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“Our future is in our past” is a Pacific metaphor which acknowledges the inherent value of culture for the wellbeing of Pacific peoples and for its contribution to resilience building.
The new Pacific Regional Culture Strategy 2022-2032 (PRCS), endorsed by Pacific Island Countries this year, envisions “a future where Pacific region cultures are vibrant, visible, and valued for the empowerment, wellbeing and prosperity of our people.”
Cultural wellbeing recognises the role of culture in contributing to overall wellbeing which enables the survival, livelihood, resilience, and dignity of a group of people.
Respect for human dignity underpins the PRCS, recognising the interconnected nature of human rights and culture.
Human Rights Day is celebrated annually on 10 December and is a time to reflect on how “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” including the right to enjoy and practice one’s culture and language and be afforded equal access to opportunities, as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the PRCS, respectively.
Many from the Pacific claim that ‘human rights’ is a foreign concept for the region. Yet, core human rights values and principles such as dignity, fairness, respect, inclusion, non-discrimination, and the protection of the vulnerable, resonate in the rich and diverse tapestry of Pacific heritage and cultural practices. Fijian concepts such as veirokovi (respect), Tuvalu’s fale pili (my neighbour) and fa’a Samoa, or ‘the Samoan way’, for example, all resonate with human rights values. Pacific cultures value the individual and collective wellbeing of people – human rights support and promote community, which we in the Pacific value and prioritise, by ensuring no one, especially the most vulnerable, is left behind.
Human rights are guaranteed in constitutions across the Pacific, with Pacific Island Countries committing to at least one of the nine core international human rights treaties – Fiji is a party to all nine treaties, the Republic of the Marshall Islands is party to seven, and Samoa and Papua New Guinea are each party to six.
Over the recent past, some Pacific Island countries have assumed key leadership roles in the international human rights space – for example, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu are global leaders in applying human rights as the basis for advocacy and actions to address climate change, including its adverse impacts on culture.1
The “wellbeing of our people” and human rights is also prioritised in the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, the region’s over-arching framework for sustainable development over the next three decades. The 2050 Strategy commits to “scientifically-based research and traditional knowledge as well as promoting human rights, gender equality and the empowerment of all people.”
While we recognise the efforts of Pacific governments, civil society and individuals to advance human rights in our region, there is still much work to do. Ratifying human rights treaties is one thing, translating them into real, tangible benefits for Pacific Islanders is another and remains a challenge. For example, 11 Pacific Island countries have ratified the international human rights treaty on the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) yet the region has one of the highest rates of violence against women and girls in the world – up to twice the global average of intimate partner violence.
Violence against women and children is a fundamental violation of human rights and conflicts with the values of cultural wellbeing. Further, systematic gender-related barriers mean that our region has the lowest representation of women across our national parliaments, an issue which needs to be addressed if we really want to improve the rights of women to political participation at the highest levels.
We live in a region proudly bound to its heritage and cultural practices that promote dignity and wellbeing, along with protection and care of family and community.
How can we use that heritage and cultural wellbeing to end gender-based violence, and work together towards more peace and harmony in our homes?
How can we take the PRCS, which has been informed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international commitments and instruments, and work together to achieve its vision of “a future where Pacific region cultures are vibrant, visible, and valued for the empowerment, wellbeing and prosperity of our people.”