By Colin Hicks

domesday-book-peter-kennard.jpg© Peter Kennard

On acknowledging and recognising the diversity of cultures on our planet

Why are the United States of America so enthusiastically signing up individual nations to a series of bilateral free trade agreements? Jordan, Australia, Morocco and five Central American countries have all made recent agreements with the USA to liberalise, amongst others, their audio-visual markets.

Does it matter for instance that current negotiations on a bilateral FTA between South Korea and the United States are likely to result in the ultimate elimination of the country’s 40% screen quota for domestic films? Reaching bilateral agreements on free trade has been a declared part of American strategy since the stalled Doha Round in September 2003. No less than 121 trade negotiations have since been set up with some 90 countries seeking to open up these markets to American corporations.

The United States trade balance shows the greatest surplus in the audio-visual sector, and the Bush administration is capitalising on these new trade alliances to foster competition between agreements and use them to meet diplomatic and geo-strategic purposes. Furthermore, the US knows its cultural products and services are a privileged vector for reflecting American society, values and their global vision. These new bilateral arrangements can and will be used to bypass certain provisions or exceptions on issues like cultural diversity and GMOs contained in multilateral agreements.

This transforms the debate. It is not simply about economics, but also about global positioning. Bilateral FTAs tend to favour the more powerful partner, which is undoubtedly the US in each case. Observers are starting to ask themselves whether there will be any fertile ground left for national cultural production once as the American media colossus does away with barriers to its influence.

Repeated attempts have been made by the US over the past ten years to liberalise global cultural markets: the Uruguay Round (1986-1994), the FTA with Canada in 1988, NAFTA in 1994, and the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (1995-1998). Significantly, each attempt has failed. Various national or supranational entities, such as Canada or the European Union, have managed to uphold their right to national cultural policies. In the European Union in particular, quotas for broadcasting on television channels have been in place since 1989 thanks to a directive entitled ‘Television Sans Frontières’ (Television Without Frontiers).

Cultural policy is by its very nature discriminatory and this contradicts the World Trade Organisation’s fundamental tenet: non-discrimination. So, in October 2003, the 32nd session of the UNESCO General Conference prepared a proposal for an international Convention on the protection of the diversity of cultural contents and artistic expressions.

Such a Convention would seek to preserve the right to maintain, develop and implement national cultural policies; would constitute a legal instrument to uphold cultural rights, in parallel to international trade rights; and would include a separate body to oversee implementation and the settlement of disputes. It would be a system existing alongside international trade organisations rather than superseding them. The proposal was accepted by the United States and 189 other countries members of UNESCO, and the next draft will be presented to the next General Conference in September 2005.

Modern-day economic globalisation means cultural products become homogenised in the blender of big entertainment organisations, sounding the death-knell for independent producers. Further, all free trade agreements call into question government support for cultural products and services. Failure to manage market forces will inevitably exacerbate the vulnerability of differing cultural expressions and lead to a worldwide standardisation of cultures.

Opposition to this particular impact of globalisation does not mean opposition to globalisation per se. Globalisation is radically altering economies, lifestyles and cultures, yet free trade agreements have been said to make a positive impact on international trade, emerging economies, the standard of living of millions of people and, indeed, on the advancement of democracy. Nor is the cultural diversity debate a foil to hide protectionist measures for inferior product or a means of recruiting developing nations to a dubious international standard for cultural products and services. Rather, it ensures that globalisation is tempered by a spirit of solidarity, played to rules set by the international community, that seek to balance the needs of many differing groups based on regional, cultural, linguistic, economic or political identities.

United States negotiators are only allowing room for current cultural policies, provided these are frozen at current levels. This means that nations recruited to bi-lateral FTAs are signing away their future ability to develop or reinforce their systems for the promotion of their own culture. Crucially they will be contravening any first article of the proposed UNESCO Convention, which is likely to uphold the right of all nations to freely determine their own cultural policies, both now and in the future. Therein lies the evident disquiet of professionals in places such as Morocco, where their culture is threatened by the immediate elimination of tariff barriers on 95% of consumer and industrial goods, with the remainder due to disappear within the next nine years.

There is about a year left to lobby locally for a UNESCO Convention that will protect your continuing right to finance your own cultural expression. If cultural products and services fall under the sole influence of the World Trade Organisation, it is likely that governments will progressively lose the right to fund their own cultural outputs, or be obliged to open all their funding programmes to American producers as part of market liberalisation agreements. As a result, the production and distribution of independent and cultural film are likely to be the hardest hit.

Colin Hicks is Director of Cultural Services for the Quebec Government in London.