Towards a Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural HeritageParis – Whether on land, underwater, cultural or natural, mobile or immobile, humanity’s tangible heritage is safeguarded, in times of peace as in times of war, by four international conventions adopted by UNESCO’s Member States in 1954, 1970, 1972 and 2001. However, in just about every part of the world another very important element of peoples’ cultural legacy, their intangible heritage - for example, oral traditions, customs, music, dance, rituals, festivities and traditional medicine – runs a risk of disappearing unless appropriate safeguard measures are taken.
To remedy this problem, UNESCO’s Member States, during the 31st Session of their General Conference in November 2001, decided that “this question should be regulated by means of an international convention” and invited the Director-General “to submit to it at its 32nd session a report on the situation calling for standard-setting and on the possible scope of such standard-setting, together with a preliminary draft international convention.” In so doing, they acknowledged the need to bring international legal protection to forms of culture that are fragile by nature and which are today particularly exposed to the effects of globalization, environmental degradation, and also inevitable evolution in people’s lifestyles. From February 24 to March 1, governmental experts from 100 countries will meet at UNESCO to study a preliminary draft.
UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura believes that “this is an urgent task because threats weighing on intangible heritage are immense. In many parts of the world, a great number of these expressions have either entirely disappeared or are on the verge of extinction due to the processes of globalization and the impact of new mass cultures. Unfortunately, intangible heritage is in this way becoming ever more marginalized, although it is the mainstay of the identity of all peoples. […] And the speed of changes in the contemporary world makes me fear that unless we act rapidly, diversity, one of the world’s essential and vital treasures, might be lost forever more,” Mr Matsuura explains.
Safeguarding intangible cultural heritage is a complex process because it involves a variety of actors, foremost among them the populations who give them life. But UNESCO believes that governments also have a major role to play by identifying, with the help of experts, creators and the populations concerned, the cultural forms and expressions that are especially important for a community and which may be of universal value. To ensure that such safeguards are effective, the Organization proposes the creation of local and national management bodies, educational programmes and legal initiatives alongside international mechanisms for technical and financial cooperation. All these measures, as well as the identification, recording and documentation of practices and expressions of humanity’s intangible heritage are the principal objectives of the planned convention.
UNESCO has been engaged in this work for a considerable time. In 1989, its Member States adopted the Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore, but, because it is not legally binding, the Recommendation proved less effective than had been hoped. In 2001, on the recommendation of an international jury chaired by the Spanish writer
Juan Goytisolo, the Director-General proclaimed the first 19 Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity*. This gave a considerable boost to the interest in intangible heritage, and contributed to a better appreciation of its great importance to the cultural identity of peoples. A growing number of states have become aware of the urgent need to act at the national and international levels. This can be seen from the growing number of applications submitted ahead of the second proclamation, scheduled for July 2003. To date, UNESCO has received more than 60 national or multinational candidatures. They will be analyzed technically by specialized non-governmental organizations, before they are submitted to an international jury.
The meeting which opens next week is in fact the second session of an intergovernmental meeting held at UNESCO Headquarters in September 2002. A total of 281 specialists from 120 Member States debated a preliminary draft of the convention. This time, their mandate will first of all be to determine the field of application of the preliminary draft of the international convention, and to carry the drafting further.
Debates will focus mainly on the exact definition of intangible cultural heritage and on the nature of the financial and technical cooperation mechanisms to be established for its safeguard.
It is on the basis of these intergovernmental consultations that the Director-General will present a report and a preliminary draft Convention to the 190 Member States of UNESCO (including the two states about to become members: East Timor and the United States of America) at the next session of the General Conference, in October 2003.
* The proclaimed Masterpieces are the following (in alphabetic order by country): The Garifuna Language, Dance and Music (Belize); the Oral Heritage of Gelede (Benin), the Oruro Carnival (Bolivia), Kunqu Opera (China), the Gbofe of Afounkaha: the Music of the Transverse Trumpets of the Tagbana Community (Côte d’Ivoire); the Cultural Space of the Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit of the Congos of Villa Mella (Dominican Republic); the Oral Heritage and Cultural Manifestations of the Zápara People (Ecuador and Peru), Georgian Polyphonic Singing (Georgia); the Cultural Space of ‘Sosso Bala’ in Niagassola (Guinea); Kutiyattam Sanskrit Theatre (India); Opera dei Pupi, Sicilian Puppet Theatre (Italy); Nôgaku Theatre (Japan); Cross Crafting and its Symbolism in Lithuania (Lithuania); the Cultural Space of Djamaa el-Fna Square (Morocco); Hudhud Chants of the Ifugao (Philippines); Royal Ancestral Rite and Ritual Music in Jongmyo Shrine (Republic of Korea); the Cultural Space and Oral Culture of the Semeiskie (Russian Federation); the Mystery Play of Elche (Spain); the Cultural Space of the Boysun District (Uzbekistan).
Journalists wishing to attend are invited to call UNESCO’s Press Service for accreditation +33 (0)1 45 68 17 48