09-10-2003 4:05 pm - Safeguarding the world’s intangible heritage, cultural diversity and the protection of cultural heritage from intentional destruction, are the main topics on the cultural agenda at the 32nd Session of UNESCO’s General Conference (September 29 - October 17) underway at the Organization’s Paris Headquarters. Delegates from UNESCO’s 190* Member States will first look at the preliminary draft of an International Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. If adopted, it will complete existing conventions protecting “tangible” heritage on land (monuments and natural sites) or under water (wrecks, submerged sites, etc.).
The types of intangible heritage that the future convention would serve to safeguard include “oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage; the performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship.” If adopted by the General Conference **, the Convention will require at least 30 States Parties to enter into force, thus providing international legal protection to an entire section of the common heritage of humanity that is particularly fragile and endangered.
The convention specifically provides for the drawing up of national inventories of cultural property to be protected, the establishment of an Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, composed of experts from future States Parties to the Convention, and the creation of two lists – a Representative List of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity and a List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. The text stresses that safeguarding intangible cultural heritage is a complex process involving many parties, starting with the communities and groups that bring it to life.
Cultural diversity, referred to already in UNESCO’s Constitution, is today a major concern of the Organization and an item on the Conference agenda.
The last Session of the General Conference, in November 2001, adopted by acclamation a Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, in response to the cultural challenges of globalization. This solemn Declaration recognises, for the first time, that “cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature.”
Today, while a certain number of countries consider the non-binding Declaration sufficient, others are in favour of adopting a legally binding instrument, concerning, particularly, diversity of cultural content and artistic expression. The General Conference must therefore decide on the desirability of preparing an international convention on cultural content and artistic expression, knowing that cultural goods and services, as vectors of identity, values and meaning, “must not be treated as mere commodities or consumer goods”, as stated by Article 8 of the Universal Declaration.
The General Conference will also discuss the desirability of adopting a Declaration concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage, a non-binding instrument that would encourage States to take necessary measures to prevent and prohibit intentional destruction of cultural heritage (and, when linked, natural heritage) in time of peace and in the event of armed conflict. The draft to be debated was inspired by the impassioned reaction provoked in March 2001 by the deliberate destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taleban in Afghanistan.
The cultural discussions at the General Conference will also include an evaluation of the implementation of the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which on July 1 2003 had been ratified by the 100 State Parties. With Switzerland having officially joined on October 1, they are now 101.
* The return to UNESCO of the United States became official on October 1.
** After discussion of the preliminary draft in Commission IV, the final decision will be made in a plenary session of the General Conference.