Wednesday, October 19, 2005

US ‘Pulls Out All Stops’ As UNESCO Backs Culture Treaty

posted by William New @ 9:50 pm 17/10/2005

Paris—The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) today approved a treaty for the protection of cultural diversity despite an all-out drive by the United States to get governments to change their minds.

“We really pulled out all the stops” in the past week to try to change the outcome of this treaty, a US official said in an interview afterward. This included telegrams to US embassies around the world with instructions to try to influence decision-makers in each country, and phone calls placed to other governments by the Office of the US Trade Representative.

But despite the push by the US government, the outcome was unchangeable because it was “cooked,” meaning it was already decided, the official charged.

The draft Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions is a legal instrument intended to give an additional tool to governments to guard their national cultural identities from global influences.

The final version will be voted on Thursday by the plenary of the UNESCO annual General Conference, following today’s passage by the UNESCO commission responsible for it.

The final commission vote was 151 in favour, 2 opposed, and two abstentions. The US and Israel opposed, and Australia and the South Pacific island of Kiribati abstained.

The US also garnered the support of several nations for its list of some 30 amendments, all of which were soundly rejected. Supporters of its amendments included Australia, El Salvador, Israel, Libya, and Rwanda.

Only one substantive change was adopted at the meeting, an amendment by Japan to strengthen the clarification that the treaty would fit with other international instruments and would be consistent with UNESCO’s constitution.

Concerns About Trade Links And ‘Pieces of Evil’

US concerns about the treaty are that it is vaguely worded and could be used by other countries to construct trade barriers to US exports of film, music or other cultural products. The US said the term cultural diversity itself was not sufficiently defined in the treaty.

“This is not about culture, it’s about trade,” a US official said in an interview afterward. “This is trade policy by cultural ministers.” Specific concerns are about efforts at the World Trade Organization by France to block liberalisation of audiovisual products, and by Canada to protect its publications.

Different officials gave different interpretations of Article 20 in the treaty regarding the UNESCO treaty’s relationship to other international instruments. It is unclear how subordinate this treaty will be to others, such as at the WTO.

While most countries backed the treaty, some, including European nations like the United Kingdom, have privately assured the United States that they do not intend to ratify it, a US official said. The US does not plan to ratify the treaty, the official said.

He also did not reject the notion that the US would reconsider its decision to rejoin UNESCO in 2003 after 19 years outside the body. But he said the reason for rejoining was not to block the cultural diversity treaty. Since joining, the US has contributed 22 percent of the UN body’s US$610 million biennial budget.

France’s Ambassador to UNESCO Jean Gueguinou in an interview afterward confirmed the possibility that the treaty could be used to protect domestic cultural industries, but downplayed the concern. He said UNESCO’s passage follows France’s adoption of a cultural diversity declaration in 2001, and that this is a period in which many countries see globalisation as a threat. “A lot of countries have a fear about their cultural diversity,” he said.

The treaty recognises that the majority of countries consider it necessary to be able to protect their identities if they want to, Gueguinou said, adding that some countries want such a policy but lack the means to develop it on their own.

The United States lost a number of fights on this treaty along the way to approval. For instance, it sought to include more than a dozen references to intellectual property rights but, according to the US official, was prevented by Brazil, which tied the effort to negotiations at the World Intellectual Property Organisation. Brazil meanwhile managed to get a reference to traditional knowledge into the UNESCO treaty, something it has pushed at WIPO, he said.

“That’s just one of the pieces of evil in this treaty,” the US official said to a backdrop of laughter and back-slapping by hundreds of other officials all around.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. All of the news articles and features on Intellectual Property Watch are also subject to a Creative Commons License which makes them available for widescale, free, non-commercial reproduction and translation.

William New, the author of this post, may be reached at