UNESCO: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

The Organisation

Special Issue

Cultural Diversity can neither be decreed nor improvised
We have come a long way from the equal dignity of cultures to the diversity of cultural expressions
For the first time in 2001, UNESCO recognized cultural diversity as the “common heritage of humanity”
The UNESCO Constitution mandates the Organization both to respect the “fruitful diversity of (...) cultures” and to “promote the free flow of ideas by word and image”. Since the Constitution was adopted, UNESCO has spared no effort to fulfil this double mission. Its progression between 1946 and 2005 is easily followed.

Diversity remains the central issue, but it has been a long road in a rapidly changing world from recognizing the diversity between cultures, to affirming that they are of equal dignity, then to recognizing cultural diversity in itself and, finally, the diversity of cultural expressions. In fact, cultural diversity can neither be decreed nor improvised. It constantly raises new challenges and calls for new forms of action.

The UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001), for the first time, recognized cultural diversity as “the common heritage of humanity”; its defence is considered as an ethical and concrete imperative that cannot be dissociated from respect for the dignity of the individual.

A relative notion

Because of its sweeping force, the Declaration gave rise to wide debate: often used as a slogan, cultural diversity remains a relative notion. This explains that various, and often divergent, defi- nitions can be proposed in economic circles, the academic community, the world of politics, and by culture professionals or civil society. The Declaration did not end the recurring debate on the role of the State in determining cultural policies: some believe that culture belongs to the private sector and, as a consequence, reject all intervention in this field. Others believe that a democratic state must be the guarantor of a national and international environment favourable to the blossoming of local and global cultural diversity. Finally, the developing countries, often expressing themselves through the Group of 77 (today 130 countries including China), refuse to be the providers of global cultural diversity while being denied access to the symbolic and economic benefits derived from it.

In this context, in which a series of new questions were raised, particularly because of the acceleration of globalization, discussions were opened in 2003 to draft a Convention on the Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Contents and Artistic Expressions, to be examined by the 33d session of the General Conference in October. This new standard setting instrument is linked to precise aspects of the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity as stipulated in Articles 8 through 11. That is, the need to recognize that cultural goods and services have an identity, values and meaning and cannot be considered in the same manner as manufactured or consumer goods; the need for States to take all measures necessary to protect and promote diversity of cultural expression while ensuring the free flow of ideas and works; and finally the need to redefine international cooperation, the keystone of the Convention.

By drafting a Convention within UNESCO, the Member States intend to contribute to the recognition of creative diversity, the driving force of development, of international solidarity, and of mutual comprehension. A wide availability of this creative diversity, whether emanating from interior or exterior sources, offers cultural and social advantages far beyond its strictly commercial dimension. Particular care was taken to avoid certain pitfalls: a polarized debate between the “all cultural” and the “all commercial”; cultural relativism that, in the name of cultural diversity, recognizes cultural practices contrary to the basic principles of human rights; and a narrow conception of culture as simply entertainment and not as a source of identity and dignity for individuals and societies.

Diversity and development

This shows that the Draft Convention was conceived as a means to link “culture and development”, the latter term being understood in both its tangible and symbolic sense: economic growth combined with the fulfilment of human beings enjoying their basic rights, open to the world without losing their bearings. It is also a sign that the Convention was conceived as a means to link “culture and international solidarity”, by favouring exchanges and partnerships that are particularly beneficial to countries whose cultural expression has been damaged. Finally, it is a sign that the Convention was conceived as a means of tightening the ties between “culture and mutual comprehension”: each type of creation carries the seeds of the discovery of oneself and of others. In this, it is part of the mysterious alchemy of interaction and releases the tremendous energy of cultural diversity, which does not consist of a fixed inventory of variations or variables but which carries the hope, forever renewed, of a more human future.

We all contribute to and we all benefit from cultural diversity, and we are therefore all responsible for safeguarding it.

Cultural Diversity and Heritage
Museum International N° 227
This issue of MUSEUM International proposes to study the notion of heritage’s cultural diversity starting with the relation to time. The different articles explore how the diversity of heritage can be envisaged as the expression of the diversity of time in the history of cultures. Furthermore, they attempt to analyze how this diversity of time is reflected in the global project of safeguarding heritage.

See also:
  • The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity
  • Cultural Diversity website
  • MUSEUM International No. 227
  • Author(s): 
    Katerina Stenou, Director of the Division of Cultural Policies and Intercultural Dialogue
    Europe and North America Latin America and the Caribbean Africa Arab States Asia Pacific