UNESCO: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

The Organisation

Special Issue

A Burst of Creativity
May 2005, a meeting is convened in St Petersburg (Russian Federation) to prepare the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). September 2005, academic exchanges are organized in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso). October 2005, a large advertising company sponsors a photography prize. What do these events have in common? All of them, in diff erent ways, claim to relate to cultural diversity.
This not a new idea. The “fruitful diversity of cultures” is already mentioned in the 1945 UNESCO Constitution. But it has taken on particular prominence since globalization came along. Given that now all cultures are able to mingle (about 175 million people live outside of their countries of origin, and one person out of ten living in the industrialized countries is an immigrant, according to the United Nations’ 2002 International Migration Report), we need to remember that all forms of expression, value systems, traditions and beliefs are unique, fragile and irreplaceable. Their fragility is best illustrated when we look at languages. Out of 6,000 known languages, nearly 50% are estimated to be threatened with extinction. On the internet, 90% of languages are not represented. Right there, many cultures are threatened. In bridging the digital divide, defending copyright, collecting data on local and indigenous knowledge or safeguarding tangible and intangible heritage, UNESCO has been actively promoting cultural diversity since its creation.

Ethical imperative

“Cultural diversity has become pivotal to the future of societies and requires renewed action,” declared Director-General Koichiro Matsuura on May 21, 2005 (1). The unanimous adoption in November 2001 of the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity demonstrates how important the issue has become to the international community. For the first time, it created a normative instrument that raises cultural diversity to the rank of “common heritage of humanity… as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature”, and makes its safeguarding an ethical imperative indispensable to respect for human dignity. A year later, at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in September 2002, a Declaration was adopted that recognizes cultural diversity as a collective force that must be promoted to ensure sustainable development (para. 16). But a decisive step was taken when the 33rd session of the UNESCO General Conference adopted in October 2005 the International Convention on the Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Contents and Artistic Expressions, “considered to have been greatly undermined by current processes and not as yet enjoying any particular protection” (2). This time, unlike the Declaration, the Convention is a binding legal instrument and represents a commitment by the States that ratify it.

Its adoption was not a foregone conclusion. Three aspects were particularly controversial. The first has to do with definitions, notably of cultural goods and services: should they be considered products like any other goods? Finally, in the preamble, they are defi ned as having “both an economic and a cultural nature… ” and “must therefore not be treated as solely having commercial value”. And the aim of the Convention, expressed in Article I, is “to give recognition to the distinctive nature of cultural activities, goods and services as vehicles of identity, values and meaning”. Simply put, that means that films, CDs, or books are not only subject to the rules of the marketplace, but, as vehicles for identity, values and meaning, they may benefit from protection, i.e. preservation, safeguarding or promotion, as specified in the definitions. The second article affirms that States Parties may formulate cultural policies to support creativity. They may, for instance, subsidize arts and culture, or grant tax reductions to encourage and protect their national cultures, taking into consideration human rights and the free flow of information.

Finally, the third point concerns Article 20, which indicates that the Convention will not conflict with other treaties, but will work on the principle of “mutual supportiveness, complementarity and nonsubordination”. Less ardently discussed, the point concerning international cultural cooperation (Articles 12 to 19) sets out the conditions for a new form of solidarity that places culture at the heart of development. Finally, at the close of the passionate debates, the Convention was adopted. It will go into effect as soon as it has 30 States Parties.

1. Message of the Director-General of UNESCO on the occasion of the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, 21 May 2005
2. Ibid

See also:
  • Adoption of the 2005 Convention
        Bureau of Public Information press release
  • The 2005 Convention
        (59K - PDF format)
  • Message of the Director-General
        World Day for Cultural Diversity, 2005
  • Europe and North America Latin America and the Caribbean Africa Arab States Asia Pacific