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Culturelink Joint Publications Series

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UNESCO's Convention on the Protection and the Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions: Making it Work

Edited by Nina Obuljen and Joost Smiers
Culturelink Joint Publications Series No. 9, Institute for International Relations, Zagreb, 2006, 402 pp., ISBN 953-6096-40-4, 29

Introduction

On 20 October 2005, the General Conference of UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. This book provides the history behind the adoption of the Convention, analyses its legal value and potential impact, and tries to envisage the most appropriate strategies for its effective implementation.

Cultural production, distribution, exhibition and promotion worldwide are increasingly monopolised; fewer owners than ever before dominate the cultural market. At the same time, the choice available to consumers in many fields of the arts is less diversified. Cultural life is diminished when the variety of artistic expressions that can reach audiences and buyers of works of art is reduced. From a human rights perspective this is not a sound development. This reduction in the number of owners and the diversity of choices is also a threat to democracy, since a rich diversity of voices and images is essential for democratic discourse.

The UNESCO Convention is designed to be a legally-binding treaty that will confirm the right of nation states to intervene in the cultural market. It is meant to give states the possibility to take those measures they deem necessary for the protection and the promotion of the flourishing of the diversity of artistic expressions. This might be, for instance, to facilitate the production and distribution of works of art through tax measures or subsidies; it might include as well regulations to control the size of cultural enterprises, or to obligate firms to distribute the rich diversity of products created by artists in that country. It would certainly favour broad international exchanges of films, music, literature, works of visual arts and design, theatre, opera, musicals, and all the mixed, new and digitised forms that one can imagine. The (re)introduction of competition policies may be an important tool in that set of measures.

One of the purposes of this Convention is to prevent cultural life from being dominated by only a few players and to give consumers the possibility to choose from among the broad range of expressions that artists create and perform.

The Convention is necessary because in a world dominated by a neo-liberal economic agenda, any measure that distorts commerce is considered to be a barrier to free trade and runs the risk of being confronted by trade sanctions. This free trade context can be harmful for human rights, for environmental protection and for the maintenance of cultural diversity in our societies, the preoccupation of this book. Just as the Convention on Biodiversity tries to correct this harm for environmental questions, UNESCO's Convention on cultural diversity is meant to do this in the domain of artistic expressions.

The Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions represents an opportunity, but also presents a difficult challenge. Not only must it be ratified by a broad range of countries from every geo-political region, it must also be made to work. Making it work is essential if cultural diversity is to bloom and not be suppressed by multinational firms or trade sanctions. In Annex II the full text of the Convention can be found.

Part I of our book has two articles that trace the decades' long history of the struggle for more equal and balanced cultural relations the world over. Part II provides a realistic analysis of what the Convention gives us and some sobering observations of what it does not deliver. What kind of instrument is this? What rights and obligations does it give to member states? How will the Convention relate to the agreements administered by the WTO? What does it say about cultural relations between rich and poor countries? How did the negotiations proceed in UNESCO? Part III focuses on the implementation of the Convention. How will its implementation be monitored and how can countries learn from each other while trying to forge the right conditions for the development of cultural diversity? What kinds of regulations might be appropriate? The articles in Part IV focus on what civil society in all comers of the world can do, and should do, to make the Convention work. The final section, Part V, explores how the existing WTO framework cannot deal with the protection and promotion of cultural diversity and offers one possible alternative approach. We conclude the book with a text that speaks about why cultural diversity is so fundamental for human rights and a short reflection from Dr. Kadar Asmal about the importance of the Convention from his perspective. Dr. Asmal is a distinguished South African politician who chaired the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee of Experts and played a significant role in bridging the differences between key proponents of the Convention during the challenging negotiating process.

We would like sincerely to thank all of the authors who have contributed to this work; they have given freely of their time and considerable expertise. Some authors take a theoretical approach to issues of cultural diversity; others are more practical. Some contributions are shorter and some are much longer but we thought we needed to leave authors necessary space to express their concerns and ideas. Inevitably, some articles overlap, but what we tried to do was to create a book that looks at the Convention from many different angles. The purpose is to invigorate and inform citizens of all countries who respect democratic principles and human rights. We hope the book is useful for artists, members of civil society groups, civil servants and politicians as they struggle to make the Convention work. It is important to note that the contributors were among those who were strongly advocating and promoting the idea of the Convention, if they express criticisms of the outcome, it is because they wanted the instrument to be even stronger and more effective.

We understand that the Convention cannot remove all threats to cultural diversity; the future will bring new challenges to cultural diversity, both in the old media and the new digital world. Therefore, one will see described in the different chapters some of the pitfalls that lie ahead. However, the Convention and the struggle for cultural diversity - on the theoretical level and in daily practice - are extraordinarily valuable for those who do not want to live in a world where state censorship is supplanted by monopoly control of the media and cultural industries.

We believe we are at a critical crossroad. Down one road lies a flourishing of cultural expressions and more balanced global cultural exchanges. Down the other road lies increasing homogenisation of content and domination of markets by even fewer players. We believe it is make or break time for cultural diversity.

Nina Obuljen and Joost Smiers
Zagreb/Amsterdam
October 2006

 


 
 
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