Category Archives: The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Are Cultural Rights Civil Rights?

Kyle Mathis, Junior Editor, Alabama Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review

Kyle Mathis, Junior Editor, Alabama Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review

On the night of September 25, 2011 the Catalonia region of Spain held its final bullfight. Many Americans think of bullfighting as a sport practiced by our neighbors to the south and could not care less about this ban. Most of our knowledge comes from seeing the cartoon character Bugs Bunny waving a red cape in the face of the occasional bull and then watching it slam into a brick wall as the cape was moved. But there is so much more to this sport than just bullfighting, and the chances that future generations will ever truly learn and understand its beauty are fading fast.

The pastime of bullfighting, considered (depending on your view) to be both noble and barbaric, has been a part of the Catalonian tradition since at least 1387, and provides its bullrings as some of the oldest and most revered structures still standing, in not just Catalonia, but all of Spain, with some dating back to the 1850s. There is no clear picture of where the sport of bullfighting originated; however, many believe it is related to the practice of ancient bull worship and sacrifice.  Nevertheless, it is generally agreed upon that the sport, as seen today, originated in 1726, when a man first stood toe to toe with a bull and introduced spectators to the now infamous red cape. Some also say the tradition stretches as far back as to the time of Roman Emperor Claudius in 41-54 AD, when he initiated this “sport” as a regional replacement for the gladiator.

Since the 1700s, the past time has grown. The sport has grown to have fans all over the world including: Portugal, France, Tamil, India, Oman, Mexico, and even the United States (Where do you think we got the idea for the rodeo clown?).  However, with all of this growth, Spain is still the place where the roots of respect, fear, and honor for the bull all run the deepest. Catalonia, which may be the first to have bullfighting, is certainly not the first part of the world to raise a ban of this kind. Similar bans on the sport have sprung up in other areas as well, including parts or all of Colombia, Ecuador, France, Portugal, Spain, and Venezuela.

On the day of the final bullfight that Barcelona may ever see, people took to the streets, protesting both for and against the age-old tradition. Some, glad to see the sport being put to an end, were there to protest the arena’s “blood-sport” one last time. Others were there to protest the stealing of their heritage. Those who are true fans of the bullfight see it as more art than sport.  To many, it is less about the fact that the matador defeats the bull, but instead how he defeats it.  In fact, time is not really a factor as the fight is actually sectioned into three stages or tercio which is designed as a chance for a professional to display his grace, athleticism and wit to the audience. The big difference between this and many American rodeo events is the imminent death of the animal.

The law that took away Catalonian bullfighting passed with the approval of 68 of the 132 members of the Catalonian parliament. It specifically repealed an existent section of an animal rights law existent in Catalonia which protected bullfighting. The Catalonian government also added to the existing laws, by explicitly banning almost all bull-based recreational activities in the region.

Now, what does this have to do with civil rights you may ask? A civil and/or political right can be described as a person’s right to act in the state’s civil and political realms without fear of repression. Obviously, voting away bullfighting probably should not be considered on par with enacting a law that discriminates against someone based on race or religion, but a group of people lost their past time because an estimated 60 percent of Spaniards and 180,000 Catalonian petitioners decided they no longer approve of the sport. Some may call this democracy in action, and technically they may be right. A popularly elected legislature did, in fact, vote to outlaw the sport in Catalonia. In fact, many Spaniards have argued that this is simply the Catalonian parliament taking an opportunity to show the rest of Spain just how different and independent they are from the rest of the country.

We are seeing a group of Spaniards stripped of rights.  These rights may not be as vital to modern life as others (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness property anyone?), but as of January 1, 2012 (the date the ban officially goes into effect), the right to participate in or watch a bullfight is no longer one that will be held by citizens of the Catalonia region of Spain.

Bullfighting and other local practices worldwide are being killed by globalization and homogenization. The world is able to completely see and experience what happens in a bullfight and many throughout the world disapprove. Animal rights groups are usually more than willing to point out how cruel it is to kill a bull, although the animal’s meat is then given to the poor for consumption. Perhaps McDonald’s does not kill their cows in such a way, but something tells me they kill many more in a year than bullfighters do. However, we do nothing so drastic to prevent the death of those bovine animals. This is not to say I support bullfighting or the cruel treatment of animals (or that bullfighting is or is not cruel), instead I support people stepping back and trying to appreciate other people’s cultures and traditions the way they see them. I’m not talking here about the rights of animals; I’m concerned with the rights of people.

This begs the question of how we are affected. Why does this matter to the average American citizen?  In all honesty, this isolated event does not. But events like this have affected the way of life celebrated by many Americans from a variety of backgrounds. If I were to try to take away part of someone’s religious practices (such as the sacrifice of an animal, consumption of peyote or even something as simple as the distribution of wine to minors during mass), they would take me all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary, in order to get the right to that practice back.  While it may be true that bullfighting is not a part of Catholicism or Buddhism or any other acknowledged religion that I am aware of, people who follow the bullfighting treat it as a more important part of their lives than most Americans treat religion (in reality, this probably includes me).

Practices fade, I understand.  And, maybe it is time for bullfighting to fade into history along with practices such as bear-baiting.  However, it is this often overeager practice of eliminating the old that worries me.  As we move forward we have provisions, both domestically and internationally, that protect people’s life, as well as things such as voting, speech, and freedom from discrimination based on various grounds, but what about protecting our culture and our heritage?

When we consider a person as a whole, they should be more than just a race, ethnicity and gender.  Those are the things they are born into, not what they choose.  At what point will we decide that something that is being stripped from people is a part of their heritage and should be protected as such by the law?

Article 27(1) of The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “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.” There’s a start. This is definitely a little vague, but for being written directly post-WWII, it looks(ed) like a step in a good direction. This gives us the right to participate, but then how are we to preserve the culture of the minority if someone takes away part of our cultural life?  In China, the government in Beijing has been slowly attempting to eliminate the base of Tibetan culture by only providing education in Mandarin Chinese and not in their native Tibetan. Will that be the straw that makes us realize that a minority’s traditions and practices can be and are stripped away when they are integrated into a minority that does not agree with or practice those same tenants?

In the United States, we have seen the Supreme Court stand as a last barrier between the elimination of many traditional practices which have been banned by local ordinances. However, these have come usually from religion-based cases such as City of Hialeah (animal sacrifice) or US v. Boyll (use of peyote) where a practice was held to be acceptable because of the religious significance it holds. However, The Court has placed limits on the use of religious practices to shield a cultural practice as in the other peyote case, Oregon v. Smith. Much like these barriers, some Spaniards are attempting to challenge the bullfighting band through their own legal system, and I wish them luck in restoring their tradition. Bullfighting may not be a religion in our traditional sense, but to many it is just as important to their lives as church is to many Americans. This type of following begs the question of where we draw the line between the protection of religious practices and the elimination of other practices, but that is another issue, for another time, in another post.

So, for now, the only legitimate conclusion I can see in the present legal climate is acceptance.  There is no legal repercussion for what has been done in Catalonia. A narrow majority spoke, and their voices were heard. For all practical purposes, that makes it ok. It just seems unnecessary to rob someone of their traditions for your own reasons, instead of letting them decide when and how the traditions will fade. Like many other traditions, the bulk of those who carry it on are of an older generation. So for the time being, the tradition will still be carried on in other areas of Spain, but for how long? In the words of Ernest Hemingway as he wrote about Bullfighting, “Anything capable of arousing passion in its favor will surely raise as much passion against it.” This time, passion against appears to have won the battle; however, the outcome of the war has yet to be seen.

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