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Culturelink review, no.38/November 2002 - contents - imprint - archive

Third Round Table of Ministers of Culture

Intangible Cultural Heritage - A Mirror of Cultural Diversity
Report from Istanbul

The linkages of sustainable development, cultural diversity and intangible cultural heritage in the context of globalization were discussed by the ministers of culture at UNESCO's round table on Intangible Cultural Heritage: A Mirror of Cultural Diversity, held in Istanbul, 16-17 September 2002. UNESCO's preparatory committee for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg (25 August - 4 September 2002) devoted a whole chapter of Recommendations for the World Summit to sustainable development through the preservation of cultural diversity. The Political Declaration with which the World Summit ended defined cultural diversity as 'a collective force in the service of sustainable development'. UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, adopted in November 2001, affirmed the importance of the study of the relations between culture, or cultural diversity, and sustainable development. In this way, cultural diversity is seen as being on par in importance with the previously defined biological diversity. Cultural diversity presupposes the existence of the process of exchange, openness to innovations and creativity, and - to an equal measure - respect for tradition. This last point is certainly not intended as a mere static preservation of the traditional patterns of behaviour, value and expression.

In discussions about the preservation of cultural diversity, the definition of this concept remains a problem. In some cases, it is closely linked with the concept of human rights (the UN Resolution on cultural diversity and human rights, 2000). Thus, the right to preserve and promote cultural diversity is treated as one of the fundamental human rights, and it is the responsibility of governments in the first place to secure the right of all their citizens to freely express their characteristic cultural traits, that is, their cultural identity. Equally, the existence of provisions for the expression of cultural differences is a measure of tolerance and the degree of democracy of any society.

When the question of cultural diversity is enlarged and placed within the context of global developments (political and economic trends), it leaves behind the concerns of specific political or geographic areas and becomes a 'universal' problem that can be tackled only in an integral fashion and on the basis of a broad consensus.

Intangible cultural heritage is crucial for the recognition and definition of cultural identities, but also it is a segment of culture that is most vulnerable. For instance, we are witnessing the demise of many languages that used to serve the needs of various traditional cultures and their characteristic manifestations. They are disappearing at an accelerated rate, together with all the other forms of material and non-material heritage, including the knowledge and customs cultivated for generations and deeply linked with the concept of 'sustainability'. The extinction of customs and traditional knowledge, and their replacement by 'imported' patterns of behaviour, not infrequently leads - as noted in UNESCO's documents - to new forms of social, cultural and economic exclusion. Such trends are the consequence of fast-growing migrations, both internally (within individual countries, from the rural countryside to cities) and externally (on the international plane, from underdeveloped to more developed countries). These trends are also the product of various other influences which are usually lumped together under the label of 'negative effects of globalization'. In recent years, growing attention has been paid to the problem of trade in cultural products and services on what is increasingly a globalized market, whose uniformity results in the loss of culture-specific traits. For this reason, this is also the time of rapid growth of cultural and creative industries, and it is important that we should find the way to use the new media to promote original creative products, thus giving the intangible cultural heritage a new lease of life.

International solidarity, cooperation and action are important for the preservation of intangible culture, but equally important are the measures to be taken on the national and local levels to stimulate educational programmes, to establish local and national bodies of authority in this domain, and to pass the appropriate legislation.

The round table ended with the unanimously adopted Istanbul Declaration, which stresses the importance of the intangible cultural heritage as a common wealth of mankind and, at the same time, one of the cornerstones of cultural identity. It is not static; rather, it embraces a range of living knowledge and skills, but it is threatened with marginalization and extinction. That is why effective action is needed to save such heritage. Despite its negative effects, globalization can facilitate its diffusion, especially by means of the new information and communication technologies, and thus lead to greater tolerance and respect for cultural diversity. The intangible heritage appears as a guarantor of sustainable development. The ministers voiced their full support for effective measures at all levels, from international to local, to preserve, protect and improve the intangible cultural heritage. They stressed that the adoption of an international convention, recognizing the complex nature of the definition of intangible heritage, would be a positive step towards the realization of this objective.

Istanbul Declaration

At the close of the Round Table of the Ministers of Culture on 'Intangible Cultural Heritage - A Mirror of Cultural Diversity', held in Istanbul on 16 and 17 September 2002 - United Nations Year for Cultural Heritage - we, the participating and represented Ministers of Culture, arrived, on the basis of our exchanges, at the following joint positions:

  • The multiple expressions of intangible cultural heritage constitute some of the fundamental sources of cultural identity of peoples and their communities, as well as a wealth common to the whole of humanity. Deeply rooted in local history and the natural environment and embodied, among others by a great variety of languages that translate as many world visions, they are an essential factor in the preservation of cultural diversity, in line with the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001).
  • 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 one of the mainstays 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.
  • The safeguarding and transmission of the intangible heritage is essentially based on the will and effective intervention of the actors involved in this heritage. In order to ensure the sustainability of this process, governments have a duty to take measures facilitating the democratic participation of all stakeholders.
  • The extreme vulnerability of the intangible cultural heritage, which is threatened by disappearance or marginalisation, as a result inter alia of conflicts, intolerance, excessive merchandising, uncontrolled urbanisation or rural decay, requires that governments take resolute action respecting the contexts in which the intangible cultural heritage is expressed and disseminated.
  • The process of globalisation, while presenting serious threats of uniformisation on intangible cultural heritage, may facilitate its dissemination, mainly through new information and communication technologies, thereby creating a digital heritage also worthy of safeguarding. Globalisation can therefore facilitate the emergence of a set of references common to all humankind and thus promote values of solidarity and tolerance resulting in a better understanding of others and respect for diversity.
  • Laying the foundations of true sustainable development requires the emergence of an integrated vision of development based on the enhancement of values and practices involved in the intangible cultural heritage. Like cultural diversity, which stems from it, intangible cultural heritage is a guarantee for sustainable development and peace.
  • In conclusion we, the participating and represented Ministers of Culture, aware of the urgency to take action:
    • Undertake to actively promote the principles set out in the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity;
    • Agree to develop policies which aim at the identification, safeguarding, promotion and transmission of the intangible cultural heritage, particularly through information and education. 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;
    • Seek to, within the framework of the policies of each State, at the appropriate level: encourage research and documentation, develop inventories and registers, establish legislations and appropriate mechanisms of protection, ensure the dissemination, through education and awareness, of the values and significance of intangible cultural heritage, foster the recognition and protection of custodians together with the transmission of knowledge and know-how;
    • Consider that it is appropriate and necessary, within this framework, in close collaboration with the practitioners and bearers of all expressions of intangible cultural heritage, to consult and involve all the stakeholders, namely the governments, local and regional communities, the scientific community, the educational institutions, the civil society, the public and private sector as well as the media;
    • Appreciate and support the initiative taken by UNESCO regarding the Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity;
    • Call upon UNESCO to foster the development of new forms of international cooperation, for example by setting up mechanisms of recognition, inventories of best practices and the creation of networks, by mobilising resources and encouraging consultations between countries sharing expressions of intangible heritage;
    • Endeavour, in the spirit of international solidarity, to pay special attention to countries, such as Afghanistan, and to territories suffering from poverty, conflicts or crisis, and extend assistance when deemed necessary; and call on UNESCO to examine the possibility of establishing a special fund to that end;
    • Consider that, in the spirit of the 31C/Resolution 30 adopted by the General Conference, an appropriate international Convention, which should be developed in close cooperation with relevant international organisations and take into full account the complexity of defining intangible cultural heritage, could be a positive step towards pursuing our goal; and therefore, in a spirit of constructive cooperation, undertake to participate in the forthcoming debate of the Intergovernmental Experts Meeting in order to start elaboration of the preliminary draft of such a Convention;
    • Request UNESCO to inform the Member States of its 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;
  • We request the Director General to transmit the present Istanbul Declaration to the Member States of UNESCO and to circulate it widely to the relevant regional, national and international organisations and to the organs of the press.
  • We express our deep gratitude to the Turkish authorities for their warm hospitality, and for their active contribution to the preparation of the Round Table and its successful outcome.

The full text of the Istanbul Declaration can be found at http://portal.unesco.org/culture roundtable.

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New International Programme on Local Content

UNESCO has just launched an initiative in the field of local content production. The new UNESCO 'Programme for Creative Content' aims to stimulate creativity and innovation on a local level through television, radio and new media in developing countries.

The main objective of this international effort is to promote the expression of cultural and linguistic diversity through communication and information, thereby contributing to the creation of an inclusive knowledge society, where disadvantaged communities may be active participants.

The programme will encourage the production of creative, culturally diverse content for radio, television and new media in developing countries, stimulate the dissemination and exchange of information from developing countries at the national, regional and international levels and provide advanced training to content-makers from disadvantaged areas in their own regions.

The target group of this initiative is television and radio training institutions, television and radio directors, scriptwriters and producers, who work independently with community stations or with public service broadcasters as well as on-line and off-line material developers.

UNESCO's first activity organised under this umbrella is to produce programmes for television by local directors which will foster inter-cultural dialogue, with youth from disadvantaged areas as the target audience. The material will be disseminated world-wide through broadcasters and schools.

For more information, please visit: http://www.unesco.org/webworld