UNESCO adopts convention to protect diversity

IPS, 20 October 2005

CULTURE: UNESCO Adopts Convention to Protect Diversity

Julio Godoy

PARIS, Oct 20 (IPS) - The United Nations cultural body adopted an international treaty Thursday to protect cultural diversity, marking what experts say is a first but important moral victory in the long-running fight to preserve the world’s cultural richness.

After more than three years of sometimes cantankerous debates, the General Conference of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation), meeting at the Paris headquarters, adopted by overwhelming majority the Convention on the Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Contents and Artistic Expressions.

In the Thursday vote, 148 countries approved the convention, two — the United States and Israel — voted against it, and four abstained. The new rules will enter into force three months after its ratification by 30 states.

Although the treaty is seen as a triumph for developing and European countries in the struggle to preserve their unique cultural identities from domination by the so-called "entertainment industry", à la Hollywood, many experts see it as only a first step.

"The adoption of this convention is a moral victory, but the real test is whether developing countries will resist U.S. pressure to commit their audiovisual services and information services during trade negotiations," Sasha Constanza Koch, media expert with the coalition Communication Rights in the Information Society, told IPS.

Constanza Koch, who followed these UNESCO debates since their inception in late 2003, says the U.S. government has been luring developing countries into signing bilateral trade agreements in which they give up their rights to preserve and support their own unique audiovisual and information services, including film, television and music.

During the debates the U.S. delegation to UNESCO argued that because cultural goods are also an object of international trade, the UN agency does not have the authority to establish global binding rules on the matter.

The U.S. government remained staunch in its opposition to the convention until the very end of the UNESCO cultural diversity debates.

"This convention is actually about trade... clearly exceeds the mandate of UNESCO," Richard Martin, co-head of the U.S. delegation, said in one debate. He called the convention’s text "deeply flawed and fundamentally incompatible with (the agency’s) obligation to promote the free flow of ideas by word and image."

Some observers said that Martin’s remarks served as proof that the United States views cultural goods as mere merchandise — exactly the opposite view shared by, they say, most of the rest of world.

Martin added that the convention "could impair rights and obligations under other international agreements and adversely impact prospects for successful completion of the Doha Development Round negotiations."

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is struggling to reach consensus on the global trade talks, named for the Qatari capital, where it was launched in 2001. The world’s trade ministers are meeting in Hong Kong in December for what is widely seen as the final effort to save the Doha Round.

Despite the strong U.S. opposition, the cultural diversity convention draft steadily gained support, including from countries that earlier in the UNESCO discussions had appeared to side with the United States against it.

Countries such as Japan, India, Brazil, and Mexico — all strong in exports of their own national film, music, radio, books, television programming and other cultural goods — approved the convention’s central notion, that these diverse goods produced around the world are not simply merchandise, but expressions of rich individual uniqueness and cultural identities.

For that very reason, they argued, cultural goods deserve to be preserved and supported, even financially, by states.

In its first article, the treaty reaffirms the sovereign right of states to elaborate cultural policies "to protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions" and "to create the conditions for cultures to flourish and to freely interact in a mutually beneficial manner."

In its Guiding Principle, the convention guarantees that all measures aimed at protecting and promoting the diversity of cultural expressions shall not hinder respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, "such as freedom of expression, information and communication, as well as the ability of individuals to choose (them)..."

In its Principle of Openness and Balance, the convention also ensures that when states adopt measures in favour of the cultural diversity, "they should seek to promote, in an appropriate manner, openness to other cultures of the world."

Despite these declarations of principles, many experts see the convention as only a first step in a long-term struggle to guarantee the survival of the world’s cultural heritage.

David Kessler, who served as cultural policy adviser to the former French prime minister Lionel Jospin, greeted the convention as a "considerable advancement" in enhancing the value of cultural goods in the face of international rules.

However, he said, "The convention does not rule on the real difficulty to come, namely, how this new juridical instrument will be treated in the discussions within the World Trade Organisation."

"Is it going to be considered as an exception within the framework of the WTO, or are people at it going to say, ’Oh, this has been signed at UNESCO, but it does not touch our work.’ This question will be at the heart of the battles to come," Kessler added.

At the same time, he said the convention will be a helpful instrument for those states trying to resist pressures to sign bilateral trade agreements. "Tomorrow, national authorities all over the world can say: ’This convention is an instrument that recognises our rights to preserve our culture, which allows us to say that our cultural goods cannot be treated like other trade sectors."

Other experts underlined what they see as additional virtues of the treaty.

On the one side, the convention, if approved by 30 states, will have the same legal value of all other international sets of rules. "This disposition, if properly used, can weaken the power of the general agreement on services at the WTO," says Mohamed Lotfi M’rini, professor of international trade at the University of Laval, in Canada.

However, M’rini says, this would not be applicable to the rights and obligations contracted by countries under bilateral or multilateral trade agreements, such as the North American and the Central American free trade agreements (NAFTA and CAFTA), in which the United States is the central player.

In addition, M’rini warned that the convention has other major flaws: For instance, its disputes mechanism has no real juridical standing. And the so-called Indian clause, added by the Indian government at the last minute of the debates, allows for non-ratifying countries to ignore the validity of the convention.

This means that, despite the existence of the convention to protect cultural diversity, the WTO’s legal structure will remain the sole valid framework for resolving disputes concerning trade questions on cultural goods.

It is a reality that will likely test the strength of the conviction of the states that approved the convention in Paris. (END/2005)

source: IPS