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  • 29 September - 17 October 2003


    Paris, October 17 – Five standard-setting instruments, including the International Convention on the Preservation of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and the International Declaration on Human Genetic Data, were adopted by the 32nd session of UNESCO’s General Conference that ended today, and which was marked by the return of the United States of America to the Organization and by the adoption of a real-growth budget of US$ 610 million for 2004-2005.

    release_final.jpg The General Conference, UNESCO’s supreme governing body, brings together, every two years, representatives of all the Organization’s Member States, which – since the return of the U.S.A. and the accession to membership of Timor-Leste – number 190. A record number of some 3,580 participants, including five Heads of State and close to 300 government ministers, attended the session which took place at Organization Headquarters from September 29 to October 17.

    The President of the General Conference, Michael Abiola Omolewa of Nigeria praised the spirit of cooperation which marked the session. He declared: “The international community is facing difficult challenges today. […] The United Nations - and with it UNESCO – has found itself on the crossroads of history, in a decisive moment. […] UNESCO has become more visible, and more relevant. Today, four years after the new Director-General was elected, UNESCO has undeniably attained its maturity within the current international context.”

    For his part, the Director-General of UNESCO Koïchiro Matsuura said that this had been a “remarkable” session due to the importance of the subjects it handled and the spirit in which it took place. He welcomed standard-setting achievements, one of UNESCO’s core mandates. Speaking of the Convention on Intangible Heritage, he stressed that “In just two years, we have secured a convention. Such speed is, I believe, unprecedented.” Mr Matsuura added: “The world is now looking to UNESCO to address a number of questions of global interest which require concerted international action.”

    At the beginning of the general policy debate, on September 30, Mr Matsuura stressed that the process of globalization underway increases the pertinence of UNESCO’s standard-setting role: “The need for shared references, freely and universally accepted principles, is being felt where, due to developments, the rules of the game are yet to be defined. When I speak of ‘rules of the game’, I think of the framework in which States can fully exercise their sovereignty while positioning themselves in an international concertation regarding major global challenges. We have worked much on this in recent years, be it in the field of cultural heritage, cyberspace or bioethics.”

    Concerning heritage, the General Conference adopted by an overwhelming majority the International Convention on the Preservation of the Intangible Cultural Heritage*. A complement to the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which concerns monuments and natural sites, the new Convention addresses oral traditions and expressions, including languages as vehicles of cultural heritage; the performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship.

    The preservation of this particularly vulnerable heritage is provided for by the Convention through the drawing up of national inventories of cultural property to be safeguarded, 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.

    According to the Convention, safeguarding activities will be financed from a fund whose resources will come from the contributions of States Parties, funds appropriated for this purpose by the General Conference of UNESCO, contributions, gifts or bequests which may be made by other States, public or private bodies or individuals. The Convention will require at least 30 States Parties to enter into force.

    The General Conference adopted a Declaration Concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage*. According to this text, which recalls “the tragic destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan” and expresses “serious concern about the growing number of acts of intentional destruction of cultural heritage”, States should “take all appropriate measures to prevent, avoid, stop and suppress acts of intentional destruction of cultural heritage, wherever such heritage is located.” Although it is not legally binding, the Declaration should inspire the actions of States. It covers both situations of peace and war, of international and non-international conflicts, including instances of occupation. It calls on States to become parties to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two Protocols, and the four 1949 Geneva Conventions. The text calls on States to cooperate with each other and raise public awareness regarding this issue.

    On the subject of bioethics, the General Conference adopted an International Declaration on Human Genetic Data*, which lays down the ethical principles that should govern their collection, processing, storage and use. Genetic data are increasingly important, be it in medicine, or in legal and police affairs, and the growing reliance on such data is raising concerns about abuses undermining human rights and fundamental freedoms.

    The Declaration stipulates that “every effort should be made to ensure that human genetic and proteomic data are not used for purposes that discriminate in a

    way that is intended to infringe, or has the effect of infringing human rights, fundamental freedoms or human dignity of an individual or for purposes that lead to the stigmatization of an individual, a family, or a group or communities.” The purpose of the Declaration is clearly stated: to ensure the respect of human dignity and the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, in keeping with the requirements of equality, justice and solidarity, while giving due consideration to freedom of thought and expression, including freedom of research. It undertakes to define the principles that should guide States in formulating their legislation and their policies on these issues.

    Some of the principles evoked are: consent - which must be prior, free, informed and express – and confidentiality – “The privacy of an individual participating in a study using human genetic data, proteomic data or biological samples should be protected and the data should be treated as confidential.” But problems such as change of purpose, sharing benefits, cross-matching among different databanks etc. are also tackled by the Declaration.

    In the field of communication and information, the General Conference reaffirmed UNESCO’s commitment to extend to the internet the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to harness the formidable potential of information and communication technology (ICT) to the development of individuals, communities and countries. The measures adopted by the General Conference particularly emphasize the potential of ICT to contribute to the promotion of freedom of expression, linguistic and cultural diversity, education, and access to information (particularly to information in the public domain).

    Two standard-setting instruments were adopted in this domain. The Recommendation on the Promotion and Use of Multilingualism and Universal Access to Cyberspace*, concerning four aspects that must be taken into consideration so that the greatest number profit from the potential of ICT: development and promotion of multilingual content and systems; Access to networks and service; Development of public domain content; and Reaffirming and promoting the fair balance between the interests of rights-holders and the public interest. These measures aim to provide more equitable access to information and favour the development of multicultural knowledge societies.

    The Charter on the Preservation of the Digital Heritage* is a declaration of principle designed to assist Member States in preparing national policies to preserve, and provide access to, digital heritage. The digital heritage consists of unique resources of human knowledge and expression, be they cultural, educational, scientific or administrative, as well as technical, legal, medical and other kinds of information created digitally or converted into digital form from existing analogue resources. This fast growing heritage is particularly at risk because of the rapid obsolescence of the hardware and software with which it is generated and preserved. The Charter recognizes that this material constitutes a common heritage and that its preservation requires urgent measures.

    The General Conference also laid the ground for new standard-setting projects requesting that new instruments be prepared on the subjects of cultural diversity and the fight against doping in sport and bioethics. Draft texts could be presented to the 33rd session, in 2005.

    The General Conference thus requested that UNESCO prepare an international standard-setting instrument on cultural diversity. Already in 2001, it adopted the UNESCO Declaration on Cultural Diversity which, for the first time, recognized cultural diversity as a “common heritage of humanity” and considered its safeguarding to be a concrete and ethical imperative, inseparable from respect of human dignity. At the end of a long debate on the subject, delegates agreed that “cultural diversity, as regards the protection of the diversity of cultural contents and artistic expressions shall be the subject of an international convention.” They asked the Director-General to undertake consultations on the subject with the World Trade Organization, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and the World Intellectual Property Organization. The resolution invites the Director-General to submit a first draft convention on the protection of the diversity of cultural content and artistic expression to the next session of the General Conference.

    Member States also approved a proposal made by a Round Table of Ministers and Senior Officials Responsible for Physical Education and Sport, which was held in Paris on January 9 and 10, 2003, to prepare an international convention against doping in sport. A draft convention will be submitted to the 33rd session of the General Conference in 2005. The convention should be adopted before the Winter Olympic Games of Turin (Italy) in 2006. To date, five countries (Australia, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) have provided more than US$700,000 for the development of the convention.

    The General Conference also examined the desirability of elaborating a universal instrument on bioethics that would be more comprehensive than the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights adopted by UNESCO in 1997 and the one just adopted on human genetic data. Member States approved the project for such an instrument despite their awareness of the ethical dilemmas involved, as bioethics cover a wide range of areas and problems, such as those connected to embryology, which are set in the various cultural, philosophical and religious bedrocks of human communities. Member States asked the Director-General to submit a draft instrument in 2005. In his address, the President of France, Jacques Chirac strongly supported this undertaking.

    With the return of the USA to UNESCO after an absence of 19 years, the 32nd session took a “decisive step towards universality,” in the words of Mr Matsuura. The event was marked by the First Lady of the United States of America, Laura Bush, who addressed the General Conference on September 29, before the U.S. flag was raised alongside the flags of all Member States. In her address, Mrs Bush declared: “The United States government will once again be a full, active and enthusiastic participant in UNESCO’s important mission to promote peace and freedom and the people of my country will work with our UNESCO colleagues throughout the world to advance education, science, culture and understanding.” She also stressed that education “should have the first and highest call on our time and our resources.”

    Timor-Leste, “the world’s youngest democracy”, according to Mr Matsuura, also took part in the General Conference for the first time. The Director-General welcomed the new Member State: “By making its commitment to the United Nations one of its first official acts as an independent nation, Timor-Leste gives us a message of hope and confidence.” The Director-General stressed that UNESCO’s return to universality “serves to strengthen the bonds of multilateralism on which all our futures depend.”

    Five Heads of State took part in the session. At the opening, on September 29, the President of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal pleaded in favour of education, an “indispensable tool” for empowerment. The President of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi emphasized that “the diffusion of a universalist culture and of a pedagogy of peace appears more than ever to be the path that we must follow for the salvation of all nations on earth.” On October 6, the President of Kyrgyzstan, Askar Akayev, emphasized the importance of dialogue among cultures and civilizations. On October 14, the President of Peru, Alejandro Toledo, spoke of education as the best means to fight poverty. The President of France, Jacques Chirac, called for the preparation of a convention on cultural diversity and a universal declaration to set out the fundamental principles of bioethics.

    The 32nd session was also marked by the holding of two ministerial roundtable meetings. The Ministerial Round Table Meeting on “Quality Education” brought together almost 100 education ministers, deputy ministers and secretaries of state in charge of education on October 3 and 4. They focused on how quality education should be defined and how it could be achieved. In a Communiqué issued at the end of the meeting, the ministers agreed that quality education should embrace “certain basic knowledge, values, competencies and behaviours that are specifically attuned to globalization but reflect the beauty and richness of our diversity expressed in different forms of belief, spirituality, culture and language.” They stressed the role of teachers “as purveyors of knowledge and values, and as community leaders” and “recommended stepping up their pre- and in-service training.”

    The other Ministerial Round Table Meeting, “Towards Knowledge Societies”, was held on October 9 and 10. Close to 60 ministers and deputy ministers from all over the world discussed the objectives, principles and priorities that are to be promoted at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) which will be held in two parts, in Geneva on December 10-12 this year, and in Tunis in 2005. The ministers agreed on a Communiqué at the end of their meeting, which reflected the first international consensus at such a high level regarding the need to prioritize content, i.e. the material on the internet. The ministers endorsed UNESCO’s preference for the concept of “knowledge societies” to that of “information society”. They defined the concept, saying that “knowledge societies are about capabilities to identify, produce, process, transform, disseminate and use information to build and apply knowledge for human development”. This implies respect for a set of principles and priorities which the ministers defined as: “Freedom of expression; Universal access to information and knowledge; Respect for human dignity and cultural and linguistic diversity; Quality education for all; Investment in science and technology; Understanding and inclusion of indigenous knowledge systems.”

    In keeping with UNESCO’s Constitution, the General Conference also played its part in determining the policies and the main lines of work of the Organization. It examined the various reports presented by the Director-General, in particular the one concerning the reform process of the Organization. The Programmes were also reviewed and new members were elected to UNESCO’s Executive Board, the Organization’s other governing body, replacing half its members.

    The General Conference adopted the Programme and Budget for 2004-2005 whose five main priorities are: basic education for all; freshwater resources and ecosystems; the ethics of science and technology; promoting cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue; universal access to information especially information in the public domain. As to the 2004-2005 budget, the General Conference adopted the scenario proposed by the Director-General for a limited real-growth ceiling of US$610 million. Education, described by the Director-General as “a major tool for the implementation of UNESCO’s main objectives”, was allotted close to US$ 110 million, compared to US$ 95 million in 2002-2003. Education is also to receive significant extrabudgetary contributions, mainly for the follow-up to the Dakar World Education Forum and its Education For All targets.

    Among the numerous other resolutions that the General Conference adopted by consensus the one concerning Jerusalem and the occupied Arab territories should be noted. In an historic development, the two resolutions were the object of a strong consensus, supported by both Israeli and Palestinian representatives who viewed it as a “ray of hope”. The Member States reiterated their support for the initiative taken by the Director-General to prepare a comprehensive plan of action to safeguard the Old City of Jerusalem (al-Quds); and invite him to send as soon as possible, in cooperation with the concerned parties, a technical mission and to establish, within a year, a committee of experts “entrusted with proposing, on an exclusively scientific and technical basis, guidelines for this plan of action.” Concerning educational and cultural institutions in the occupied Arab territories, the General Conference “urgently” appealed “for necessary measures to be taken so as to enable the functioning of the Palestinian educational establishment.” Another resolution aims to reinforce dialogue among civilizations, in keeping with the New Delhi Ministerial Conference (July 2003) and of the Regional Forum for Dialogue Among Civilizations, which took place in Ohrid in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.


    * texts available on the website of the General Conference: www.unesco.org/confgen


    Source Press Release No.2003-83




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