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Vol. 3, No. 7, October 2005


UNESCO Member States Adopt Cultural Diversity Convention by Landslide Vote Despite Intense U.S. Opposition; Stage Set for Launch of Ratification Campaign

It was an historic vote, and its result could hardly have been clearer.

On October 20 th, during the closing plenary session of its 33 rd General Conference, the member states of UNESCO voted by an overwhelming margin of 148 in favour to only 2 against to adopt the proposed convention on the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions.

This vote meant that for the first time in the history of international law the distinctive nature of cultural goods and services was being recognized in a convention—or treaty, in other words. A treaty that also formally affirms the sovereign right of countries to have policies in favour of cultural diversity.

The overwhelming vote in favour of the convention becomes all the more impressive when one considers it within the context of an all-out attack on the convention from the United States —opposition that if anything only intensified in the closing days as the final vote drew near.

Yet when the final vote came, the United States found itself emphatically isolated. Only Israel sided with it. Earlier allies such as Australia abstained, while Japan voted ‘Yes’.

The outcome was a vote with the potential to be channelled into strong momentum to secure rapid ratification by governments at the individual country level in order to ensure that the convention enters into effect as quickly as possible—ideally, in time for the convention’s first conference of parties to be held at the time of UNESCO’s 34 th General Conference in October of 2007.

And by recognizing the right of countries to have cultural policies in international law, it provides a legal foundation for countries determined to keep culture out of trade agreements by refraining from liberalization commitments on culture in negotiations at the WTO, or in bilateral or regional trade talks.

Clear Support Throughout the General Conference

While the actual vote was the most visible indicator of the strong support that had developed for the convention, the debate itself, which took place on October 17 in the General Conference’s Commission IV (Culture) session, provided several other indicators:

  • So many delegates wanted to be on hand for the debate that the capacity of UNESCO’s Hall II was exceeded—leaving several cultural ministers and ambassadors literally locked out of the room as the debate got underway on the morning of October 17. The result was that the first time in the history of the Commission IV sessions, the meeting had to be relocated to UNESCO’s main plenary hall.

  • Fifteen ministers of culture were present to lead off the debate with interventions and speak in support of the convention on behalf of their countries—including Brazil , Canada , Colombia , Mexico , and several others.

  • A total of 79 speakers took part in the debate. But the number of member states represented by these interventions was much greater. Notably, the United Kingdom spoke in favour on behalf of the 25 member states of the European Union plus Croatia , Hungary , Romania and Turkey .

  • The Commission vote on the convention—which came some 10 hours after the debate had begun—provided an early indication of the strong consensus in its favour when it was passed by a margin of 151 to 2.

So the widespread determination to adopt the convention was clear.

The United States : A Multi-Pronged Attack

At the same time, the United States opposition—which escalated as the negotiations advanced over the past year—provided a clear signal that the decision to ratify will represent the crucial test of a country’s determination to support the convention, and ensure that it actually enters into effect and takes on a genuine legal life in the years to come.

Evidence of the United States determination to maintain their opposition to the convention until the very end could be found in the fact that they expanded their attack on the convention through several channels:

  • In late August, the U.S. sought to have the World Trade Organization intervene directly in the UNESCO process—but this gambit was emphatically rejected by other WTO member states supportive of the convention.

  • As the General Conference began, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent a letter to foreign ministers of all UNESCO member states in which she expressed her government’s ‘deep concern’ over the convention and proposed that member states ‘postpone action on this convention until we have had more time to address its many flaws’.

  • On the eve of the vote, the United States orchestrated a domestic media campaign that resulted in UNESCO in general and the convention in particular being denounced or ridiculed in major media such as the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

Meanwhile, within UNESCO, the U.S. Ambassador, Louise Oliver, continued to pay lip service for the principle of cultural diversity in general terms while doing everything possible to dilute the convention, and failing this, to delay its adoption.

Characterizing the text as ‘hastily drafted’ and ‘subject to misinterpretation’, the ambassador concentrated on two arguments: 1) that the convention would impede the free flow of ideas by word and image, and compromise freedom of expression; and 2) that it would have a negative effect on trade agreements.

The United States then proposed no less than 28 amendments crafted to water down the convention and, despite virtually no support from the floor, insisted on votes for each and every one. The result was a 45-minute exercise during which each amendment was rejected by margins comparable to the adoption vote itself.

U.S. Arguments Unpersuasive, But Pressure Still Has Its Effect

The U.S. arguments obviously failed to persuade other member states. In fact, many pointedly noted that the first principle in the convention states unambiguously that “no one may invoke the provisions of this Convention in order to infringe human rights and fundamental freedoms as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or guaranteed by international law or to limit the scope thereof.”

But U.S. pressure did produce other results. Delegations from a number of smaller countries elected to be out of the room when the final vote was held. And others— Honduras , Nicaragua , Liberia —joined Australia in abstaining.

Moreover, after the vote, Iraq , along with South Korea and New Zealand , made statements in explanation of their vote stating their interpretation of the convention that it should not modify obligations under prior existing international agreements—a point actually made in Article 20. 2. of the convention.

These statements appeared to have as their objective to establish the language in 20. 2. as pre-eminent over 20. 1. b), which states that “when interpreting and applying the other treaties to which they are parties or when entering into other international obligations, Parties shall take into account the relevant provisions of this Convention.”

New Zealand went furthest in this regard, asserting that “any inconsistencies between this convention and those other treaties must be resolved in favour of the other treaties.”

Some may argue that the last-stand opposition of the U.S. was intended to placate the domestic lobby at home—notably the Motion Picture Association of America.

But statements following the UNESCO General Conference by a United States Trade Representative official that her government would seek to discourage countries from ratifying the convention, or at minimum attempt to sharply limit the scope of its application so that it in no way overlapped with the WTO argue for a different interpretation: that the battle for the convention is far from over—that the campaign to ensure it becomes a real instrument for upholding the right of countries to have cultural policies is only beginning.

The General Conference vote to adopt the convention was a major achievement. To build such broad-based support for the convention in just two years represents a stunning achievement.

Leader countries—France and other European Union member states, Canada, Brazil, China, South Africa and many others—can take pride in this accomplishment. So can the more than 30 national coalitions for cultural diversity that have mobilized over the past six years in support of such a convention—joined by support from hundreds of cultural professional organizations in countries around the world.

But important as it is, it is just a first step. Over the years, dozens of international conventions have been consigned to oblivion because they failed to secure the number of ratifications needed to bring the convention into life.

This must not happen to the convention on cultural diversity.

The challenge ahead for cultural professional organizations is now clear: to persuade governments, country by country, to shift immediately into a ratification campaign. To ensure that the minimum target of ratifications by 30 countries is met—and ideally exceeded—within the next two years. To ensure that ratification is widespread—that countries in Africa , the Americas , Asia/Pacifica and Europe all ratify the convention. And to remain vigilant and persuade their governments to continue refraining from liberalization commitments on culture in trade negotiations throughout the period when the convention is being put into place.


Coalitions from Cameroon, Canada, France, Germany, Senegal,
and Switzerland Present for UNESCO Debate

Actor Pierre Curzi , Co-Chair of the Canadian Coalition for Cultural Diversity, and musician Ludovic Njoh Mboule, President of Cameroon’s Coalition for Cultural Diversity, took part in the UNESCO debate on the cultural diversity convention on behalf of the International Liaison Committee of Coalition s for Cultural Diversity (ILC-CCD).

Speaking on behalf of some 500 organizations representing artists and cultural professionals from 31 countries—represented in the room by delegates of coalitions from Cameroon, Canada, France, Germany, Senegal, Slovakia and Switzerland—Curzi emphasized an essential objective of the convention for the cultural sector:

“For us as artists, it is a matter of being able to express our identity, our values, our language, our own accents through a strong culture accessible to all of our fellow citizens, but it is equally a matter of our being open and welcoming to cultural expressions from all other countries of the world.”

Mboule saluted the work done by UNESCO and the leader countries championing the convention, and highlighted the challenge ahead after adoption:

“We know that this is but a first step. For this convention to enter into effect, 30 countries must ratify it.

Given the pressure being applied on countries in the context of trade negotiations, it is imperative that the convention enter into effect as soon as possible.”

The international coalitions movement pledges to work in concert with all states to ensure the convention is ratified by the largest possible number of countries and to give it the full impact that it deserves.”

In addition, Cheikh Ngaïdo Bâ of Senegal spoke during the debate on behalf of the African Network of Coalitions for Cultural Diversity.

In a news release issued following the landslide adoption vote during UNESCO’s closing plenary session, the coalitions reiterated their pledge to work with leader countries to secure ratification of the convention on a rapid basis so that it enters into legal effect as soon as possible.


U.S. Offer to Cut Agricultural Subsidies Breathes New Life Into WTO Doha Round Talks; What Will be Impact on Culture in Services Negotiations?

Just two months out from the December 13-18 WTO ministerial meeting in Hong Kong, and with negotiators in Geneva all but convinced the talks were headed for another failure on the scale of Cancun , a United States offer to significantly reduce agricultural subsidies has re-invigorated the WTO Doha negotiations.

Officials close to the talks noted that the U.S. offer was not without problems—it was artfully crafted to place maximum pressure on the European Union and other countries while being capable of implementation at relatively minor political cost at home—but they nonetheless characterized the proposal as a serious overture that would compel a response from other key players in the negotiations.

Progress in the agricultural negotiations has long been considered an essential condition to any movement in the broader Doha Round of talks.

What remained unclear as this issue of Coalition Currents went into production was what impact this movement in the agricultural talks would have on the services round—in particular with respect to audiovisual services.

So far, very few member countries are believed to have made offers on audiovisual in these negotiations. But with the United States essentially viewing concessions in the area of agricultural as a loss leader, they can be expected pressure other countries by seeking linkage to the services talks, and seek to obtain gains there, including in audiovisual, as a quid pro quo for their movement on agriculture.

Ivory Coast Coalition 31 st To Be Established

Organizations in Ivory Coast representing cultural professionals in the sectors of music, film and television, live performance, visual arts, letters, festivals, education, cultural traditions and new media have come together to establish the newest coalition for cultural diversity.

David Hassan, of the Ivoirian actors union, was elected the first president of the coalition.

Martin Guedeba of the national federation of Côte D’Ivoire Theatre was elected vice-president, and David Johnson of Action Nationale Culturelle Vive L’ivoirité was elected secretary general.


Artists Rally in Paris to Express Support for
Convention on Eve of UNESCO Debate

Just days before the UNESCO debate on the convention, seven leading international artists gathered in Paris to speak out about the importance of countries retaining the right to have cultural policies.

Filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier of France joined actress Moon Sori of Korea, Mali filmmaker Souleymane Cissé , Mali musician Salif Keita, Spanish choreographer Bianca Li, French author Daniel Picouly and French composer Laurent Petitgirard for the two-hour discussion, which was organized by France’s Coalition for Cultural Diversity.

More than 100 people attended the session, which attracted significant coverage in leading Paris newspapers, radio and television networks.


Francophonie Country Coalitions Gather,
Issue Declaration During
Namur Film Festival

On the eve of the UNESCO General Conference, representatives of coalitions for cultural diversity from Belgium , Burkina Faso , Cameroon , Canada , the Republic of Congo , France , Morocco , Switzerland and Togo met in Namur , Brussels , on September 29 to assess the state of play in the campaign to secure adoption of the UNESCO Convention.

Several coalition representatives then took part in a half-day seminar on cultural diversity organized jointly by the Belgian Coalition for Cultural Diversity in conjunction with Namur ’s International Festival of Francophone Cinema.

At the conclusion of the day, participants approved a declaration expressing their strong support for adoption of the proposed UNESCO convention on the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions.

More than 150 people attended the half-day session.


Coalition Currents is published by the Secretariat for the International Liaison Committee of Coalitions for Cultural Diversity (ILC).

Member Coalitions:

Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Benin, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Congo, Ecuador, France, Germany, Guinea, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Ivory Coast, Korea, Mali, Morocco, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Senegal, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, Togo, Uruguay.

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Editor: Jim McKee
Contributors in this issue: Robert Pilon, Bruno Bettati, Marisol Paquin

Coalition Currents is published with the financial assistance of Canada’s Department of Canadian Heritage, Department of Foreign Affairs, and the Government of Quebec