opportunity to delve deeper into the issues raised during the pre-conference panel discussion in a framework of the conference. They shared insights from their professional activities and presented findings and observations based on the projects they have implemented and the research papers authored by them.

Given the ongoing migration crisis aggravated by regional wars and conflicts, the contribution of social anthropologist Eviya Hovhannisyan to the conference held particular importance and value. Emphasising the profound vulnerability of cultural rights amidst forced displacements and migrations, Eviya specifically referred to the forced displacement of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023. She discussed issues related to their integration and/or adaptation into Armenian society, as well as the imperative of protecting their cultural rights.

The conference concluded with an informal discussion among the expert community and attendees on the topics raised within the project. In his concluding speech summarising the "Culture is (a) Right" conference and other components of the project, Tigran Amiryan outlined the CSN Lab's upcoming activities on cultural rights and its long-term goals of fostering and advancing discourse on the topic in Armenia and the region. Mr Amiryan emphasised that cultural rights are central to CSN Lab's endeavours and that this regional cultural dialogue initiative marks only the beginning of the expansive "Culture is (a) Right" programme, which will have an annual nature and thus advocate for cultural rights in Armenia and the broader region.