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Nurturing the democratic debate.  
Hundreds of Ministers and five Heads of State expected at UNESCO's General Conference
Editorial Contact: Isabelle Le Fournis, UNESCO Press Service, tel. +33 (0)1 45 68 17 48 - fax: +33 (0)1 45 68 56 52

25-09-2003 11:00 am Safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage, cultural diversity, multilingualism on the internet and human genetic data are among the major themes that will be addressed during the 32nd session of the General Conference – UNESCO’s supreme governing body – which takes place from September 29 to October 17 in Paris. It will be attended by more than 3,000 participants, including five Heads of State and more than 300 ministers. A high point of the 32nd session will be the return to UNESCO of the United States of America, which had left the Organization in 1984. The decision, announced by President George W. Bush in September 2002, takes effect on October 1st, but will be marked on September 29 by a ceremony in the presence of Laura Bush after which the American flag will be raised to fly with those of all other Member States. With the return of the United States and the recent (June 2003) joining of Timor-Leste, the number of UNESCO Member States will stand at 190. Of the countries that had left the Organization, only Singapore has yet to rejoin.

The Heads of State who will participate in the General Conference are: Phillipines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (September 29); Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi (September 29); President of Kyrgyzstan, Askar Akaev, (October 6); French President Jacques Chirac (October 14); and Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo (October 14).

During this session, UNESCO will be called upon to play its standard-setting role, with several instruments – declarations, conventions or recommendations – to be considered for adoption. The preparation of other texts may also be decided.

In the field of culture, the Conference will examine the Preliminary Draft of an International Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. A complement to the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which covers monuments and natural sites, the new text deals with oral traditions and expressions, including language as the vehicle of cultural heritage, performing arts, social customs, rituals and festivities, knowledge and skills concerning nature and the world, and traditional crafts. To protect this particularly vulnerable heritage, the project calls for the States Parties concerned to draw up national inventories, and for UNESCO to establish both a list representing humanity’s intangible cultural heritage, and a list of intangible cultural heritage in dire need of safeguarding. The Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity proclaimed by UNESCO in 2001 would be included in the first list.

A Draft Declaration Concerning the Acts Constituting a Crime against the Common Heritage of Humanity will also be presented to the Conference. Events in Afghanistan and Iraq illustrate the need for reinforcing the legal arsenal of the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (The Hague, 1954) and its two Protocols (1954 and 1999), as well as certain provisions of the Additional Protocols (1977) in the four Geneva Conventions. Although not legally binding, the project is likely to inspire the actions of States. It covers both situations of peace and war, and international and non-international conflicts including instances of occupation.

Member States will furthermore need to decide whether to elaborate an international standard-setting instrument concerning cultural diversity. In 2001, they adopted the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, which for the first time recognized the latter as a “common heritage of humanity” and considered its safeguarding to be a concrete and ethical imperative, inseparable from respect of human dignity. Despite its moral authority, the declaration appears inadequate to many in the context of globalization. Hence the idea of developing a legally binding instrument – a convention – that would apply to specific cultural domains, such as the protection of the diversity of cultural contents and artistic expressions conveyed by cultural industries.

In the area of communication and information, two texts will be studied by the Conference: a draft Recommendation on the Promotion and use of Multilingualism and Universal Access to Cyberspace and a Draft Charter on the Preservation of the Digital Heritage. The Recommendation aims to guarantee equitable access to information, and to facilitate the development of multicultural knowledge societies; it also defines guidelines for promoting cultural and linguistic diversity. The Charter on the Preservation of the Digital Heritage consists of a declaration of principles to help Member States establish national policies to preserve digital heritage and make it accessible. Digital heritage is growing daily, but is extremely vulnerable because frequently ephemeral. Knowledge and artistic works created digitally – internet website pages, for instance – are lost. This can be due to the rapid obsolescence of hardware and software used to produce them or access to them, but also simply because little has yet been put in place (including legislation, concerning such aspects as archives, legal or voluntary deposit, or the often complicated problem of authors’ rights) to preserve digital heritage.

In communication, UNESCO promotes the concept of “knowledge societies” – stressing contents, diversity and participation – rather than that of the “information society” which puts too much emphasis on technical issues. These two ideas form the basis of the round table meeting for communication and information ministers on October
9 and 10. Opened by UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura, it will include contributions by former Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and the President of the Intergovernmental Preparatory Committee for the World Summit on the Information Society (Geneva, December 10-12), Adama Samassekou from Mali. The round table, entitled “Towards Knowledge Societies”, is being held in the framework of summit preparations.

Another round table will precede it, on October 3 and 4, for the benefit of education ministers and based on the theme of “The Quality of Education”. The need to boost the quality of education was reaffirmed at the World Education Forum in Dakar (2000). The exponential growth of demand for education at the global level and the disparities and weaknesses apparent in the education systems of several regions raise several questions: What works in the classroom? What is being taught and what is being learned there? During three sessions (Challenges and Dilemmas facing the Quality of Education; The Need for an Expanded Definition of the Quality of Education; and Tools for Change and Improvement) roundtable participants will seek means to improve access to education, with a view to ensuring that children not only attend school but also do well.

UNESCO’s mandate in the field of education also covers physical education and sport. Following a proposal from a round table of ministers in charge of these areas (January 2003), UNESCO’s Executive Board added to the General Conference agenda a proposal that the Organization develop, in cooperation with the United Nations, the UN system’s concerned agencies and the Council of Europe, an international convention against doping in sport. If the General Conference confirms this decision, a text – prepared in close collaboration with organizations such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), and the Intergovernmental Consultative Group on Anti-Doping in Sport – will be presented to its 33rd session (2005) and finalized before the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin (Italy).

On the subject of science, the Member States will discuss the possibility of drawing up an international instrument on bioethics. Specialists, decision-makers and civil society increasingly recognize the urgent need for universal ethical guidelines covering a range of crucial questions in this domain. However, the question has been raised as to whether it is desirable to set such guidelines, or legislate, in a domain that is progressing so rapidly and where the implications of progress are constantly changing. Both UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee (IBC), and the Intergovernmental Bioethics Committee (IGBC) have declared they are in favour of elaborating such an instrument, but have recommended that it not be legally binding.

For now, the Draft International Declaration on Human Genetic Data, a document with more limited scope but numerous medical and legal implications, will be presented for adoption during the session. Human genetic data - collected in biological samples including blood, tissue, saliva, sperm, etc. – are already answering the questions of judges and police. From the medical point of view, they allow for ever more testing, and promise, furthermore, breakthroughs in treating disease. It is not surprising that data banks are multiplying. But genetic data also pose problems, such as the risk that they will open the door to discrimination and practices contrary to human rights and fundamental liberties. The text before the General Conference sets out the ethical principles that should govern the collection, processing, storage and use of such data.

Besides this fundamental standard-setting work, the General Conference will determine the policies and the main lines of work of the Organization, in keeping with its Constitution. It will therefore examine various reports by the Director-General, notably the report on UNESCO’s activities in 2000-2001 and the Organization’s reform. The General Conference will also examine and adopt the Draft Programme and Budget for 2004-2005, whose five priorities are: education for all; water resources and associated ecosystems; ethics of science and technology; promoting cultural diversity and dialogue between cultures; and access to information and knowledge. Concerning the budget, the Director-General will propose a slight increase in real terms, with a budget of US$610 million. The General Conference will also debate the outline of the Draft Programme and Budget for 2006-2007.

The General Conference is also responsible for electing the members of the Executive Board, UNESCO’s other main governing body. Half of the members of the Executive Board are replaced at each session of the General Conference. The Executive Board election will be held on October 10, with a second round if necessary on October 11. The Executive Board, which is presently chaired by Aziza Bennani (Morocco), will meet after the General Conference to choose a new Chairperson.

A Youth Forum – “UNESCO and Youth: A Reciprocal Commitment” – will be held prior to the General Conference, from September 26 to 28. Its results will be presented to the Conference. A virtual exhibition will also coincide with the General Conference. Entitled “Building Knowledge Societies”, it will be inaugurated on September 29 by the Director-General. Through its four themes – Creating Knowledge, Transmitting Knowledge, Sharing Knowledge, Preserving Knowledge – UNESCO illustrates how information and communication technologies can contribute to development. The exhibition – available on the internet (www.unesco.org/webworld/) from September 29 – will also be presented in Geneva at the World Summit on the Information Society.

Special accreditation is needed to cover the General Conference.
Contact: Isabelle Le Fournis, UNESCO Press Service, tel. +33 (0)1 45 68 17 48 - fax: +33 (0)1 45 68 56 52

More information on the General Conference, including its timetable and documents,
is available at:

Source Press Release No 2003 - 61

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