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Against Hollywood and Globalization: UNESCO and Cultural Diversity

by Florian Roetzer Wednesday, Nov. 09, 2005 at 6:02 AM

The Convention on Protection of Cultural Diversity was passed at the UNESCO General assembly over the objection of the isolated US government.


The Convention on Protecting Cultural Diversity was passed at the UNESCO General assembly over the objection of the isolated US government

By Florian Roetzer

[This article published in the German-English cyber journal Telepolis, 10/21/2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

On October 20, 2005 the convention on protecting cultural diversity was passed at the UNESCO General assembly [United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (1)] in Paris over the objection of the isolated US government (2). Only the US government and the Israeli government resisted. The US government fears economic losses because cultural assets according to the convention should be treated different than other commercial goods.

The governments of Canada and France initiated the convention. After two years of tenacious negotiation and many reductions of the original goals, the US after ten years absence from UNESCO sought to water down the convention through numerous amended petitions. To become effective, the convention must now be ratified by at least 30 of the 191 states that are members of UNESCO.

The “Convention on Protecting and Advancing Cultural Diversity” starts from the firm belief that cultural products cannot be treated as normal commercial products. The convention continues the 2001 Declaration on Cultural Diversity (3) and describes (4) culture as an “essential quality of humanity” and the “common inheritance of humanity” characterized by openness and plurality and shaping the identity of communities. Cultural diversity is important for the possibility of choice and the advancement of human abilities, values, dialogue and peaceful relations.

The convention emphasizes the observance of human rights including the free flow of information, the necessity of cultural openness, equal worldwide access to cultural assets, free exchange and the importance of promoting culture in poor countries. Individual countries should pursue a cultural policy by which “the diversity of cultural expressions is protected and promoted” and the create the conditions for cultures “interacting freely with each other in a mutually supportive way.”

To reach these goals, cultural assets should not be subjected to the ideal of free trade enforced in the framework of the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the WIPO. Member countries should be able to raise protective tariffs, introduce quotas, set other conditions and promote their own products and industries. If a “cultural expression” is threatened with dying out, all countries should be allowed to take “appropriate protective measures.” France in particular has tried for some time to protect its culture and language from inundation by the American culture and the English language.

What is a cultural asset that can evade free trade? This is not formulated unequivocally here. Under the cover of protecting cultural diversity, conventions can help authoritarian regimes for domestic political reasons suppress the import of cultural products that criticize the system or point to injustices. This convention says unmistakably that it may not be used to oppose human rights or hinder individual freedom.

Great Britain also voted for the convention. Except for Israel, no other government wanted to stand on the side of the US. Close allies or countries that feared pressure like the Australians abstained from the vote. The US government did not try to explicitly asset the interests of its cultural industry but warned about the establishment of trade barriers by authoritarian regimes, oppression of minorities and dangerous limitation of the free flow of information. The convention could hinder “cultural exchange and individual freedom.”

As Louise V. Oliver, the US ambassador at UNESCO, explained (5), the US as the society with the greatest cultural diversity champions freedom that includes freedom of trade and protection of intellectual property as well as the free flow of information. While the convention could possibly be used to limit freedom of information and thus violate human rights, the US government clearly wants to protect its hegemony on the global market under the cover of freedom and democracy.

When the US stood practically alone in the vote, this also showed that people no longer believe the Bush administration that destroys trust in American politics through its high-handed actions, encourages anti-American moods and even more seriously reduces the persuasiveness of the values of freedom and human rights. The worry of many about predominance of American culture and of the consequences of globalization is clear. The countries that want to screen themselves more will have a little simpler task in the future.

However the convention will remain a toothless tiger when it finally comes into force. No threatening sanctions will be applied. Funds promoting culture in developing countries must rely on voluntary donations that may never come. Thus either the US government worries unnecessarily about a rift and an opposing solidarity with its resistance against another international agreement or the UN passes an agreement that shows its powerlessness.

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