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UNESCO prepares the ground for an international convention
by Jean MUSITELLI
1.- Culture returns home |
The 32nd General Conference of UNESCO met in a plenary session on 17 October 2003 and unanimously adopted a resolution which proclaimed that cultural diversity should be the object of an international treaty and gave the mandate to the Director General to submit a draft at the next session in 2005 for a convention to protect the diversity of cultural content and artistic expression.
This decision marks a decisive step towards recognising cultural diversity at the institutional level. For the first time, the international community has committed to legislating a domain which had until now only been considered as an appendix to commercial negotiations. The discussion that will ensue will have to answer to questions which the French minister of culture, speaking to the General Conference summed up in the following way: "How can we, at the international level, provide a solid legal basis for the action of states and groups of states which seek to support the protection, production and distribution of cultural products? How can we fill the legal vacuum which will otherwise be controlled by the rule of the market?"
For the first time, these questions will be addressed where they should be. They will no longer be considered in an economic and commercial context where culture is viewed as the poor relative as was the case in the 90s, but in its natural place. UNESCO is the only institution which has the legitimacy (as the UN organisation in charge of culture), universality (required to give effective force to the draft which will be adopted), and competence (based on the elaboration and the implementation of five conventions within the cultural domain, and the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity of 2003 to provide an appropriate forum for these negotiations.
2.- A pragmatic and progressive initiative
Though this result was expected, it was not a given nor a lucky coincidence. It is the fruit of sustained and tenacious engagements undertaken at UNESCO and in the wake of the failure of the OECD negotiations on MAI. The major milestones were the Stockholm Conference in April 1998, the Round Table of the ministers of culture held in association with the 31st UNESCO General Conference in 1999, the declarations made by the ministers of culture of the Francophonie in Cotonou in 2001, and the proposal for an international convention within the framework of UNESCO made by French President Jacques Chirac at the 2002 Johannesburg Summit for Sustainable Development. Each of these initiatives developed the method and doctrine which progressively transformed cultural diversity from a hazy and controversial concept into a central theme of international debate. In the pragmatic and gradual approach taken to reach this stage, due care has been given to build up the concept as well as the power relationships so that they stand on equal footing.
The sceptics had to be convinced, the opposition neutralised and UNESCO itself, wary of the challenge, had to be persuaded to engage in this delicate exercise. Even just a few months ago, doubts about UNESCO's will and ability to cope with this issue led to suggestions that negotiations take place in an improbable ad hoc forum. However, it was decided that UNESCO should be given the opportunity to regain its centrality. The decision that was taken fuels the conviction that it is there and nowhere else that the struggle should take place and the fight can be won, especially if one seeks to revitalize the United Nations system rather than contribute to its dismemberment. This initiative does not in the least exclude the think tanks and public awareness raising organisations that mobilised outside UNESCO; they should indeed pursue their engagements aggressively. I am referring specifically to the INCP and the Francophonie who played a central role in developing ideas, rallying forces and exerting influence and should more than ever persist in their efforts.
3.- Vain attempt by the United States to derail the process
During the weeks that preceded the General Conference, there were concerns regarding the position the United States would take. Would their return to UNESCO thwart the project that was initiated in their absence? Fortunately, this was not the case, however. As a matter of fact, the hostile attitude of the Americans (who declared that the convention was a "bad idea" even before any debate) might have stimulated convention sympathisers and incited them to express themselves forcefully. Describing the United States as a firm supporter of cultural diversity within and between nations, the American delegate was sceptical about a legal instrument and referred to the inadequacy of its preparation. He claimed to be concerned that such a convention would restrict the free flow of ideas through words and images, conflict with other international treaties, and, in the words of the organisation's founding document, violate human rights.
In choosing to raise the stakes in such a way, by suggesting that convention supporters had "liberticide" and protectionist motivations, by displaying their ignorance of the work that has been carried out in the recent years and the transparent approach in which it was undertaken, the Americans did little to convince the few undecided. When the Americans were forced to acknowledge that an overwhelming majority was in favour of launching the project, they downplayed their alternative proposition which would have voided all the weight of the exercise and reluctantly rallied round the consensus.
4.- An international coalition for cultural diversity
Beyond results themselves, the way they was achieved is promising for the future. The debate that ensued in the Culture Commission was a striking confirmation that there was true will to create an instrument to protect and promote cultural diversity. Out of the eighty-one member state representatives who spoke during the debate, seventy-five approved the project of the resolution to be presented by the Director-General without objection. The number of supporters is even greater; the Group of 77 which represents the 134 developing countries supports the initiative. The consensus went far beyond groups such as the INCP and the Francophonie which have been traditionally active in the domain, and included big (and small) non-Western countries (India, China, Korea, Algeria, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico), Central and Eastern Europe (Poland, Russia, the Czech Republic), as well as English-speaking countries (New-Zealand, Nigeria). Most of the statements demonstrated a clear vision of the stakes, a strong determination, a sense of urgency, and a coherent argument which demonstrated how far the ideas have progressed. The broad consensus regarding cultural diversity appears well grounded in a core of common values and a shared diagnosis : the rejection of harmonisation, standardisation and the notion of a homogenising globalisation, the refusal to dissociate culture and entertainment, the exposure of asymmetrical exchanges and all-commercial excesses, and the need to find a true articulation among the existing rules. The self-restraint demonstrated by the small nucleus of opponents in expressing their reservations was evidence of their concern not to create any irreversible splits.
5.- A technically complex and politically sensitive task
The negotiations to determine the content of the Convention will begin in a new environment, with a favourable balance of power, a real convergence on objectives and a firm will to produce a legally binding document by 2005. These are without a doubt good starting points, the best we could hope for. The positive outcome of October 17 should not, however, mask the delicate nature of the exercise which is about to start and the political, technical, and legal stumbling blocks and manoeuvring which are susceptible to bog down the project or steer it away from its legitimate aims.
Consequently, objectives must be clarified as soon as possible. Following the clear indications of the General Conference, the Director General of UNESCO intends to launch the process immediately. Great care should be taken to keep the field free of witch hunts and solid arguments must be made to demonstrate that the project is not aimed against anyone, not the United States nor the WTO, that it is void of protectionist and Malthusian aims, and that it is far from being a zero-sum game. The project should benefit all, although those that start very low are entitled to expect more satisfaction than those who are already well-off. We will need to be persistent in explaining that public policy to support cultural creations does not impede profitable cultural exchanges for all; quite the contrary, it is the oligopolistic structure of the market that leads to the one-way flow of products, from one source to a vast number of consumers. Due attention should be given to the fact that states which support their own culture are also very often those that are most open to other cultures and have set up the most efficient foreign cooperation policies.
The highly technical proceedings of this debate should not conceal the broad and ambitious objective that is being pursued. It is broad because each culture must have a chance to express itself freely through its creators and artists, to have access to the public and to find a symmetrical desire for access to their national creations and world cultures. It is ambitious because it seeks to build a new normative framework which will serve international cultural exchanges according to the principles of equity, openness, balance, transparency and reciprocity. The framework will seek to contain the galloping tendency for the standardisation of products, the asymmetry of exchanges, the concentration of production, and the takeover of the cultural market by a handful of major companies (if there is still a market to speak of).
The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity provided political recognition to principles that must now be translated into binding law. How to proceed from exception to rule? How to move from a precarious and volatile dispensatory regime to a legally binding system that considers cultural concerns on a legitimate par with market rules? How to articulate this new standard with the existing legal order? In their respective spheres, what kind of dialogue can be established between UNESCO and the WTO to treat this question which is at the crossroads of culture and commerce and necessitates an imaginative and constructive articulation? With what legal mechanisms should the convention be equipped to ensure its effective implementation?
6.- Calling for a multi-voiced, transparent debate
It goes without saying that such an objective can only be achieved if certain conditions are filled which relate to the activities of the actors and the way negotiations are carried out.
Accordingly, it is imperative to consolidate the broad front which was formed during the General Conference. This implies that clear signals be sent to developing countries. The lessons of Cancun are significant. There will be no worthwhile cultural diversity without a strengthening of international solidarity towards the development of cultural industries that are viable at the local level and an improvement in the distribution of products coming from poor countries at the global level. Rich countries must demonstrate their will to put in place concrete development mechanisms. There are many positive experiences in this regard (among others, Fonds Sud Cinéma and Afrique en Création are two French initiatives that support cultural diversity in developing countries). The discussion should be as multi-voiced as possible so that it does not become a sort of haggling process between cultural powerhouses eager to divide up market shares. Instead, the process should take into account the most fragile voices, those coming from cultures and languages that are most threatened by extinction.
Secondly, as the invariably technical and legal process is undertaken within UNESCO, it is crucial to adhere to the strategic direction which gives meaning and defines the scope of the Convention. Recognizing and guaranteeing cultural diversity is a goal in itself. But it is also an active component of sustainable development, in the same way as health, education, and environmental protection. Cultural diversity is a way in which to progress towards forms of global regulation that shun self-serving politics, the status quo and laissez-faire. It is finally a step towards building "global public goods" that bring together state and non-governmental forces in a transnational way, and countering the practice of private appropriation and mercantilism in what remains of public space.
Finally, it is essential that the debate proceeds in a very open, visible space. UNESCO was chosen to lead the debate due to its transparency, as well as a way to break with the practice of secret negotiations that escape citizens' control (and even sometimes governments'). As much as it was vital to bring cultural diversity back to UNESCO, it would be counterproductive to lock it away there. The debate must take place outside its walls so that civil society becomes a stakeholder in the process, can make its observations and recommendation known, and feed and steer the negotiators' discussions. There already exists a well-worn tradition of dialogue between government representatives and social and professional actors and operators. In several countries (Argentina, Australia, Canada, Korea, France, Mexico, New-Zealand, Senegal…), this approach was reinforced by the creation of watchdog groups and coalitions for cultural diversity, of which the International Meeting of Cultural Professional Organisations in Paris in February 2003 was a noteworthy illustration. As it stimulates public debates between all stakeholders on these issues, this Forum can contribute an original and very useful contribution.
The success of the initiative launched by UNESCO will depend on the way the process is conducted and also, considering the public interest of the question, on the mobilisation of public opinion. There are those who consider that diplomacy and legal pursuits are insufficient to counter the strength of the economic interests which are being challenged and the ideological antagonisms that lie in wait behind the consensus. In response, it could be suggested that this battle is not exclusive and can be engaged on other fronts. Nevertheless, the decision taken by UNESCO is groundbreaking and will contribute to shifting lines, changing power balances, and lending credibility to the project. On this dynamic basis, efforts should be made to intensify the debate and to enlarge it to new partners. Friends of cultural diversity are called upon to reflect on the most efficient way to seize the opportunities provided by this new initiative.