Thursday, September 23, 2004

UNESCO hosts Cultural Diversity Convention Meeting

This week (September 20th to 25th) representatives of governments and invited cultural organizations from across the globe are meeting in Paris to discuss the text of a preliminary draft International Convention on the Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Contents and Artistic Expressions. (Available from )

Key Principles
According to the International Network for Cultural Diversity (INCD) an NGO that brings together workers in the cultural sector the proposed Convention enshrines some basic principles which are important to all those working in the cultural sector:

· Need to ensure that cultural diversity is preserved in the face of challenges posed by rapid technological change, convergence, erosion of distinctions between content and carriage and increasing global concentration of ownership
· Preservation of the sovereign right of all nations to take such actions as they consider appropriate to preserve, promote and enhance cultural diversity.
· Cultural goods and services must not be treated as mere economic commodities.
· Measures to promote cultural diversity must not violate established international principles, including respect for human rights.
· Protecting indigenous and national cultural institutions and works must be balanced with the need to improve international exchange of cultural products and forms of artistic expression.
· Need to ensure that civil society is fully engaged in the process of promoting and preserving cultural diversity.

The INCD has prepared a detailed critique of the Draft Convention (available at ) and is lobbying governments to strengthen the Convention. Strong support for the Convention has come particularly from countries like Canada, especially the government of Quebec), from Latin America and from French speaking countries.

Free Trade Agreements and Cultural Industries
The draft UNESCO Convention on Cultural Diversity (being discussed in Paris September 20th to 25th)has particularly important implications for the struggle to preserve cultural sovereignty in the face The ultimate aim is to produce an international treaty ( a Convention) that would be a binding international legal instrument that would allow each country to set its own cultural policies without them being subject to the demands of WTO/GATS (World Trade Organization/General Agreement on Services) or other free trade agreements.

The importance of exempting culture from free trade agreements is urgent as the US, as the largerst exporter of cultural goods and services, seeks to incorporate audiovisual services fully into WTO/GATS agreements. In 2003 the US concluded agreements with Chile and Singapore and in August 2004 a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was signed with Australia. These agreements generally result in a liberalization of the cultural sector, that is, subject the sector to trade rules which severely restrict national efforts to employ cultural policies or which might ‘protect’ domestic production or ‘promote’ national cultures.

Australian Cultural Policy and the FTA
The recent FTA with Australia is a good example of what is at stake. According to the US Trade Representative “The Agreement locks in access for U.S. suppliers of films and television programming to the Australian market over a range of media, including cable, satellite and the Internet. The Agreement also limits Australia's ability to implement new measures to limit access in the broadcast and audiovisual sector.” It is precisely because of these benefits to the US that many in Australia’s cultural sector were deeply opposed to the FTA.

According to Peter Thomas, of SIGNIS Australia, the opposition Labor Party blocked the FTA until the government would accept two amendments. One concerned prescription drugs and the other Australian content. The government eventually accepted the amendments and the FTA has been passed. The Australian Screen Producers Association and other industry bodies remain concerned, however, that when they want to negotiate changes to local content rules in the future the US will make it difficult. The government says the FTA offers the capacity to regulate beyond existing measures for important formats. According to Peter Thomas, “The devil seems to be in the detail but I do not see that the detail offers the 'capacity' for protection that the government says it does.”

The Australian FTA is one example of the wider struggle by cultural producers and others in many countries to preserve the right of nations to protect their existing cultural policies and to be able to adapt them in response to changing circumstances. According to Coalition Currents, “Protecting this capacity to introduce new policies in the future is a critical issue for all countries, but in particular for developing countries which in many cases do not yet have a comprehensive set of cultural policies in place but aspire to do so.

This comment was also posted in the Advocacy section of SIGNIS webnews