CPTech Statement on UNESCO Convention on Cultural Diversity

Submitted by Sasha Costanza-Chock on October 20, 2005.English | Media Ownership | Screen Quotas | Subsidies | WTO

Manon Ress

This week, 151 countries are supporting UNESCO Convention on the
Protection of Cultural Diversity while the US and Israel are against
it (Australia and the Pacific island of Kiribati are abstaining). This is my take on it. Everyone is focusing on the politics of it (the US isolated again etc) but I am most interested in the cultural exception issue.

What is the fuss about?

The vote on the Convention on Cultural Diversity at UNESCO today was
also about the rights of countries to continue using possible
cultural exceptions to help their own cultural industries.

Most vocal on this are the French (they may have been be the first to
introduce the concept of the "cultural exception" in trade
negotiations) and the Canadians (who lost the fight at the WTO
against the US about their right to protect Canadian magazines on
Canadian newsstands).

However, the principle underlying cultural exceptions came from the
USA in the 1950s when it adhered to the first multilateral treaty of
cultural goods, the Florence Agreement. It was fine then and it
should be fine now. The US is protecting its culture too. We have
rules on who can own our media for example. But it seems as if the US
does not want any other country to protect its own cultural
industries and is ready to take any country to the WTO for doing just

During the final negotiations of the Uruguay Round, many countries
expressed concern that the GATT principles on goods and services,
including copyright protected products, would undermine their
culture, their cultural productions and their cultural communities.
Cultural industries, film productions and other audiovisual goods, in
many countries only survive due to import restrictions (quota for
French produced shows for example) and other support mechanisms such
as subsidies by public administrations.

Many cultural industries would quickly disappeared (like Cinecita and
Italian movies?) if they were subject only to "commercial viability
evaluation". How could they measure up to US cultural industries such
as Hollywood industries? These have great financial muscles; they
are multinationals and have more and more often a monopoly position.

Most UNESCO negotiators obviously believe that mechanisms to maintain
and develop domestic production are necessary. It is needed if one
wants to live in a world where there are still local cultural forms
of expression and not in a world where everyone is the same;
everything tastes the same, sounds the same etc.

The text of the Convention that most relate to this issue is the
article on the relationship of this new treaty with other treaties
(Article 20). The US wanted a "simple" sentence (see paragraph 2
below) that would just make anything to protect cultural diversity in
the treaty irrelevant if there were a conflict with obligations in
other treaties. In other words, the UNESCO Convention on the
Protection of Cultural Diversity would be a "nice, warm, feel good"
treaty but with no teeth. Trade agreement would always prevail?

Looking at the article dealing with how cultural exception will play
at WIPO or the WTO in the final text, one can read ways of
interpreting the treaty differently:

"1.(b) 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."

This is what the US negotiators wanted to avoid at all cost. What is
the fuss about? This is a safety valve at best. It may be useful to
some countries (France, Canada, Korea?) but maybe not that useful for
some small countries negotiating a bilateral agreement with the US.

This is not the "Doha declaration" on knowledge and cultural goods
but it should be.

Here's Article 20 in June 2005 text:
V. Relationship to other instruments

Article 20. Relationship to other treaties; mutual supportiveness,
complementary and non-subordination

1. Parties recognize that they shall perform in good faith their
obligations under this Convention and all other treaties to which
they are parties. Accordingly, without subordinating this Convention
to any other treaty, they:

(a) Shall foster mutual supportiveness between the Convention and the
other treaties to which they are parties; and

(b) 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

2. Nothing in this convention shall be interpreted as modifying
rights and obligations of the Parties under any other treaties to
which they are parties

Manon Anne Ress

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