Ideas

Creolizing the idea of humanity

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An image capture of "Blue Spelling, a change of perspective is a change of temporality", video by Guadeloupean artist Minia Biabiany.

How can we protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions, while resisting relativism and imperialism, and reconciling the universalism of human rights with the pluralism of cultures? Mireille Delmas-Marty, a member of the Institut de France and a jurist specialized in the study of the internationalization of law, shares her perspective on the issue. She advocates “reciprocal creolization”, a dynamic and evolving process of coordinating, harmonizing and sometimes unifying, differences.

Mireille Delmas-Marty

Protecting and promoting the diversity of cultural expressions is one of the priorities that UNESCO's Member States have set for themselves at the dawn of the third millennium. By signing the 2005 Convention, they defined cultural diversity as a common heritage of humanity that must not only be protected – as an established, permanent treasure – but also promoted, because it is a living treasure, and therefore renewable and evolving.

Cultural diversity had already been elevated to the rank of common heritage of humanity in the Universal Declaration of 2001, unanimously adopted by UNESCO's General Conference in November of that year. The text affirms that cultural diversity is, for humankind, “as necessary as biodiversity is for nature”. It was the first major intergovernmental meeting held just after the 11 September attacks in the United States, and UNESCO wanted to proclaim loud and clear its rejection of the theory of the clash of civilizations and its refusal to sanctify differences.

Recalling this context seems to me entirely necessary, because since 2001, we have been engaged in a kind of permanent global civil war, which sustains genuine religious frenzy and terrorizes entire populations. This has resulted, in particular, to the mass exodus of populations that we are experiencing today, and in the identity tensions of the countries of immigration − that are closing themselves off on their differences, in the name of a supposedly threatened national identity. All these current events compel us to develop increasingly effective tools for cultural pluralism.

Are pluralism and universalism incompatible?

It must be recognized, however, that the text of the 2005 Convention contains an underlying contradiction, which is not easy to resolve, between pluralism − which the 2001 Declaration describes as giving “policy expression to the reality of    cultural diversity” − and universalism, which is enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, more broadly, in human rights law.

The risk of contradiction is twofold, because by posing the principle of “equal dignity of all cultures” (Article 2 of the 2005 Convention), cultural pluralism, if  limited to juxtaposing differences alongside each other, could lead to a certain relativism of values and, consequently, to a kind of negation of universalism.

Conversely, the universalism of human rights could lead to the negation of pluralism, if it were to force the fusion of all cultures and the disappearance of all differences. In such a case, this universalism would be the new garb of an imperialism that does not speak its name.

The drafters of the 2005 Convention saw this difficulty clearly. They laid down the fundamental rule in Article 2: “No one may invoke the provisions of this Convention in order to infringe human rights and fundamental freedoms as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or guaranteed by international law, or to limit the scope thereof.”

In other words, differences are only permitted if they are compatible with human rights. The difficulty is that the guarantee is not the same for all rights. For “non-derogable rights”, such as equal human dignity (prohibition of torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment), the protection is absolute and applies even in the event of war or terrorism, marking in principle, a common limit to the diversity of cultures. Other rights (privacy, religious freedom) are subject to restrictions, when the purpose is legitimate and the restrictions proportionate.

It is fair to say that the drafters of the 2005 Convention set a goal, but that they did not provide the “user guide” to prevent pluralism from rhyming with relativism and universalism with imperialism.

As a jurist, my contribution to the reflection on the tools of cultural pluralism would be to propose, if not a set of instructions, at least a few ways to try to reconcile pluralism and universalism, and some means to try to bring cultures closer together.

We know that many conflicts are the result of ignorance of the Other, but we often forget to look for their origin in the ignorance of our own culture, which is a key factor. Opening up ways to broaden our knowledge of different cultures, including our own, is essential, I think, because it makes it possible for everyone to avoid conceiving the universal as an extension of their own culture. In other words, it is necessary to pluralize the universal.

But where should these paths, which open to the widening of our knowledge of different cultures, lead? My answer is: to the rapprochement of cultures. It is one step further, not just to merge cultures, but to make them more compatible with each other. I would call that ordering pluralism.


"Lambeaux" is an intimate diary reconstructed from disparate elements, according to its author, the Martinique artist and filmmaker Gilles Elie-Dit-Cosaque.

Pluralizing the universal

Sensory perceptions – hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch – constitute the first tool for a true knowledge of different cultures. We know to what extent concerts or festivals, for example, contribute to expanding our knowledge through sensory perceptions.

The second tool comprises cognitive representations – the acquisition of knowledge through reason, and not necessarily through the senses. These include  educational, philosophical, economic, sociological, ethical and legal discourse. For example, the role of libraries, cultural institutions or the  People’s Universities of ATD Fourth World.

These are based on the convergence of knowledge, a notion on which I would like to dwell on briefly. Since 1972, the Fourth World People’s Universities have been investing in the sharing of knowledge between the learned and those who know – that is, between the knowledge of scholars and the knowledge of experience. The cooperation between cultural institutions is also based on the idea of mixing together several cognitive paths. In the field of art, we have a large number of examples of this kind of cross-over. For example, French composer Pierre Boulez who, in the late 1980s, shed light on the process of musical composition, by evoking the lessons of the Swiss artist Paul Klee of the Bauhaus School of Design in Weimar, Germany (from 1921 to 1931).

The combination of the sensory and the rational – and we know that these two capacities are linked – is undoubtedly the one that opens the widest perspectives for our knowledge of different cultures. Today, this combination is facilitated by new technologies, as admirably illustrated by the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, Sweden, inaugurated in 2004, or the Mucem (Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée) in Marseille, France, established  in 2013.

Whichever path we take – sensory, cognitive or combined – we have several ways to order pluralism, without suppressing it.


"Lambeaux" is a "Creole memory, Creole in the geographical and spiritual sense," the author says.

Going beyond fixed metaphors

To avoid both the relativism and imperialism of values, an interactive and adaptable dynamic is necessary. The rapprochement of cultures must be understood as a process, a movement that encourages us to go beyond the fixed metaphors – human rights seen as the foundations, pedestals, pillars or roots of various cultures – and give preference to the metaphor that presents human rights as the common language of humanity. It suggests three processes, the dynamic effect of which is growing: from intercultural exchange (dialogue) to the search for equivalences (translation), and even to reciprocal transformation (creolization).

Dialogue, or intercultural exchange, improves the understanding and knowledge of the Other and thus facilitates rapprochement, but does not guarantee it. As an example, I summarize here the judges' dialogue on the death penalty, triggered in 1989 by a bold interpretation of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The court had ruled that the extradition to the United States, of a man facing a death sentence violated the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. By its potential applications to various third countries, this case law would have an influence throughout the world. It seems to have favoured a turnaround in 2001 by the Supreme Court of Canada, which is largely based on the decision of the ECHR. It was also used by the Supreme Court of Appeal of  South Africa in 1995, to support the judgement on the death penalty as contrary to the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

But dialogue remains subject to the goodwill of the actors and, in this sense, its contribution to the rapprochement of cultures is limited to coordinating differences.

The second way, which goes further in the recognition of common values, is translation. A true “miracle”, according to French philosopher Paul Ricœur (1913-2005), it “creates a resemblance where there seemed to be only plurality”. I would add that translation is “miraculous” in that it respects differences, while seeking equivalences that can make these differences compatible. Translation is a means of harmonizing differences, an approach that contributes to rapprochement on the principle of musical harmony, as defined by Plato in The Symposium: “From contrary elements, such as sharps and flats, the art of music, by making them agree with each other, produces harmony.”

That said, we often encounter untranslatable concepts, and the misunderstandings they cause. For example, in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we read that “all men are endowed by nature with reason and conscience”. Initially, only "reason" was mentioned. But  one of the drafters of the Declaration, Zhang Pengchun of China, remarked that if the declaration was to be universal, the notion of reason alone was not enough. He proposed adding the Chinese term liangxin, which translated to conscience. In reality, the equivalence between liangxin and conscience is weak, because the Chinese term, derived from the characters lian and gxin, evokes moral conscience in the Confucian sense, that is, a conscience that favours otherness.

To solve this type of difficulty, we would need to go even further, by implementing the third means mentioned above: hybridization or, to avoid possible misunderstandings, creolization. I use the word creolization in the way it was used by the French poet Edouard Glissant (1928-2011), when he suggested opening up our particular poetics, one with the other. In other words, creolization makes it possible to unify differences by integrating them into a common definition.

In his book, La Cohée du Lamentin (2004), Edouard Glissant wrote: “Creolization is not a simple mechanism of inter-breeding. It is a mixture that produces something unexpected.” To produce the unexpected is to find − beyond dialogue and translation, but thanks to them − a new, truly common meaning. It is a way of overcoming differences.

A shift from the poetic to the legal realm will allow me to examine the example of a concept with a universal vocation, the legal significance of which is evolving: crime against humanity.


"Lambeaux" is also a fantasized diary, where the individual and the collective intertwine in fragmented pages.

Towards a mutual transformation

The notion of crime against humanity has a collective dimension – “a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population” – and implies the depersonalization of the victim. First used in the charter of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1945, this concept is implicitly part of the Western perception of humanity, which is based on the idea that each human being is an individual, and equally, a member of the human community.

But the concept has gradually been extended to the destruction of cultural property. In 2001, the judges of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) ruled that when the destruction and degradation of buildings dedicated to religion or education is perpetrated with discriminatory intent, it amounts to “an attack on the very religious identity of a people. As such, it almost exemplifies the notion of crime against humanity, because in fact it is humanity as a whole that is affected by the destruction of a specific religious culture and cultural objects that are attached to it.” [ICTY, Prosecutor v. Dario Kordic and Mario Cerkez, IT-95-14/2, Judgement, February 26, 2001].

The question also comes up regarding Iraq. “The destruction of objects tracing the history of a people is an eloquent way of uprooting them, depriving them of their origins and destroying them in their soul,” says French-Iranian jurist Pejman Pourzand (Radio Notre Dame, 6 March 2015]. Other commentators have referred to this kind of destruction as a “crime against the history of humanity”.

To ensure genuine creolization through a reciprocal transformation, it would be necessary to integrate cultures that value the links between individuals of the same national community − as suggested by the Zulu word ubuntu (which, roughly translated, means common humanity) from South Africa, the Japanese term uchi-soto (the distinction between group members and others), or the previously-mentioned Confucian term, liangxin (conscience).

It would also be necessary to associate the cultures that impose duties on humans towards nature, like those that protect Pachamama (Mother Earth), for example, inscribed in the constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia. This is perhaps how we should understand the proposal that is currently being circulated, to extend the notion of crime against humanity and genocide to ecocide – that is, the irreversible and serious damage being caused to the equilibrium of the ecosystem.

In order to endow the notion of crimes against humanity with a truly universal vocation, other traditions should enrich the Western vision of humanity itself.

The rapprochement of cultures, the theme of the ongoing International Decade (2013-2022), involves many paths that make it possible to resist both relativism and imperialism, and to reconcile the universalism of human rights with the pluralism of cultures. These are the paths that lead to reciprocal humanization.

With this article, the Courier marks the celebration of the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, May 21.

Photos: 

Minia Biabiany

Gilles Elie-Dit-Cosaque

Mireille Delmas-Marty

A member of the Institut de France and an honorary professor at the Collège de France, Mireille Delmas-Marty (France) is a founder of the Association de recherches pénales européennes (ARPE), honorary president of the Pharos Observatory of Cultural and Religious Pluralism, member of the Haut Conseil de la Science et de la Technologie, and an administrator of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Delmas-Marty has published numerous books on criminal law, human rights law and the globalization of law, including: Les forces imaginantes du droit, in four volumes (2004-2011); Résister, responsabiliser, anticiper (2013); Aux quatre vents du monde. Petit guide de navigation sur l'océan de la mondialisation (2016), and De la grande Accélération à la grande Métamorphose (2017).