UNESCO rundbordskonf., sept. 02



Requested to represent IPA and P.E.N. International at the UNESCO 3rd Round Table of Ministers of Culture on Intangible Cultural Heritage, Istanbul 16-17th September 2002, Norwegian P.E.N. sent me as a delegate with observer status. Although I was pre-registered, neither the Turkish authorities nor the organizers had any knowledge of my or P.E.N.’s coming. I was however courteously and duly accredited and had free access to all proceedings. The Round Table was hosted by the Turkish Ministry of Culture, and attended i.a. by the President of Turkey as well as former Secretary General of the UN, Mr. Perez de Cuellar.

2002 being the United Nations Year for Cultural Heritage, the purpose of the meeting was to further the process initiated by UNESCO’s Director General, Mr. Koichiro Matsuura, to establish an international convention for the safeguarding of the world’s intangible cultural heritage. The main intentions of such a convention would be to preserve and promote cultural diversity (as stated in the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, 2001), and to give the intangible, or immaterial cultural heritages of nations the same status as the tangible, or material ones. If temples and monuments should be preserved, why not legends and rituals? In fact, many would argue, the world’s (man-made) material heritage is but a dead heritage, whereas the immaterial one is alive and will be a determinant factor in the shaping of our future.

In the Final Communiqué, the Istanbul Declaration, intangible cultural heritage is defined thus:
The intangible cultural heritage constitutes a set of living and constantly recreated practices, knowledge and representations enabling individuals and communities, at all levels, to express their world conception through systems of values and ethical standards. Intangible cultural heritage creates among communities a sense of belonging and continuity, and is therefore considered as one of the mainsprings of creativity and cultural creation. From this point of view, an all-encompassing approach to cultural heritage should prevail, taking into account the dynamic link between the tangible and intangible heritage and their close interaction.

This definition serves as a good illustration of the whole issue’s main problem: Intangible cultural heritage can be whatever one wants it to be. A forthcoming Intergovernmental Experts Meeting in Paris will no doubt do its best to clarify what should and should not be considered an intangible cultural heritage worthy of preservation and promotion, but still it remains a highly complex matter. A ratified Convention would oblige member states to abide by a law that governs … what? One can easily argue that literacy – the ability to acquire and impart knowledge through written language – surely must be one of mankind’s most important and fundamental intangible cultural heritages. On the other hand, one can hardly imagine the world’s nations sign a legal document that would oblige them to enforce a ban on illiteracy.

Present at the meeting were 71 delegates on a ministerial level (ministers of culture or equivalent), 38 delegates from nations participating as observers, and 9 NGOs. Influential European countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands were not represented by their ministers, while oddly enough, neither Sweden nor the UK were represented at all.

While a clear majority of the nations represented supported the idea of a Convention, some (mainly Europeans) had grave concerns regarding the challenging juridical questions of definition and enforcement. Specifically, as diverse nations as i.a. Spain, Switzerland, the Philippines and Haiti voiced anxiety that a Convention would create financial problems for poor countries, who often have an important heritage to preserve. Nations such as Denmark, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway doubt that a Convention should be the first step in a complicated process, and argued for an initial phase of survey and development of  “best practice”-policies. They were also concerned that the vitality of mankind’s intangible cultural heritage might suffer by being “frozen” in an official list. Nigeria expressed a valid concern in questioning how to make young people interested in what national and international institutions might call intangible cultural heritages, but that they perceive as traditions they don’t necessarily see the point in adhering to.

Of special interest to P.E.N., Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Canada and Norway made a point of the necessity to include a protection of human rights in general, and rights of expression in particular, in a convention. “We can’t have a convention that undermines the other, broader rights,” to quote the Danish delegate.

This last point is of vital importance, but did not seem to be on most countries’ agenda. While it is easy enough to argue for the preservation of for instance folkloristic dances, dresses and practices, it is much more complicated and challenging to take the next logical step and argue that such preservation presupposes the populations’ rights to freely express those practices – orally, in writing and by other means. A convention that does not explicitly guarantee the rights of expression, publication, belief, choice of language etc., would in fact run the risk of threatening the very practices it aims at protecting, as well as undermining the respect for those rights in general.

In the Final Communiqué, scarce mention is made of these issues. The principles that the participating countries “undertake to actively promote”, only include an indirect mention in § (ii): “Steps must be taken to ensure that the expressions of intangible heritage benefit from recognition within States, provided that they respect universally recognised human rights.”

Otherwise the text refers, in § (ix), to the need for member states to be informed on UNESCO’s “cooperation with other relevant international organisations, such as WIPO, as such information will be useful to Member States in further developing their policies on the protection of intangible cultural heritage.”

WIPO – the World Intellectual Property Organization – actively promotes the crucial issue of copyright.

As UNESCO is now in the process of working out a detailed proposal for a new convention (the previous General Conference decided that such a convention should be established), it is strongly recommended that P.E.N. use the opportunity to forcefully lobby for an inclusion of the importance of protecting the above mentioned rights in the text. This should be done directly to UNESCO, and also nationally to the respective governments who will participate in the forthcoming Intergovernmental Experts Meeting.

Torvastad, September 30th, 2002

Halfdan W. Freihow