UNESCO Chair in Human Rights and Democracy

The UNESCO Chair in Human Rights and Democracy of the University of Fribourg provides an interdisciplinary analysis of human rights, their content, interdependence and implementation, with a particular focus on cultural rights. A second central theme of the Chair is the relationship between human rights, democracy and federalism.

Its activities are carried out in close collaboration with the worldwide network of UNESCO Chairs, the “Observatoire de la diversité et des droits culturels”, the Institute of Federalism, the Interdisciplinary Institute of Ethics and Human Rights and many other partners.

  • History and mission

    In 1998, a UNESCO Chair in Human Rights and Democracy was created at the University of Fribourg. Since its inception, the Chair has dedicated its efforts to exploring the connection between the indivisibility of human rights and different forms of democratic culture. It has been doing so by adopting an interdisciplinary perspective necessary to understand the nature of each human right within the broader human rights framework. Such a holistic approach is essential to their interpretation and implementation.  

    The focus is specifically on cultural rights, as a 'category of human rights' that is still largely undeveloped. “An important function of the Chair will be to develop research and teaching in the field of cultural rights and to collaborate in the development of instruments in this area.” (Agreement establishing the Chair, §6, translated)

    The universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights are the three principles that ensure unbiased and objective fundamental political ethics. These principles theoretically prevent the various actors, whether State or non-State, from arbitrarily choosing to implement the rights that are most convenient to them. The reality is far from this ideal of shared democracy. Taking account of the diversity of democratic cultures in an interdisciplinary approach to ethics and human rights is the common thread running through the Chair.

    The mission of UNESCO Chairs is to develop research and teaching in conjunction with the worldwide network of UNESCO Chairs, based on a system of twinning and networking between universities (UNITWIN programme).

  • Activities (selection)

    Since 2022: Various initiatives to update and complement the Fribourg Declaration.

    2023 – 2025: SNSF-funded research project on human rights, democracy and federalism in times of crisis, analysing Swiss governance of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    2022 – 2025: Horizon Europe research project assessing legitimate crisis governance in multi-level systems (LEGITIMULT). The project analyses the impact of COVID-19 measures on democratic governance and human rights in Europe.

    2011 – 2022: Numerous projects carried out in collaboration with the Swiss Centre of Expertise in Human Rights (SCHR), in particular on the human rights of vulnerable people.

    2020 – 2021: Project and conference on the cultural rights of people living in exile, in collaboration with the UNESCO Chair on “la diversité des expressions culturelles” Université Laval in Quebec City.

    2011 – 2018: Project to observe public policies with regard to cultural rights (Paideia), in close collaboration with “Réseau Culture 21”.

    2016: Research project on the political implementation of the human rights-based approach to development, with the UNESCO Chair on Human Rights, International Cooperation and Sustainable Development at the University of Bergamo.

    2013 – 2016: Research project on intersectionality in human rights violations and multiple discrimination, supported by SNIS.

    2009: Collaboration with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on the creation of a special procedure in the field of cultural rights, and contribution to the reports of the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights.

    2007: The Chair's decisive international contribution to the development of cultural rights through the publication of the Declaration of Cultural Rights, known as the Fribourg Declaration.

    2005: Collaboration with the Council of Europe on a number of occasions, in particular during the drafting of the Council of Europe's Framework Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society (known as the Faro Convention).

    2001: Collaboration with UNESCO and the ”Organisation internationale de la Francophonie“ on the drafting and interpretation of the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity.

  • Team

    The first chairholder of the UNESCO Chair was Professor of Constitutional Law Marco Borghi, from 1998 to 2016.

    He was succeeded in 2016 by Prof Dr Eva Maria Belser, Professor of Constitutional and Administrative Law and Co-Director of the Institute of Federalism.

    Prof Dr Sarah Progin-Theuerkauf, Professor of European and Migration Law and Co-Director of the Centre for Migration Law, joined the Chair in 2020 as Co-Chairholder.

    The Chair is coordinated by Dr Rekha Oleschak. Patrice Meyer-Bisch (MER) is the former coordinator and still works closely with the Chair. He is the president of the “Observatoire de la diversité et des droits culturels”.

  • Partners