Leaders from the world’s largest cultural institution came to Concordia last week to explain why it’s important to establish a global standard for the protection of cultural diversity.
Delegates of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) also came to promote the institution’s latest Convention on the “Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expression.”
The Convention found sympathetic ground in Canada and Quebec, a province whose culture is already in danger, but is facing disapproval from the United States because the terms could limit its grip on popular culture. It was voted against by only two countries, the U.S. and Israel, while 148 of UNESCO’s 191 member countries approved it last October.
UNESCO is a clearinghouse for discussion and ideas, forging agreements on ethical issues and founded on the principle that culture is a means to promoting peace.
The institution’s Convention could, if enacted, become the first international instrument of protection and promotion of film, music, arts, and dance.
President Claude Lajeunesse, opening Thursday’s panel, said, “Concordia will continue to play a leading role in Montreal and in Quebec in terms of providing diversity for its students and its faculty. Concordia has always been a university that welcomes all communities and this is something we want to build on.”
In the first discussion, Jacques Paquette, assistant deputy minister of International and Intergovernmental Affairs, gave a brief history of the UNESCO Convention.
“A few years ago, with free trade, media conglomeration and the presence of new technologies, it became evident that the move towards cultural homogenization was a major difficulty in cultural politics,” he said.
The Convention’s main goal, Paquette said, was to address the dilemma brought about by the changes in technology and trade, which could “open the way for new ideas, but also become a struggle for cultural industries.”
Protecting cultural expression is not easy, as illustrated by the strong opposition from the U.S., whose leaders said they do not believe the Convention articles are accurate enough to prevent loopholes and abuse.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated the U.S. would not support a convention which “could be misused by governments to legitimize their controls over the flow of information” and that “invites abuse by enemies of democracy and free trade.”
But more than the threat to the free flow of information, a blurry trade outline is another issue stopping the U.S. from signing.
According to French minister of culture Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, 85 per cent of the world’s movie ticket sales go to Hollywood. The U.S. entertainment trade would be seriously affected should the above “protectionist measures” be installed.
“We want to exclude commerce from culture,” said Guy Lachapelle, the International Political Science Association’s (IPSA) secretary general. The Association and the Quebec government organized the discussion at Concordia.
“The agreement is to recognize culture as a non-product,” he said. “Americans have a point about trade being affected, but other countries are looking for a means to promote culture, so we need to look for some equalization between the two problems.”
Paquette described the Convention as being about openness, not about isolation of culture in trade. “It aims to protect and promote cultural diversity [and] cannot be invoked to infringe human rights and fundamental freedoms,” he said.
A conflict of interests with a world superpower can have its drawbacks. After a falling out over the flow of information and press from the West to the developing world, the U.S. boycotted UNESCO, only rejoining the organization two years ago. The country now supports 22 per cent of the organization’s budget, but it is unclear if they intend to leave UNESCO again or apply outside pressure to stop the convention, should it pass.
Panelists covered subjects including a study of Montreal’s Chinatown and the revoking of citizenship. They also looked at Turkey’s internal conflicts in limiting the protection of cultural diversity.
The Convention must now be ratified by at least 30 member countries before 2008 if it is to be applied. The total number of countries that have ratified it is now at 13.
A similar Declaration was seen as inadequate in the face of globalization. For this reason, they wish to establish the 2005 Convention as a binding, standard-setting instrument to protect cultural diversity.