How Many Roads...

By Holly Aylett

Bringing the UNESCO Convention for Cultural Diversity to Life

On March 18th this year UNESCO’s Convention for Cultural Diversity (Convention for the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions) became official, with the ratification by 56 states representing about half the world’s population. The speed with which it has come into being is remarkable. It grew out of deep concerns in the ’90s, shared by cultural ministers, parliamentarians, creators and civil society organisations, that diversity and identity should not be threatened by the impact of globalisation and the increasing internationalisation of legal processes governing areas as diverse as the economy, the environment and agriculture. Culture has been a marginal domain of policy and development. With the Convention, however, culture squares the triangle of economic prosperity, social inclusion and environmental balance and, it is hoped, will become the fourth pillar of development.

The Convention offers a legal instrument to safeguard the right of nation states to create cultural policy in defence of their own, and the world’s, cultural diversity. In recognition of the distortions created by the huge imbalance in exchange of cultural works between North and South, measures for greater collaboration and partnership are made obligatory for all signatory states. Equally significant is the parity which the Convention has with other international agreements, such as those of the World Trade Organisation. At a time when principles of free trade are being extended to services such as water, electricity and media, this is more than a legal nicety. The audiovisual sector today has a value greater than the global trade of steel and textiles together, and this market, with those of the creative industries more generally, represents an increasingly contested area between those arguing for liberalisation and those wishing to safeguard diversity.

In a recent letter to the Colombian Treasury written at the time of negotiations for a free trade agreement with the United States, the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, urged the Colombian government not to adopt the Convention which could “impair rights under existing trade agreements and derail progress toward global trade liberalisation at the WTO”[1] . In the eyes of the US government, “this convention invites abuse by forces opposed to freedom of expression and free trade”, and to date, although they have recently rejoined UNESCO, the United States has refused to adopt the Convention.

Constrained now in multi-lateral negotiations the Americans have continued to negotiate bi-lateral agreements where cultural works are included. In Korea, the government had set an exhibition quota of 40% for Korean films in local cinemas, along with several other measures to support its film industry. Korean cinema thrived and its popularity has spread beyond its borders, particularly in the East, where it is now seen as a competitor to Hollywood interests. As a precondition for beginning the KORUS Free Trade Agreement therefore, the Americans have insisted that screening days for Korean films should immediately be reduced by half, from 40% to 20%, with the option for further reductions in future but the prohibition of any increase. Copyright is being extended from 50 to 70 years, again with significant benefits to the Americans, and broadcasting and media enterprises are being opened up for foreign ownership.

The terms of the UNESCO Convention can be used to safeguard cultural interests against such situations, but the Convention’s effectiveness depends on the number of countries which sign up to it. It is hoped that this will reach between 110 and 130, commensurate with the national support for other key international treaties such as those of the World Trade Organisation or Kyoto. Meanwhile, the task is to develop action plans for government policy which can strengthen diversity internationally.

In April this year, the German UNESCO Commission held a two-day event, Bringing the UNESCO Convention to Life, in order to take the first step in this direction. A forum entitled “I see Something You Don’t See: Film”, addressed the needs of the audiovisual sector through an international panel including Lithuanian director, Audrius Juzenas; Peruvian director and member of the Peruvian Coalition for Cultural Diversity, Alberto Durant; and Carole Tongue, former MEP, and consultant on European audiovisual policy.

In Europe alone there is an eight billion dollar deficit in trade with the United States and, although Europe produces more films each year than the United States, few travel across European borders let alone internationally. In other continents and regions, even where production exists, the problems of distribution have been similarly insurmountable, and whilst new digital platforms can offer new solutions, policy decisions on ownership and investment in promotion will be needed if new audiences are to be developed.

Measures were called for to make cultural diversity mainstream across all EU policies, and to give special attention to young people, the audience of the future, by boosting spending on audiovisual education and media literacy. Policies were urged to ensure that all players exploiting cultural goods and services, such as the telecommunications companies, should be expected to reinvest in the local markets they benefit from. In the interests of increased collaboration and partnership it was also urged that the complications of the EU internal market and in particular, the labyrinthine complication of current co-production agreements should be reviewed and rationalised (see article by Audrius Juzenas).

The Convention provides for interesting mechanisms to implement the promotion of cultural diversity through co-operation for development (Article 14), public-private partnerships (Article 15), preferential treatment for developing countries (Article 16) and the setting up of an International Fund for Cultural Diversity, with a particular focus on north-south exchange. If these are to benefit countries of the south however, it was felt that initiatives must engage with local frameworks which already exist, for instance in Africa, by working with the Pan African Association of Filmmakers, FEPACI. Likewise, old territorial interests left over from colonial and cold-war eras must be waived to encourage increased cultural cooperation between nations.

Clearly, many years of lobbying, negotiation and monitoring lie ahead. The participation of civil society and of creators will be critical now, as it has been since the beginning, if “the Magna Carta of International Cultural Policy”, as it has been dubbed by some, is to deliver its aims and the conceptual shifts necessary to sustain cultural diversity.


[1] Letter to Treasury Minister, Carolina Barco, October 4th, 2005

Holly Aylett is a filmmaker and lecturer in film studies and cultural policy. She is also co-ordinator for the UK Coalition for Cultural Diversity.